SCCTE 2020: Teaching Writing as a Journey, Not Destination (F.9, Saturday February 1, 8:30-9:15 am)


SCCTE Schedule

Embassy Suites Conference Center

Myrtle Beach, SC

Fri, Jan 31, 2020, 8:00 AM –Sat, Feb 1, 2020, 1:30 PM

Session F.9, Saturday February 1, 8:30-9:15 am

SCCTE 2020

PowerPoint available HERE

See Also

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination

Kobe Bryant’s Celebrity Shield in the #MeToo Era

I experienced the disbelief and fascination in real time Sunday January 26, 2020 (my birthday) as my friends and I walked into Catawba Brewery on the South Slope in Asheville, NC. The place was eerily quiet; soon our smartphones alerted us that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter accident.

Strangers made eye contact and talked about their shock as if we all had somehow magically been linked because we know of Bryant, because he is a celebrity.

I followed along on Twitter as the story became more garbled and disturbing. Five dead became nine, and Bryant’s daughter along with some of her teammates were identified.

Bryant is recently retired from an elite NBA career. He is too young and too well-known, it seems, for such a tragic end to his life. While the story tended to be either “Kobe Bryant and others” or “Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and others,” I sensed we all were also mourning the entirety of a senseless loss of life.

When it was revealed his daughter was on board, I felt the pain rise in my chest; I had to resist crying.

But I also immediately recognized Bryant’s death was presenting something more than a challenge about how outsized interest in celebrities exists in the U.S. Yes, some quickly noted that the attention afforded Bryant was absent when military deaths were reported—or the hundreds of lives lost daily across the U.S. due to other tragedies left mostly ignored.

But Bryant’s life and death are far more complicated than even that. Jeremy Gordon confronted it directly in his coverage for The Outline:

The facts are not up for interpretation: On June 30, 2003, at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Eagle, Colorado, Kobe invited a 19-year-old employee of the spa into his room after she’d shown him around the facility. They began kissing consensually, but when he took off his pants, she tried to leave. He then groped her, ignored her multiple requests to leave, choked her hard enough to leave bruises on her neck, physically blocked her from leaving the room, ignored more of her requests to stop, and forcibly penetrated her, only stopping when she aggressively resisted. “Every time I said no he tightened his hold around me,” she told police. The day after, a nurse observed the woman and, according to a detective from the sheriff’s office, “stated that the injuries were consistent with penetrating genital trauma. That it’s not consistent with consensual sex.”

Gordon later explains:

I don’t recap this exhaustively to be one of those smarmy people who, in the immediate wake of his death, leapt out of the woodwork to smugly assert “Uh, he was a bad person” to anyone who expresses sadness, but to point out the simple fact that Kobe committed sexual assault — which he literally admitted, in front of the entire country — and any exhaustive recapping of his life should include and reckon with this instead of basically mentioning it as an aside.

Jill Filipovic focused as well on the double assault experienced by the woman victimized by Bryant and then the effort to exonerate him:

The full weight of Kobe Bryant’s money, power and influence came down on this teenager. His lawyers suggested she was sexually promiscuous — I have no idea if that’s true, or even how we define a value-laden term like “promiscuous,” but either way, the number of sexual partners someone has had doesn’t determine whether or not they were raped by one particular person (I would also humbly suggest that someone who has had a lot of consensual sex without making false rape claims has pretty well demonstrated a history of being able to have consensual sex without making false rape claims). They emphasized how excited she was to meet Bryant. They brought up her history with depression and suicide attempts, casting her as a crazy person, a woman not to be trusted. Bryant’s lead defense attorney, Pamela Mackey — the optics of a female lawyer defending an accused rapist are just so irresistible, which is why we see Harvey Weinstein doing the same thing — used the woman’s name six times in the preliminary hearing; she brought up the number of recent sexual partners the woman had. One psychology professor studied the coverage of the case and found that more than 40 percent of news stories questioned the truthfulness of the woman’s account; only 7.7 percent questioned Kobe’s honesty. About a quarter included positive comments about his athletic career; more than 20 percent included positive comments about him as a person. By contrast, only 5 percent of news articles had anything positive to say about the woman.

The Bryant assault and his eventual rehabilitation in the media as a sports hero and celebrity were well before the #MeToo movement. Certainly, Bryant benefited from his celebrity shield over those years.

His death, however, as Filipovic’s mentioning Weinstein denotes, comes in the wake of #MeToo, demanding that greater care is taken with Bryant’s legacy than was afforded in the time after the rape.

The eulogies for Bryant overwhelmingly address his elite stature as an NBA superstar as well as his relationship with his daughter and family as evidence of his much more mature and gracious public self after his retirement from the NBA in 2016. Notably, international accounts tend to include immediately references to Bryant’s sexual assault, but U.S. media seem content with occasional token references to the incident, usually offered by a female reporter (see ESPN).

