The Long and Tired History of Media-Driven Reading Wars

Consider the following excerpts from a scholarly journal of literacy. The articles included are responses from literary scholars to a political and media claim of a reading crisis.

First from Emmett A. Betts:

Next, from William S. Gray:

And then, from Lou LaBrant:

Finally, Paul Witty:

These patterns may seem familiar in 2023 to anyone following the “science of reading” movement:

  • Public schools are failing to teach adequately children to read.
  • Reading teachers are ill-equipped to teach reading.
  • Reading and teaching strategies are not scientific.
  • Political leaders and the media drive the criticism.
  • And literacy scholars carefully debunk the entire narrative, to no avail.

These excerpts are from 1942 and collected in The Elementary English Review (The National Council of Teachers of English), which would become Language Arts [1].

The reading crisis was spurred by high illiteracy rates in WWII draftees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to action and media coverage of the reading crisis.

The blame game, like now, is misguided and ill informed. Progressive education was the scapegoat, but LaBrant and others noted these soldiers had attended mostly traditional schooling.

Scholar after scholar also note that high illiteracy rates were caused by high poverty levels.

In 2023, as we are trying to stay afloat during the “science of reading” tidal wave of misinformation, we must acknowledge that this current reading war does not differ in any significant way from several since the 1940s.

We must also acknowledge that at no point has the US found reading achievement adequate regardless of teacher training, reading theories, or reading programs and instructional practices.

Reading Wars, then, are reductive, misleading, and ultimately ineffective—over and over.

The “science of reading” movement is another round of misguided blame, misinformation, and yet more hollow calls for “reform” that isn’t anything new or valid.

The “science of reading” is tired and lazy journalism, politics, and ultimately education.


[1] Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636 [access HERE]

The Return of Missionary Zeal in Education Reform: “Science of Reading” Edition

Increasingly, I am contacted by email or spoken to in person by teachers with a similar and disturbing series of experiences.

These teachers ask to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because they have already been reprimanded or dismissed for simply asking questions about their school/district’s implementing the “science of reading.”

One recent communication I received represents well that pattern (I am paraphrasing and reducing specifics to protect anyone trying to identify the specific teacher, and this is representative of dozens and dozens of similar communications).

The teacher has been a literacy educator well over a decade and also has earned a doctorate. A few years ago, this teacher had a first experience with LETRS training being required for university faculty where they were on one-year contracts.

After asking about why LETRS was being required and noting that the research base doesn’t support that training as effective, the teacher was shunned by their administrator and then their contract wasn’t renewed.

Before leaving that school, they noticed some faculty had simply stopped attending the training, but the administrator sought other faculty to log in to complete that training. The teacher grew concerned that there seemed to be some incentive for simply having many faculty trained.

At a new school, that teacher was immediately required to go through LETRS training. They described the training as a “cult” experience in which professional educators were handed pipe cleaners and asked to make models of the “simple view” of reading (Scarborough’s rope).

While I have repeatedly documented (along with several other scholars; access materials HERE) that the “science of reading” movement is primarily over-simplified narratives and misinformation, I want here to address that the central flaw in the movement is one we have seen in recent history regarding education reform: missionary zeal.

It is important to emphasize that I am aware of no one who rejects that a body of reading science/research exists and that should be a significant part of what drives classroom practice.

However, the media-driven SOR movement and the political consequences of that advocacy that has resulted in SOR-labeled policy are oversimplified and misguided versions of that research base.

And that new policy is often unscientific and harmful such as the pervasive implementation of grade retention.

Further the SOR movement fails to ground the narrative in the history of the field of reading and education reform.

For example, during the “miracle” school/teacher era spanning from George W. Bush through Barack Obama, missionary zeal drove Teach For America, charter schools, “miracle” school claims, and value-added methods for evaluating teachers.

At the core of these connected elements of education reform is a missionary zeal that ultimately failed to produce what was guaranteed, primarily because the reformers misidentified the problems and offered misguided solutions. In the case of the SOR movement, the same mistake is being made by claiming that reading science is simple and settled.

Currently, the “science of reading” movement has fallen into the missionary zeal trap as represented by The Reading League:

The similarities in these two recent movements are important and damning:

The criticisms I have raised are directly targeting the missionary zeal and misinformation found in the media story [1] and the political reaction [2] to that false narrative.

Reading proficiency in the US is about the same now as well before anyone implemented balanced literacy or current popular (and demonized) reading programs. And persistently over the last 80 years, scholars have lamented the “considerable gap” between research and practice in all aspects of K-12 education.

Throughout those 80-plus years, no one has ever been satisfied with student reading achievement regardless of the reading theory being implemented or the reading programs being adopted.

And teacher preparation has been significantly hampered for the past 40 years by top-down accountability mandates that have reduced most teacher certification to more bureaucracy than preparation. A dirty little secret that SOR advocates ignore is that how teachers are prepared to teach reading matters little because most teachers are bound to reading programs and reading standards once they enter the classroom. A huge gap exists between how teachers are prepared and how they are allowed to teach.

But manufacturing a crisis, perpetuating melodramatic stories, and casting simplistic blame are doing the same things we have done in education reform for decades without ever truly supporting teachers or better serving all students.

Just like the TFA and charter/”miracle” school era immediately behind us, the SOR movement is anti-teacher and anti-schools. The public and political leaders have been well primed since the 1980s to believe that schools are horrible and that teachers are incompetent. Regardless of what SOR advocates intend, that is what most people hear.

SOR advocates have falsely attacked teacher expertise, both that of K-12 teachers and that of teacher educators (many of whom had long careers as K-12 teachers); these attacks are often grounded in agendas and reports that are not themselves scientific (such as reports from NCTQ), and solutions offered (LETRS) lack scientific grounding as well.

Just as there is a robust and deep body of reading science, there are sincere educators who are engaged with that research base but also recognize that the SOR movement and SOR policy are not aligned with the complex and still developing reading science.

The SOR movement and much of SOR implementation are corrupted by missionary zeal that creates a veneer for the essentially anti-teacher elements—scripted curriculum (structured literacy), mandated retraining (LETRS), and caricatures of teacher educators, teacher education, balanced literacy, three cueing, and reading programs

An authentic embracing of reading science would acknowledge that current research is complex and evolving, that the causes of students struggling to read are also complex and include influences beyond and in the classroom (not just teacher practice but teaching/learning conditions such as class size and funding), that professionals engaging with research should raise questions and challenge conventional wisdom and traditional assumptions in order to serve the individual needs of students, that one-size-fits-all solutions for students and teachers don’t exist, and that educational practices should be grounded in teacher expertise—not journalists, parents, and politicians.

Missionary zeal is problematic in the same way as people who claim to know the mind of god (I unpack that in the newest arc of Daredevil), creating tunnel vision and arrogance while casting blame and judgment toward anyone or anything that dare raise a valid question or concern.

Just as TFA lured thousands into the program and thousands more to champion the idealistic (and unrealistic) blame-game as well as promises of miracles only to collapse under the weight of its own propaganda, SOR is following the same guaranteed-to-fail strategy.

And, yes, many good people jump on bandwagons with good intentions (I have several people I greatly admire who came through TFA), but eventually, we must all come to terms with the deeply flawed elements of this SOR movement. We must remain committed to individual student needs and teacher autonomy—not movements, slogans, and market boondoggles.

The reasons students have struggled for decades to acquire reading as well or as soon as we’d like are multi-faceted and mostly grounded outside of schools; therefore, the solutions are also complex and quite large.

From the TFA/”miracle” school era to today’s SOR movement, these false narratives are compelling because they are simple (simplistic), but they are destined to cause far more harm than good to students, teachers, and schools.

Beware missionary zeal—especially when dealing with why our schools and students struggle and what solutions advocates offer with passionate certainty.


[1] Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145-S155. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?, Maren Aukerman, The University of Calgary

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida

[2] Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Mythologies of Control

“Hell is real.”

“Jesus is real.”

As I drove from Upstate South Carolina to Chicago, I watched as billboards offered a refrain about “real” and aspects of religious faith that are not real, or at best cannot be proven real.

I always imagine the same sort of signage about Harry Potter novels: “Harry Potter is real.” “Hogwarts is real.”

There is very little real difference among all sorts of fantasy writing along with the mythologies and stories throughout the Bible; yes, fictional narratives can be powerful in terms of themes and motifs that add meaning to our human condition, but the compulsion to render them (falsely) as “real” actually erodes that power.

But this compulsion that these myths and stories must be factual, real, literal (when, again, they either are not real or simply cannot be proven real) is something rarely challenged or interrogated because belief is so pervasive in how humans function.