The helicopter crash that claimed Bryant’s life is tragic, including, of course, the loss of eight additional lives. Despite his celebrity, however, these deaths are no more or less significant than other deaths—some we acknowledge, some we ignore.

What we do with Bryant’s legacy is extremely important. At the very least, his death and the facts of his sexual assault raise important questions.

The first level of those questions is for every single man to interrogate his role in rape culture, sexual assault, sexual coercion, the male gaze, sexist and misogynistic language, and sexism.

Some men are deeply guilty, but all men are culpable, complicit to some degree in these realities for all women. Men must admit their roles, but they must also take action against the ways in which men devalue the humanity of women.

At another level, we all need to rethink the celebrity shield. Men of wealth and celebrity in the U.S. may not be disproportionately sexually abusive, but they certainly are shielded from the consequences when they do assault, when they do discriminate.

A final level that I think is significant in considering Bryant involves how we judge any person in the big picture of their life.

I wrote a biography for my doctoral dissertation so much of my research in grad school involved scholarship on biography and reading a large number of biographies.

Simply put, exploring the full and exposed life of almost anyone will leave you greatly disappointed in someone you may have admired or considered “great.”

In Bryant’s case, we may argue that the sexual assault was a one-time but tremendous mistake, one that irrevocably changed the life of a woman beyond her control, and that Bryant’s exceptional athletic accomplishments and seemingly good life otherwise can counter that incident so that we should mostly celebrate him after his death.

Or, as I am prone to accept, Bryant’s one-time assault cannot be excused because of his efforts to deny and hide it, and the inexcusable treatment the woman experienced in his efforts to seem innocent; celebrity and athletic excellence cannot justify the immediate physical and emotional harm he caused or his self-serving callousness in its wake.

The irony of Bryant’s celebrity shield is that his life and death against his sexual assault shine a direct light on all of us. He can no longer influence his legacy with his wealth or celebrity.

It is upon us to value the humanity of women in all circumstances, regardless of how much we may value any man or the celebrity status we have afforded him.


Often, people will raise concern about false reports of sexual assault and rape. However, research shows the following:

The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases….

A review of research finds that the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.

Reading as a First-Mile Problem: Recognizing the Role of Poverty and Inequity in Literacy Development

Literacy scholar Tim Shanahan answers the question Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement? with the following: “Classroom implementation is the last mile in reading reform.” He eventually adds, “The last mile rhetoric shouldn’t be a hair-on-fire message, but one that acknowledges both the current successes and the need to do better.”

Shanahan’s consideration of the persistent public and political concern over low reading achievement appears to offer a balanced admission that many approaches to reading instruction can be successful, but framing reading as a last-mile problem is finding yourself in a hole and deciding you just need to dig a little deeper.

Shanahan seems to accept a number of different “levers” as valid approaches to improving student reading, including a somewhat veiled endorsement of Common Core standards; in fact, he concedes: “Let’s face it. Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.”

In 2020, what Shanahan’s last-mile argument reveals, however, is that there is a mistake in teaching reading that can be addressed, but as a society, we refuse to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.

That first mile is much larger than formal schooling, and what we refuse to recognize is that measurable reading achievement is a marker for the disadvantages of poverty and inequity in both the lives and schooling of vulnerable populations of students (students in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners, special needs students).

The accountability movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests has been paralyzed by in-school only reform. That movement is both an example of last-mile reform and why last-mile reform has failed.

First, let’s acknowledge that Shanahan does make a key argument about how reading is taught; for example, a recent review of meta-analyses of systematic intensive phonics has shown that most approaches to teaching reading are about equally effective, as Shanahan suggests.

However, the current “science of reading” version of the Reading War argues that systematic intensive phonics must be required for all students; this phonics-first claim has been concurrent with pathologizing most struggling readers as probably dyslexic.

If we shift from last-mile reform to first-mile reform, then, we must avoid both “all students must” and “everything works,” choosing instead to admit that every student deserves the reading instruction they need (regardless of what programs or standards mandate), and we must acknowledge that students living in relative privilege often acquire reading rather easily, suggesting that the conditions within which students live and learn need to be reformed—not the students or the teaching methods.

First-mile reform in reading must start with addressing poverty and inequity in every child’s life. Alleviating poverty, addressing food security, improving work opportunities and security, adopting universal health care—these are issues of equity that would allow all students to acquire reading in ways that are now common for affluent students (often before entering formal schooling).

Stable communities and homes not overburdened by poverty and inequity would have the opportunities to provide children with language-rich environments that send children to formal schooling already highly literate, often reading before direct instruction.

First-mile reform of reading, however, is not a narrow commitment to out-of-school only, but it makes primary equity-focused out-of-school reform while also including equity-focused in-school reform as secondary but essential.

Instead of digging the accountability hole deeper by seeing reading reform as a last-mile challenge, we must climb out of that silo and think differently about in-school reform.

Equity-focused reading reform starts with the conditions of teaching and learning—guaranteeing students small student/teacher ratios in early literacy classes, insuring all students have experienced and highly-qualified teachers, and funding fully the materials needed for rich literacy experiences (authentic texts for all students and robust libraries in the schools and in children’s homes and communities).

This new approach to reform would also avoid tracking students and then would monitor more directly equitable learning opportunities as opposed to narrow measurable outcomes. For example, all students should be in rich and challenging courses—and not in test-prep classes or highly prescriptive programs (reading programs or systematic phonics for all).

Last-mile reading reform continues to focus on students as inherently flawed humans who need to be fixed; first-mile reading reform recognizes that systems are flawed, and that all students can flourish if their living and learning environments are equitable and conducive to learning.

Ultimately, continuing down the current road to reading reform as if we just need to be more demanding of teachers and students in the crucial last mile is continuing to recognize the negative impact of poverty and inequity on children’s ability to read and teachers’ effectiveness in teaching reading.

We mustn’t keep our heads down, we mustn’t keep digging.

We need finally to acknowledge that reading is a first-mile problem.

Fact-checking Phonics, NRP, and NCTQ

The “science of reading” movement often claims that a systematic intensive phonics-first approach to teaching reading is endorsed by science that is settled, that the National Reading Panel (NRP) is a key element of that settled science, and that teacher education is mostly absent of that “science of reading” (a message that has been central to NCTQ for many years).

These claims, however, misrepresent what evidence actually shows. Here, then, are some evidence-based fact-checks of phonics, NRP, and NCTQ.


Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)


There is a widespread consensus in the research community that reading instruction in English should first focus on teaching letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences rather than adopt meaning-based reading approaches such as whole language instruction. That is, initial reading instruction should emphasize systematic phonics. In this systematic review, I show that this conclusion is not justified based on (a) an exhaustive review of 12 meta-analyses that have assessed the efficacy of systematic phonics and (b) summarizing the outcomes of teaching systematic phonics in all state schools in England since 2007. The failure to obtain evidence in support of systematic phonics should not be taken as an argument in support of whole language and related methods, but rather, it highlights the need to explore alternative approaches to reading instruction.

[For context, note some of the problems remaining in how whole language is addressed in this post.]

National Reading Panel

The Federal Government Wants Me to Teach What?: A Teacher’s Guide to the National Reading Panel Report, Diane Stephens (NCTE, 2008)

An Ever-So-Brief Summary with Book Recommendations

1. Phonemic Awareness. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, this is best taught to very young children (K–1) using letters, and when letters are used, PA instruction is considered to be phonics. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a separate instructional time for PA. Rather, children should have opportunities to learn about how language is made up of parts (e.g., onsets and rimes, or word families) as part of phonics instruction. An effective way to do this in the classroom? Provide time for students to write using invented spelling (pp. 2-1 through 2-86). (See Strickland, 1998, for further information about invented spelling.)

2. Phonics. According to the studies cited in the NRP report, there is no evidence that phonics instruction helps in kindergarten or in grades 2 to 9. It does help first graders learn the alphabetic principle—that there is a relationship between letters and sounds. No one method is better than any other. For example, for at-risk first graders, a modified whole language approach and one-on-one Reading Recovery–like instruction both helped children with comprehension (pp. 2-89 through 2-176). This phonics instruction should be conducted in the context of whole, meaningful text. (See Moustafa, 1997, for information on embedded, whole-part-whole instruction.)

3. Fluency. According to the authors of the Fluency report, the practice of round robin (at any age) does not help children and can indeed hurt them. However, according to the studies cited in the Fluency report, repeated oral reading (K–12) helps with comprehension because reading to readers fluidly instead of word-by-word reading helps them better understand the text. Ways to help with this? Try such things as readers theater (pp. 3-1 through 3-43). (See Opitz and Rasinski’s Good-bye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies [1998] for additional instructional suggestions.)

4. Vocabulary (grades 3 to 8). One method is not better than another. Children learn most of their vocabulary incidentally (pp. 4-15 through 4-35). (For further information about vocabulary learning, see Nagy, 1988.)