This claim of “real” ultimately is a veneer designed to give the myths more weight, more power, because the real intent of these myths is control.

Gilles Deleuze examined the shift from societies of discipline to societies of control, targeting specifically “prison, hospital, factory, school, family” as structures under perpetual reform.

The narrative driving this should be familiar to everyone: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.” Somehow this is a compelling narrative even though it falls apart under its own weight since the perpetual cycles never fully demonstrate the source of the failure and then any set of reforms always lead to yet another round of crisis: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.”

As a educator in the US for the forty-plus year accountability era, I have witnessed that the perpetual state of reform is not about reform at all, but about control (both political and market interests being served).

If schools are always failing (and by direct and indirect implication) then teachers are always failing, students are always failing; therefore, top-down authoritarian mandates are needed to right the ship, to “fix” schools, teachers, and students.

Deleuze’s examination is a subset, I think, of an even larger force in US culture, mythologies of control.

From Christian myths to rugged individualism, boot strapping, and the American Dream, these mythologies of control serve authoritarian structures by maintaining a culture of failure and fear among most people who feel compelled to conform to these unrealistic mythologies.

The consequences of failing to acknowledge and reject mythologies of control are watching as the US morphs from the Trump era into the era of DeSantis, who has embraced the logical next steps after Trump’s jumbled attack on the 1619 Project: Political control of education is one of the ultimate goals of authoritarianism.

Dismantling schools/universities and gutting libraries have been made possible by decades of education bashing begun under Reagan and then almost gleefully embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders.

The failing schools myth, the incompetent teachers myth, and the failing students myth are little different than the false but pervasive high-crime myth that political leaders and the media repeat endlessly, despite evidence to the contrary.

Americans embrace our disproportionate police state and prison culture because a mythology of control about crime maintains irrational public fear and promotes a willingness to sacrifice Other People (disproportionately Black and brown).

It is extremely important, however, to recognize that these myths are made more powerful and compelling because of foundational myths such as Original Sin, “hell is real,” and the relentless myths of rugged individualism and boot strapping.

Florida has reduced their education system to these myth by directly rejecting even discussing systemic forces such as racism.

Anyone who doubts that reform and religious narratives are about control must unpack why authority always resorts to banning books, censoring ideas, and taking full control of education.

Mythologies of control are dehumanizing, and there are far more compelling narratives. Kurt Vonnegut explains:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country

And yet, you will not see humanists purchasing billboards announcing “Billy Pilgrim is real.” “Tralfamadore is real.”

The call to behave decently, well, it is enough and fabricating ways to coerce that behavior simply destroys the very thing that makes being human being human.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, to abdicate our mind is to abdicate our full humanity:

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

“Self-Reliance”

Postscript on the Societies of Control, Gilles Deleuze, October, 59(Winter 1992), pp. 3-7

Who Do I Work For?

On balance, I have been fortunate with engaging on social media, specifically Twitter and my blog. However, over the past few years, my work on the “science of reading” (SOR) has attracted more and more angry and confrontational responses.

As a result, I muted a large number of accounts in 2022, usually because the person either responded with attacks or misrepresentations and were unwilling to reconsider their antagonism or my clear refuting with evidence that they had in fact misrepresented me and my work.

None the less, I occasionally have other people alert me of even more and extreme misrepresentations from those muted accounts. One in particular seems popular among SOR zealots—the swipe that people should not listen to me because I work for Reading Recovery (I don’t and never have).

So let’s set the record straight about who I work for, and what that means.

I have a 39-year professional life as an educator across five decades. I have worked on payroll as a public school teacher in South Carolina (18 years), as an adjunct at several universities and colleges, and as a professor at Furman University since 2002 (now as a tenured full professor).

Simply stated, that is who I have and currently work for. The most important aspect of that disclosure is that as a university-based scholar, I am an independent scholar in that no one pays or directs me to do any particular scholarship or public work, and certainly, absolutely no one tells me what to express in that scholarship and public work.

My scholarly and activist agendas are entirely my choice and my responsibility (which I take very seriously).

Over my five decades in teaching, I have presented at dozens of conferences sponsored by dozens of organizations. Conservatively, I have done so for free or at costs to me in about 90% or more of those.

I have participated in dozens and dozens of interviews, podcasts, and webinars—virtually all of them for free.

My extensive publishing record has also been almost entirely either for free or at a cost to me—with a few projects done for a stipend or honorarium (although even then, my work is entirely my choice and my responsibility).