5. Comprehension (grades 3 to 6). Children need to learn that print makes sense and to develop a variety of strategies for making sense of print (pp. 4-39 through 4-168). (For further information on teaching for comprehension, see the references listed in Chapter 8: Beers, 2002; Sibberson & Szymusiak, 2003; Taberski, 2000; Tovani, 2000; see also Harvey & Goudvis, 2000.)

Across all of these recommendations? According to the studies cited in the NRP report, if we want children to learn something, we need to teach them that something. Want great readers? Then teach children what great readers do.

NCTQ (Teacher Education)

NOTE: This is more complicated, but first I am posting an older (2006) and new (2020) report from NCTQ both making essentially the same claims that teacher education fails to teach the “science of reading.” Then, I include a link to several reviews that show that NCTQ’s “reports” are methodologically flawed and essentially propaganda, not “science.”

What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching (2006)

2020 Teacher Prep Review: Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction

NEPC reviews of NCTQ reports

NCTQ on States’ Teacher Evaluation Systems’ Failures, Again

If Teacher Education Is Failing Reading, Where Is the Blame?

The current “science of reading” climate surrounding public education in the U.S. has its roots, ironically, in misreading (or at least reading uncritically) A Nation at Risk, a report during the Ronald Reagan administration that was widely reported by mainstream media. The politically driven and deeply flawed report also prompted the accountability movement in the U.S.—state standards and high-stakes testing—that eventually enveloped the entire country by the 1990s.

The report established a false but compelling cultural truism that is too rarely interrogated: Public schools in the U.S. are failing. Since the early 1980s, political leadership has decided that the failure is due to a lack of accountability, but accountability of whom or what has shifted over the past 40 years.

The first blame narrative focused on students and schools, ushering in high-stakes testing at 3rd grade, 8th grade, and high school (exit exams) as well as school and district report cards. Eventually high-stakes accountability of students and schools seemed not to change the measurable outcomes that advocates had promised; there were also unintended consequences such as exit exams increasing drop-out rates.

Gradually after No Child Left Behind, the blame narrative moved to teachers, in part driven by George W. Bush’s popularizing the slogan “soft bigotry of low expectations,” the rise of charter schools embracing “no excuses,” and the same messages and buy-in for Bush era education policy by Barack Obama’s administration and Department of Education.

For about a decade the blame narrative focused on teachers, and political leaders rushed to intensify teacher evaluation, notably the use of value-added methods (VAM). Once again, the outcomes promised by advocates did not come to fruition. Recently, in fact, the tide is turning hard against the use of VAM and other types of punitive teacher evaluations.

The vacuum left in the blame narrative did not remain long. Concurrent with the “science of reading” movement that claims public school teachers are not teaching reading guided by the “science of reading” is the next round of blame—teacher education.

The blame narrative makes for strange bedfellows. While mainstream media have begun to pound the drum of blame about teacher education fairly consistently, the leading literacy professional organization, the International Literacy Association (ILA), has join the story as well.

Education Week has led this charge; for example, Madeline Will writes in Preservice Teachers Are Getting Mixed Messages on How to Teach Reading:

Decades of research have shown that teaching explicit, systematic phonics is the most reliable way to make sure that young students learn how to read words. Yet an Education Week analysis of nationally representative survey results found that professors who teach early-reading courses are introducing the work of researchers and authors whose findings and theories often conflict with one another, including some that may not be aligned with the greater body of scientific research.

EdWeek‘s survey data are being confirmed, it seems, by ILA’s survey data: 60% of respondents claim their teacher education programs did not prepare them well to teach reading.

First, we should pause at media and professional organizations citing survey data while also embracing a very rigid and narrow demand for the “science of reading.” Survey data have many problems, and in this case, we may want to know if disgruntled teachers were disproportionately motivated to reply.

None the less it is quite a different thing to say “60% of respondents claimed X” than “60% of teachers claimed X.” Are these survey data representative of all teachers of reading?

Let’s assume this is true, that more than half of teachers charged with reading instruction are not properly prepared to teach reading. But let’s also unpack how that came to be, and ultimately answer in a fair way, where is the blame?

For the past 30-40 years, teachers and teacher educators have had less and less professional autonomy; or stated a different way, the professional autonomy of teachers and teacher educators has been reduced to how well they can implement mandated standards and produce measurable outcomes that prove those standards were implemented and effective.

In the high-stakes accountability era, then, if we are going to accept that 60% of teachers were not well prepared in their teacher education programs, we must be willing to acknowledge that those programs were governed most often by the accreditation process. Organizations such as NCATE and CAEP have been holding teacher education accountable along with the coordination of professional organizations.

How teacher education approached literacy broadly and reading specifically was grounded in standards designed by ILA (elementary) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) (secondary), and those programs were periodically monitored by ILA and NCTE for if or how well the programs met those standards.