I have never and will never do work for hire to endorse or promote any organization or person. Period.

Since last November, I have presented (or will present) at 6 major conferences for different professional organizations. Presenting at a conference or for and organization is not working for or endorsing that organization. Again, I have never and will never present as a spokesperson for any organization or anyone (except myself).

When invited and/or paid, I accept based on interest in my work or my reputation as a thorough scholar on a topic, but I do not respond to requests for what I will present or for any sort of endorsement.

For about a year now, I have monetized my blog, but that is a very small amount of money that basically pays for having a website with WordPress; and I maintain a blog in order to make my work accessible to anyone without cost to them because I see my work primarily as activism.

I have a book on the “science of reading,” in a second edition. To date I have received $0 in royalties for that work (academic publishing is rarely profitable).

The purpose of my extended commitment to challenging the SOR movement is to correct a false story and to challenge misinformation, baseless blaming, and unfounded personal attacks.

And broadly, my SOR work is targeted at identifying misguided reading policy and practice driven by a false story.

I don’t endorse reading programs (I repeatedly have called for an end to purchasing and implementing reading programs), and although I belong to a few professional organizations, I very carefully do not endorse or associate my scholarship with ideological agendas or profiteering.

My experience is those who attack and misrepresent are either projecting (Sold a Story is selling a story, and education products), unable to engage with the evidence, or both.

The great irony of those attacking me to discredit me by association is that if they would simply read my blog or talk to people who actually know me, I have a really solid reputation as being my own person; I simply do not carry water for anyone or any organization.

That a faction of the SOR movement persists in attacks, misrepresentations, and outright lies says far more about them and their lack of credibility than it does about me.

Recognizing there are problems beneath the surface of his works and many of his aphorisms, I remain compelled by Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

In terms of my scholarship and public work, I work for me. Anyone posting otherwise is, frankly, lying and should not be considered credible.

Poem: i don’t love you

     i don’t love you
more than anything
     i love you
more than everything

spooning on a couch in arkansas
you said “we should do this
more often when we are home”
     we still sit with your feet in my lap

now driving away from you
at 5 am for only three days
i cannot wait for the weight of you
beside me in our bed or on our couch

“In my mind, I am in your arms” i sing to myself
     you should doubt
     that i doubt you
     the way you doubt you

     i don’t love you
more than anything
     i love you
more than everything

—P.L. Thomas
View from floor 29, Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile

America Dishonors MLK By Refusing to Act on Call for Direct Action (pt. 2)

[NOTE: See part 1 HERE]

The USA is a country built on cultural mythology—rugged individualism, boot strapping, just to name a couple.

But the American Dream works both as a touch stone for Americans and a veneer covering over the realities that represent us as people and country.

In most ways, the American Dream is a lie in practice, but a beautiful idea that could be.

What better represents America is this from James Baldwin:

Included in that “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” is an insidious pattern of creating mythologies that conform to our foundational myths even when those manufactured myths prove to be distortions, or even lies.

That is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. who Americans begrudgingly allowed into the pantheon of Great Americans but only as a reductive caricature as a passive radical.

The Right and conservatives in the US have repeatedly shaped MLK into a soundbite endorsing color blindness, a false representation of MLK and the ideal in terms of how race should matter among humans.

MLK was clear that racism was the plague on the US, but he didn’t call for not seeing race; he urged humans to see race and not impose hatred and bigotry onto race, not allow privilege/oppression for some based on race.

But one of the single most important aspects of MLK’s ignored legacy is his call for direct action, which conservatives refuse to see and even cloak by stressing “passive” action (again, an important misrepresentation of “non-violent” since MLK himself stated he never urged people to be passive about anything).

Here is the King many in the US want to ignore: King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

It is here that I have grounded my work in education addressing education policy, practice, and reform.

The reason political leaders focus on education is that it is the perfect mechanism for keeping the public focused on indirect action.

The US is committed to capitalism, not democracy, and capitalism depends on poverty and therefore will never eradicate it.

To perpetually address the consequences of inequity projects the veneer of action without actually committing to action, direct action, that would eradicate what causes the harm to begin with.

The history of education reform in the US since the 1980s has been on in-school only reform. Many key reformers and often cited scholars (such as John Hattie) beat an incessant drum that there is nothing we can do about systemic inequity—poverty, racism, etc.—so we must target school reform and then over time that will somehow eradicate inequity.