If we currently believe that the teaching of reading in our public schools is failing our students, we must also acknowledge that teachers are implementing state standards of reading and preparing students for state tests of reading; those teachers were also taught how to teach in teacher education programs implementing national standards determined by ILA and NCTE.

Accepting the survey data as valid, then, the blame for these failures lie in the accountability and accreditation process, of which teachers and teacher educators are mere agents.

After being a classroom teacher of ELA for 18 years and then a teacher educator for the last 18 years, I believe I have a strong and well informed view of what is really happening. This is a better explanation, but not a simple one that the media would prefer or a politically expedient one that politicians would prefer.

Education was never the type of failure determined by A Nation at Risk, and a lack of accountability was never the cause of what the true failures in education were then and are today.

Formal education is a reflection of and a perpetuating force for inequity in the U.S. Public schools are not game changers.

Therefore, it is true that far too many students are not being taught to read well enough, and that on balance, public education is failing far too many students.

Those failures are about inequity—inequity of opportunities both outside and inside schools that disproportionately impacts poor students, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students (the “science of reading” movement has correctly identified these vulnerable student populations, in fact).

And as jumbled as the journey has been, the logic experiment I offer above reaches a credible conclusion: the accountability era has failed. Miserably. Once again disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations of students.

But accreditation has failed just as much. Accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes assessment are not conducive to teaching, learning, or scholarship.

As a former classroom teacher, I can attest to that fact; as a current teacher educator, I can confirm that complying with accreditation mandates dilute my courses and overburden my professional work to the exclusion of scholarship and research.

Accountability structures are mostly bureaucracy, mostly a distraction from real teaching, learning, or professional behavior.

While I am frustrated with mainstream media misrepresenting reading and reading instruction, I am baffled that ILA would enter a fray that turns the blame narrative back on the organization itself. Maybe they didn’t think this through, but it is really almost impossible not to blame professional organizations who govern teacher education if we determine teacher education has failed.

Here, then, is a larger lesson of this entire four-decades mess: Let’s stop looking for people to scapegoat in the blame narrative, and recognize instead that the accountability/accreditation systems are failing us, especially when we are complying well to them.

Professional autonomy for K-12 teachers and teacher educators is a process we have not tried, but one far more likely to give our schools and our students a better chance if we also acknowledge that social and educational equity need the same financial and administrative focus we have given accountability since the early 1980s.

See Also

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, P. L. Thomas

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

How Diverse Is Your Syllabus?

During an impromptu pre-department meeting chat with literacy colleagues, we began to think about examining our syllabi for diversity of required and recommended texts. We noted that often people examine reading lists for K-12 students in terms of diversity, such as children’s literature, adolescent literature, and the secondary canon.

Below are the texts listed on my course syllabi for all courses I currently teach on a regular basis. I have put white male authors in red text for a quick glance at diversity.

Assigned and Recommended Texts in Taught Courses

[In many courses, students choose among these texts, and in some courses, students have choice outside this list. These are texts offered on course syllabi as limited choice but required in courses.]

White male author

Why We Teach Now, Sonia Nieto

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, Robin DiAngelo

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin

The Poverty and Education Reader edited by Paul C. Gorski and Julie Landsman

Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, Sarah Carr

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, P.L. Thomas

Me-Search and Re-Search: A Guide for Writing Scholarly Personal Narrative ManuscriptsRobert Nash and  DeMethra LaSha Bradley

Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, Gerald Bracey

Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th Edition, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, John Warner

James Baldwin: The Last Interview: And other Conversations

Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

No Name in the Street, James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin and Raoul Peck

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, Mychal Denzel Smith

A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros

Known and Strange Things: Essays, Teju Cole

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

The End of Imagination, Arundhati Roy

Sex Object, Jessica Valenti

We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit

Best Practice: Bringing Standards to Life in America’s Classrooms, Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde

Classrooms that Work: They Can All Read and Write, Cunningham and Allington

Girls, Social Class and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference, Stephanie Jones

Writing and Teaching to Change the World: Connecting with Our Most Vulnerable Students, Stephanie Jones

When Kids Can’t Read—What Teachers Can Do, Kylene Beers

Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, Michael Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Classrooms, Sonia Nieto

Teaching English by design, Peter Smagorinsky

Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School ClassroomsArthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer

Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres, Antero Garcia

Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-truth America, Chris Goering and P.L. Thomas, eds.

Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture, Susan Eckard, ed.

Course Syllabi

EDU 111: Perspectives on American Education

EDU 115 (MAYX): The Reel World: The Depiction of Schools on Film

EDU 250/ EDRD 750: Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education

FYW 1259: Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BLACKLIVESMATTER

EDU 452: Teaching English in Grades 7-12

EDU 451: Literature for Young Adults; EDRD 748: Adolescent Literature Survey

EDU 350: Curriculum and Methods of Teaching in Grades 7-12

School Choice Fails Students and Parents

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It has been a decade since I raised this question, Parental Choice?, after spending about a year examining all the research available as well as the public and political debate about school choice.