There are numerous problems with this, including that it fits into our rugged individualism myth by claiming that we must “fix” students and “fix” teachers.

But the essential problem with indirect action is well dramatized in the parable of the river:

Many Americans and most education reformers have decided that addressing directly root causes is too hard, or impossible, a fatalistic view of the world that Paulo Freire cautions against: “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing.”

Targeted in-school reform only, addressing inequity indirectly—these approaches “reduce the human person to nothing.”

Education reform is constantly scrambling to pull babies form the river but will not dedicate any resources to stop those babies form being thrown in that river.

For two decades now, every time I call for addressing inequity directly, I am characterized as calling for doing nothing about the consequences; those who have embraced fatalism project that onto me and my work.

This is a false dichotomy.

The in-school only reformers have made their decision to focus only on indirect action.

I have argued and detailed carefully that we are morally obligated to do both: Reform social inequity and reform education by focusing on equity not accountability.

It is no accident that the students we pretend to be reforming education to serve are the vulnerable and marginalized children and teens who are the victims of the very inequity we refuse to address, and increasingly refuse to even acknowledge.

Black students, poor students, special needs students, and multi-language learners are all viewed through deficit lenses that emphasize all that they lack while arguing that students who excel are hard working, gifted, and bright.

Disadvantage and privilege are ignored, and again, increasingly discounted.

The rich and complex MLK, his commitment to eradicating inequity by direct action, is both the answer America needs and the solution America refuses to see.

Occasionally we are acknowledging that we have broken people in our society and our schools; yet, we continue to dishonor MLK by refusing to see what forces are breaking these people and children in the first place.


See Also

Does the “Science of Reading” Fulfill Social Justice, Equity Goals in Education? (pt. 1)

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

First, simply stating something (or posting on Twitter) doesn’t make it true.

And, second, good intentions are not enough—especially in education.

Before considering whether or not the “science of reading” movement is fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, let’s acknowledge how two relatively recent movements in education help inform a credible answer to that question.

For many years now, educators have been embracing both grit and growth mindset uncritically, promoting these concepts and practices as both scientific and especially necessary for marginalized and vulnerable populations of student (Black students, poor students, multi-language learners, and special needs students). [See HERE and HERE for research and examinations of grit and growth mindset.]

However, two important aspects of these movements must be considered: the science and research base is increasingly challenging the initial claims of both grit and growth mindset, and the appeal of both are grounded in deficit ideologies that are essentially racist and classist.

Grit and growth mindset prove to be cautionary tales, in fact, because education is often victim of faddism that spreads before the full science is understood and that is embraced without critical analysis of how well the concepts and practices actually accomplish what advocates claim.

Grit and growth mindset speak to a cultural belief that struggling students (disproportionately minoritized racial groups, speakers of languages other than English, impoverished students, and special needs students) lacks experiences and qualities existing in students who excel (disproportionately students who are white and affluent).

These beliefs are a subset of the rugged individualism mythology of the U.S. that needs success and failure to be centered in who people are and whether or not people work hard, even in the face of substantial challenges not of their making (and even when we are dealing with children).

This is why faddism in education is often driven by sloganism also—“no excuses” charter schools thrived even as they harmed the vulnerable and marginalized populations that they were disproportionately marketed to.

That belief system either carelessly ignores or brazenly rejects the power of systemic forces such as racism and classism.

Again, the science is gradually catching up with these claims and proving them to be false: A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform.

Over the past few years, the “science of reading” movement has ridden a similar wave of claiming “scientific” paired with advocates associating the movement with social justice and equity goals. As a result, the “science of reading” movement is still in the uncritical phase of fadism.

What complicates this dynamic is that we have a century of evidence that the students who struggle the most as learners and as readers are the very vulnerable and marginalized groups that these fads’ advocates target, and justifiably so.

This brings us to the opening points: Saying the “science of reading” movement is a social justice and equity movement doesn’t make it true, and those very real and justifiable good intentions simply are not enough to ignore that the “science of reading” movement, in fact, is harming the students who need reading reform the most (see, for example, HERE).

Over the course of a 65-year career, educator Lou LaBrant lived and worked through multiple back-to-basic movements, lamenting those cycles in her memoir.

In the U.S., we seem fatally attracted to viewing children and students in the most harsh and deficit perspectives, determined to prove that those who succeed and those who fail somehow deserve those outcomes.

The “no excuses” movement has been one of the worst examples of demanding that children/students and their teachers somehow ignore the realities of their lives when they enter schools and just suck it up and learn.

Like grit and growth mindset, the “science of reading” is a reductive and deficit belief system that diagnoses students struggling to read as lacking structure and basics (the exact same claim that has been made without success for a century, LaBrant lived and documented).

The result is reading policy that promotes scripted curriculum that erases teacher autonomy and student individual needs and then reduces reading in the early grades to pronouncing nonsense words.

The social justice and equity reckoning hasn’t quite taken hold yet with the “science of reading,” as it has with grit and growth mindset, and the “science of reading” movement has successfully deflected that the practices and policies actually are not supported by science (see HERE).

But the evidence is starting to build as critics have warned.

First, the education miracle machine is being unmasked. Florida, for example, represents how political marketing can use early test-based achievement mirages to mask that the entire system still fails to meet the needs of all students (see also Mississippi where celebrating 2019 NAEP grade 4 reading scores masked their persistent achievement gap and struggling students at later grades).

And, reading programs marketed as meeting the “science of reading” mandate are being exposed as failing to meet social justice and equity goals.

Consider for example two reading programs heavily marketed as “science of reading” endorsed: Wonders and HMH Into Reading.

An analysis from NYU of three programs, including these two, found the following:

1. All three curricula were Culturally Destructive or Culturally Insufficient.

2. All three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.

3. All three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling that provided a single, ahistorical narrative. 

4. All three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color, while encouraging empathy and connection with White characters.

5. All three curricula provided little to no guidance for teachers on engaging students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds and cultures; or reflecting on their own bias, beliefs and experiences.

We found that these three curricula, which collectively reach millions of students across the country, have deficits that are mostly not being raised in the current public debate about curriculum. Their texts, language, tone and guidance communicate harmful messages to students of all backgrounds, especially Black, Indigenous, students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. 

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The “science of reading” movement is often championed for legitimate concerns about learning and students and by people with good intentions. But that movement is also another example of faddism and marketing boondoggles at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized students who need and deserve a reckoning for reductive mythologies and deficit ideologies.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is not fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, and like grit and growth mindset, the reckoning is one the horizon, but our students and teachers deserve better and now.


Recommended

Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from
deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology
in teacher education
, Paul C. Gorski

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

Test-Based Achievement Mirages: Florida Edition

One of the key flaws of education reform since the 1980s is that education policy tends to be more about political and popular fads resulting in copy-cat state education policy than about addressing provable educational need.

For example, as Cummings, Stunk, and De Voto show about state reading policy:

Florida, which passed it’s Just Read, Florida! retention-based third-grade literacy policy in 2002, is largely considered the trailblazer of such policies (CCSSO, 2019). Florida’s policy includes several provisions designed to improve students’ literacy in grades K-3, including early identification of students who need additional supports, ongoing monitoring and communication with families, a range of literacy interventions, and third-grade retention for students who do not meet a certain score on the state assessment. By 2021, 19 states had adopted retention-based third-grade literacy policies that contained several elements of Florida’s policy.

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. https:// link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

However, with the release of the 2019 NAEP reading scores, Mississippi supplanted Florida as the miracle-du-jour.

These copy-cat urges have been grounded in almost exclusively grade 4 standardized test scores.

As I have documented about the over-reaction to Mississippi, the 2019 grade 4 scores were in line with decades of steady progress (thus no miracle), but most people failed to put the grade 4 scores in broader contexts that showed Mississippi grade 8 scores remained low and the racial gap remained steady even as Mississippi improved average scores.

Mississippi, in fact, was benefitting from the Florida model, mostly driven by grade retention.

New for 2023 is a moment of reckoning for Florida: “a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s ‘learning rate’ was the worst in the country — by a wide margin.”

This analysis is taking into account longitudinal test scores instead of focusing only on early grades:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math. Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

Therefore, political leaders have tried to keep the focus on grade 4: “Tellingly, DeSantis ignored the eighth grade results, which came out far worse than fourth grade — just as they have in every NAEP cycle since 2003.”

So here is the dirty little secret about education reform and education policy.

First, test data are weak reflections of learning, and how we measure learning significantly impacts those scores.

Next, at the earlier grades, testing tends to reflect reductive versions of skills. For example, many states test pronunciation of nonsense words (thus, there is no meaning or comprehension) and call that “reading.”