Now, Education Week seems to have finally recognized some of the conclusions I presented in that book: Why Don’t Parents Always Choose the Best Schools? I think it is important that this article does not ask “if” parents choose the best schools, but concedes that parental choice is a flawed part of the school choice as an avenue to educational reform argument.

In short, my research and analysis show that parental choice and school choice fail because they suffer from the same problem concerning all choice driven by America’s idealized perception of individual freedom and market economies. If school choice were a powerful and effective lever for positive educational reform (and it isn’t), market forces remain indirect ways to create the sort of equity of opportunity that a democracy could accomplish directly.

Choice, at best, is slow and erratic, depending on the quality and expertise of the consumers to eventually shape the outcomes desired all along. Pop music is exactly what consumers have created through supply and demand, but we are under no illusion that pop music success equals the highest quality of music possible. High-quality music may have a better chance of being produced by musicians fully publicly funded by NEA grants and left free of corrupting market dynamics.

The consumer choice/quality dynamic in school choice is the problem that Arianna Prothero is acknowledging and confronting in EdWeek.

The research and outcomes related to school choice have always been mixed at best, and the school choice debate has been marred by shifting talking points (different types of choice schemes and different outcomes promised). Since support from school choice is often ideological or driven by the inequity experienced in public education, however, the following patterns continue to characterize the debate:

  • Parents participating in school choice focus more often on cultural and ideological commitments rather than academic quality. School choice, then, is more likely to create stratified schools and not work as a lever for motivating higher academic quality across all schooling. School choice is not proof that a rising tide lifts all boats, but proof that given the opportunity, people will segregate themselves in a lot of different boats while disregarding the threat of drowning facing some of them.
  • School choice unintentionally feeds into the tyranny of parents at the exclusion of children’s autonomy and human rights. Secular public schools should be an opportunity for all children to experience a democracy of ideas and become the humans those children choose to be. Students shepherded into academic settings that perpetuate narrow ideals and ideas dictated by the parents are denied their choices and opportunities.
  • Marginalized and underserved populations (impoverished, Black communities, English language learners, etc.) do often welcome school choice as a possible avenue to greater equity of opportunity; that promise has also proven to be empty, but underserved populations’ support for school choice is also misread. School choice and charter schools have driven school re-segregation (clearly not a positive outcome for Black parents and students) and has not guaranteed that all students have the opportunities found in elite private schools (the choice of wealthy and mostly white parents). If public schools simply served all students well and fully, then the support for school choice found among marginalized groups would disappear.
  • Rarely do any advocates for school choice acknowledge that the qualities commonly found among expensive private schools—what the wealthy choose—are aspects of school reform that could be implemented in all public schools if there was the political will to do so. However, low student-teacher ratios, challenging course work (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and expansive fine arts programs somehow are not on the education reform agenda for all students.
  • The school choice debate ultimately fails because it doesn’t pull back far enough and acknowledge that public schools should be of a universally high quality that makes choice unnecessary. As a culture, we do not allow the market to determine which bridges we drive across are safe or not; all of us driving expect a minimum high quality of bridges on all public roads and highways. As I have concluded before:

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

  • School choice advocates fail to consider the indirect and haphazard mechanisms of market forces. School choice not only re-segregates schools, but also creates a huge amount of wasteful churn—students moving among schools along with teachers and even the shifting of school building. The great charter overthrow experienced in New Orleans post-Katrina, for example, has replaced all the public schools with charter schools—with essentially the exact same educational problems remaining for the students, parents, and community.
  • School choice research has been negatively impacted by common problems with educational research (comparing similar populations, confronting problems of scaling up, etc.) as well as the corrupting influence of advocacy. Too much of what is presented in the media as “research” is actually advocacy masquerading as scholarship. Pro-school choice think tanks have been very aggressive and depended on a non-critical media and public, both of which are highly susceptible to press-release and both-sides journalism.

Ultimately, the school choice debate is a distraction from a sobering fact: the U.S. has failed public education by never completely committing to high-quality education for every child in the country regardless of their ZIP code.

There is no mystery to what constitutes a great school, high academic quality, or challenging education, but there is solid proof that almost no one in the U.S. has the political will to choose to guarantee that for every child so that no one has to hope an Invisible Hand might offer a few crumbs here and there.