Research for decades has shown that systematic phonics instruction can raise those scores, especially for young students, but that increase in pronunciation is not correlated with comprehension and that advantage disappears by middle school.

There is a similar pattern to how grade retention can raise test scores in the short term but those retained students fall behind again in a few years and are more likely to drop out.

In short, increased test scores in the early grades are often test-based achievement mirages, not increased learning.

As students and assessments become more sophisticated, these early increases are much harder to maintain for a number of reasons—some related to brain and overall development, and some related to teaching and learning conditions as well as instructional challenges.

This reckoning for Florida is a clarion call for all education reform across the U.S.

We must stop playing partisan politics with our schools, and we must resist copy-cat fadism when it comes to education reform.


Recommended Resources

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Daredevil 7 (2023): “Protecting Property over People”

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I watched several popular versions of vigilante films, notably starring Charles Bronson (Death Wish), Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Hang ‘Em High), and Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack).

Simultaneously, I became a reader and collector of superhero comic books by Marvel. At the core of superhero comics—both the problem with and within the sub-genre—is the moral and ethical elements of vigilanteism and the tension between the rule of law and justice.

Virtually every superhero narrative is directly or indirectly addressing that moral dilemma, but many superhero characterizations have alluded to the real-world conflict between Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence as a path to justice and Malcolm X’s embracing “by any means necessary.”

Too often those allusions are simplified if not ham-fisted; consider for example Professor X and Magneto in both films and print comic books.

One of the better efforts to interrogate the role of violence in seeking justice, I think, is the Daredevil/Punisher arc in the Netflix Daredevil series. It is “better,” I think, because the characterizations of both Daredevil and the Punisher are messier and slightly more realistic than print comic books.

Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil centers the essential differences between Daredevil and the Punisher as vigilantes.

The Daredevil reboot in 2022, volume 7, has been working back to this confrontation. I have examined how this storyline initially made me very nervous, and then, in issue 6, took a turn toward the complicating elements that are at the core of the original Netflix series.

Daredevil 7 (v7) is written by Chip Zdarsky and drawn by Rafael De Latorre with the cover by  Marco Checchetto and Matthew Wilson

Issue 7 opens by framing the Punisher, Frank Castle as a murderer, insane, and a pawn of The Hand:

This framing complicates both the act of vigilanteism as well as the different moral imperatives that guide Daredevil and the Punisher. For Daredevil, he must see himself as substantially distinct from the Punisher in mentality, intent, actions, and outcomes; remember, Daredevil has evoked that he knows the mind of god:

Another excellent complication in issue 7 is the role of free will [1], a tension that rests at the center of faith, religion, and perceptions of g/God: If g/God is all powerful and all knowing, where does that leave human free will?

Daredevil, of course, must believe simultaneously in a world of god and that he has free will to behave in ethical ways, with moral imperatives that the Punisher chooses to ignore.

And here this issues evokes a powerful and, again, complex examination of the rule of law:

This is the sort of nuanced distinctions Martin Luther King Jr. made during his non-violent protests:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.

Man-made law versus the law of God as well as the purposes and consequences of laws/breaking the law sits at the center of Daredevil’s quest continued in issue 7:

Directly and indirectly, Zdarsky has been exploring the tensions between capitalism/materialism and socialism/spirituality; here, the police state is framed as a tool of capitalism (“protecting property over people”), thus justifying Daredevil’s lawbreaking.

The code of ethics for the Fist becomes “help people” and “violence when necessary”:

While the narrative so far of Daredevil v7 has focused almost entirely on a new iteration of Daredevil, issue 7 reminds us that Matt Murdock is an (at least) equal partner in the quest for justice:

Daredevil as “decent superhero,” and Matt Murdock as “damned good lawyer” (with the added ironic layer of “damned”).

Bullet proves to be an important character in the Daredevil/Punisher dynamic because he adds complexity and confrontations to their differences and ultimately introduces important elements, a child and overt references to socialism/capitalism (linked to the philosophies of Jesus and property over people in the storytelling):

What and who is being consumed in capitalism/consumerism and who is allowed to go hungry [2]—these social commentaries hang over the more melodramatic aspects of superhero narratives.

While great efforts (especially by Daredevil) are made to distinguish Daredevil from the Punisher, we learn that their common ground is children:

The issue ends by returning to enduring Biblical questions about the sin’s of the father and the sins of the son as well as the pervasive presence of evil.