See Also

The Zombie Politics of School Choice: A Reader

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

girl reading book
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

While rewatching Zombieland recently, I noticed that this version of the zombie genre was not only a blend of horror and comedy but also a slightly different take on the zombie mythology; a central character, Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg), embodies a motif focusing not on the zombies but on the survivors, and their survival techniques often grounded in anxiety and other compulsions that are often a burden in the so-called normal world.

Zombie narratives are enduring in popular culture throughout history because reanimation of life and the near impossibility of killing the reanimated are truly horrifying elements. But zombie narratives are also highly adaptable to many cultural perspectives.

Currently the Reading War has been reanimated around the branding of the “science of reading,” and this version seems even harder to kill than previous iterations; the effectiveness of the double tap perfected by Columbus in the film would be deeply appreciated in this circumstance.

As we wander into 2020, the “science of reading” movement has developed a few new approaches grounded in the foundational arguments that have made “science of reading” as compelling as a zombie story: discrediting popular reading programs as not scientific and reanimating Reading First (the program built on the National Reading Panel).

Central to these developments in the “science of reading” onslaught on reading are two key names: Timothy Shanahan and Lucy Calkins.

In many ways, Shanahan (a member of NRP) has emerged as a key voice in rewriting the history of both the NRP and Reading First. Calkins, as the name on a widely adopted reading program, now represents the so-called failed balanced literacy movement.

Here we have names and people superimposed onto the false war between phonics (Shanahan) and balanced literacy/whole language (Calkins).

Calkins has posted a defense of her programs, and Shanahan has recently posted a somewhat garbled defense of Reading First.

However, there is no value in mainstream media pointing fingers at Calkins, charging her with a self-serving agenda, while supporting Shanahan, who is conducting his own PR campaign for his role in the NRP. Let them without agendas cast the first stone. (Hint: There are plenty of agendas to go around on this.)

Yet, it is a negative review of Calkins’s program that has found a home in the mainstream media:

A new player has moved into the curriculum review market: Nonprofit consulting group Student Achievement Partners announced this week that it is going to start evaluating literacy curricula against reading research.

The group released its first report on Thursday: an evaluation of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading in grades K-5, a workshop style program designed by Lucy Calkins and published through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The seven literacy researchers who reviewed the program gave it a negative evaluation, writing that it was “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This last point quoted from the review is incredibly important to unpack, as is the urgency with which the mainstream media reports this review mostly uncritically.

First, there is a serious contradiction and hypocrisy when the mainstream media commit to a term such as the “science of reading,” demanding that reading instruction is always grounded in a narrow concept of “scientific” (the so-called gold standard of cognitive psychology, specifically), but participate in press release journalism.

We must ask about the review endorsed by EdWeek: Is it scientific? Has it been blind peer-reviewed? Do the authors have any agendas that would skew the findings?

And then we must argue: If mainstream journalists are now demanding that educators implement only practices supported by high-quality scientific studies, those journalists should not report on any reviews or studies that themselves are not also high-quality scientific studies.

This contradiction in which the media have lower standards for their reporting than for the agenda they are promoting is a window, however, into what is really going on, bringing us back to the conclusion about Calkins’s reading program.

All reading programs can and should be viewed through that conclusion: “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

In fact, like the Orwellian named Reading First, reading programs always put reading last because reading programs are inevitably linked over the past 40 years to the accountability movement; teachers and students have been disproportionately held accountable for implementing and following the programs and not for authentic reading.

Reading First did in fact fail, despite arguments to the contrary, because the bureaucracy allowed the natural corruption inherent in the market; funding for reading became inappropriately tied to specific reading programs and textbook companies using the label of “scientifically based” (a central element of No Child Left Behind and the NRP almost twenty years ago).

Reading was last in the Reading First scandal because the focus became adopting and implementing Open Court.

The real irony here is that the market/accountability dynamic is at the heart of why it makes perfect sense to conclude that Calkins’s program is “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

And the bigger irony is that whole language and balanced literacy were attempts to pull back from scripted and prescriptive program approaches to teaching reading and to provide philosophical and theoretical frameworks within which teachers could use their professional autonomy to shape reading instruction to the needs of “all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This is a much ignored truism found in John Dewey: In education, we must resist reducing philosophical and theoretical truths to fixed templates that then become not guiding principles but simplistic mandates to be fulfilled.

Children reading eagerly and critically—this is the real goal of teaching reading in our public schools; that is putting reading first, not any commercial program whether it be systematic intensive phonics or one promoted as balanced literacy.

Reanimating NRP and Reading First is, I concede, on its second round so I can hold out hope that a vigilant double tap may put these zombies back in the ground permanently.

None the less, I will remain anxious like Columbus, skeptical that we are safe.