Readers are now poised to watch mere mortals battle in the names of god and evil, and we must wonder if any real distinction exists when violence is always an option.


[1] The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

[Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]

[2] See:

If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K Le Guin

See Also

Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K Le Guin

Should We Be Nice?: The Banshees of Inisherin

I’d sooner chew my leg off
Than be trapped in this
How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me

“Bittersweet Me,” R.E.M.

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

“The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus

I fell in love with In Bruges for many of the same reasons I have watched repeatedly the early films of Guy Ritchie; they all create a wonderful and disturbing tension between humor and violence wrapped in a glorious adventure of how we navigate the world through regional dialects.

In many ways, these films document that how we talk about this world and the human condition—the words we use, the ways we pronounce and utter meaning aloud—not only describes that world and being human but also shapes them as well.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is hauntingly beautiful to look at and glorious to hear because the film is meticulously written, filmed, and acted—notably including the leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as well as the genius of Ralph Fiennes.

I love language and I love dialect (we Southerners owe a great deal to Irish roots across much of Appalachia) so this film has always been in my top two or three favorites; it is hard to identify a film more compelling, hilarious, and violently disturbing than In Bruges.

Of course, the arrival of The Banshees of Inisherin immediately drew my attention since the film is another collaboration among McDonagh, Farrell, and Gleeson.

The main characters are Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Gleeson), and the central plot is directly stated in the promotional material; Colm abruptly ends his friendship with Pádraic with shocking consequences that constitute most of the film.

I am not compelled to review the film, but I do highly recommend it. I also think I can navigate this without spoilers so the discussion is mostly spoiler free (at least of key details) except to acknowledge that the film has many of the same features as In Bruges that make for a roller coaster viewing filled with laughing aloud, cringing, and even considering not being able to finish the viewing.

Again, if you love scenic films and dialect, this film is a lovely but unnerving two-hour trip.

One of the motifs of the film is confronting what it means to be nice. In the context of the film, “nice” is presented as at least two things—kind as well as being a bit dim witted.

Pádraic embodies both being nice and the tyranny of niceness; in fact, he and his sister are often characterized as mostly nice people, although their existence on an isolated Irish island in the 1920s during civil war provides a really complex historical and setting challenge to humans simply trying to live and even survive.

McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is set a century ago and echoes Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus if it were refashioned by Franz Kafka’s sense of absurdity and dark humor (something many people miss in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis).

The film explores isolation, loneliness, violence and abuse, and a seemingly endless and somewhat matter-of-fact fatalistic view of war.

Viewers, like Colm, should and likely do struggle with Pádraic, the nice guy.

Pádraic seems sincere, but his niceness is not a call to being nice (kind) but an interrogation of what nice actually is.

A Google search of The Banshees of Inisherin reveals something interesting about the film:

Viewers of this film want meaning, but I believe reducing art to simplistic messaging misses that most art is about raising questions, not offering simplistic themes on life and the human condition.

And the meaning of life is often as much laughing at as struggling against or coming to understand (something Colm is battling somewhat horribly).

In fact, in odd and mostly unpredictable ways, many characters and moments in the film dramatize acts of being nice (kindness)—even by characters who are otherwise not so nice—against the paradox of Pádraic’s development as a character after Colm ends the friendship.

[One of the best scenes involves Pádraic being confronted about his being nice by Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan), a character who in many ways adds texture to the motif of nice against Pádraic’s centered character.]

Being nice, it seems, is being interrogated in this film that is populated with non-romantic relationships—friends, siblings, parent/child, community members.

In that context, is there meaning in The Banshees of Inisherin?

I think so, of course, but I am more compelled by the questions it raises:

  • What does it mean to be “nice”?
  • What does any person owe another person in terms of their lives and their relationships?
  • Where is the line between nice/kindness and selfishness?
  • How are we shaped by our environment?
  • How do we come to know and recognize the impact of mental health on our ability to navigate the world? [While the film directly considers Colm’s mental health, we cannot ignore Pádraic.]

In the classic sense of the word, this film dramatizes the lives of pathetic people. But our hearts and our minds are often set against each other as the narrative develops in macabre ways that likely could make Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King anxious.

My heart ached much of the film. Colm admits, “I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable.”

And he also prompts us to consider: “Niceness doesn’t last.”

There we may find a meaning, but I am not sure what we are supposed to do with that.


educator, public scholar, poet&writer – academic freedom isn't free