See Also

Reading First: Hard to Live With—or Without, P. David Pearson

Pearson Reading First

Confronting Aaron Hernandez, Big Time Football, and Toxic Masculinity

If you focus too intently on Aaron Hernandez in the new Netflix documentary, you will miss the larger complicated story. And you will have done exactly what the major players involved in Hernandez’s life wanted all along.

Jose Baez and Aaron Hernandez in Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (2020)
Jose Baez and Aaron Hernandez in Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (2020)

For example, one of the most disturbing and damning moments in the documentary involves Hernandez’s high-profile college coach, then at Florida, Urban Meyer. Here is what Meyers wants everyone to believe:

 “We knew that every time he went home — every time he would go to Connecticut, I’d have players on my team say, ‘Watch this guy,’” said Meyer on an old episode of HBO’s Real Sports. “So we would try not to let him go back to Connecticut.”

Yet, as the documentary details:

Hernandez quickly made an impact at the University of Florida, but he struggled off the field. The talented 17-year-old, who began acquiring an impressive array of tattoos, didn’t quite fit in with clean-cut quarterback Tim Tebow or coach Urban Meyer, and he began to rely on painkillers to bypass injuries. “For real, weed and Toradol. That’s all you need, baby!” Hernandez said on one recorded phone call with former teammate Mike Pouncey.

Hernandez’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic. One night, he allegedly punched out a bar manager who asked him to pay for his drinks. Episode 2 also references “an open case in Gainesville” from 2007, in which a man matching Hernandez’s description fired a gun into another car. The men in the car were shot, but survived.

Despite warning signs, the New England Patriots drafted and played Hernandez after his career at Florida. Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft offer similar explanations around Hernandez, blaming his home community and “bad” friends for Hernandez’s dual life and violent behavior.

Big Time Football loved Hernandez; in fact, Big Time Football used Hernandez, looked the other way over and over, and was quick to blame Hernandez himself or his CTE for his murderous self-destruction despite his enormous talent and stunning NFL contract for $40 million.

What Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez exposes is both the tragic dual life of Hernandez and the veneer that protects Big Time Football, embodied in this story by Florida/Meyer and New England/Belichick.

Meyer plays the Christian card, and Belichick plays the no-fun, all-professional card as the veneers for the realities of Big Time Football—toxic masculinity, homophobia, and inexcusable violence.

One of the most significant moments in the documentary that addresses that veneer is from a former NFL teammate of Hernandez’s:

Hernandez was drafted to play as a tight end for the Patriots in 2010; in Killer Inside, one of the more compelling insights about that (somewhat rocky) transition into the NFL comes from former Patriots player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out as gay in 2017. He points out that football is an almost perfect hiding place for many gay men. “My beard was football,” he says. “I relied on all the stereotypes of a football player — a lot of testosterone and the aggressiveness, hitting each other, things you assume middle America wouldn’t think of as gay men.”

Playing for the Patriots “was the best possible situation I could have ended up in,” says O’Callaghan, because “there’s no distraction. There’s just an extreme focus on winning and nothing else really flies there — and for a closeted guy, that’s great.”

This documentary’s version of the Hernandez tragedy explores the role his sexuality may have played in his behavior—his paranoia, his violent outbursts, his dual lives—while never stooping to stereotypes or simply explanations.

It is very disturbing to watch the footage of Hernandez playing football; he is a large and incredibly nimble man who seems uniquely skilled on the football field—until the footage turns to a series of brutal hits, Hernandez often barely able to move, stunned, weak-kneed.

There seems to be almost no way now to justify the brutality that is Big Time Football, except that it is incredibly popular and extremely lucrative.

Viewing the documentary reminds me that blame is very complicated. I can’t excuse Hernandez for his violent outbursts even as I am certain he is not solely responsible for the man he became. I also find the CTE explanation alone overly simplistic, possibly convenient, or at least incomplete.

If, like Junior Seau, Hernandez fell victim to a damaged brain, we cannot ignore how that brain damage occurred—Big Time Football, and the many people who used him, the many people who looked the other way over and over like Meyer and Belichick.

Bigger-than-life coaches such as Meyer and Belichick build reputations on their ability to shape and lead men, their attention to detail, and what we call leadership skills. The Hernandez situation, however, exposes both men as either deeply incompetent, grossly deluded by their laser focus on Big Time Football, or hugely dishonest; I lean toward the latter.

Big Time Football exists with a sliding scale that balances talent and winning with the so-called off-the-field qualities; the more you can contribute to winning, the lower the bar for the person you are or the things that you do.

The stuff about character, Bible study, and circling up for prayer are all just rhetoric, theater for a gullible public, an eager fan base. We should be quite skeptical even of the Golden Boys, Tim Tebow and Tom Brady.

The dual life of Hernandez, because of Big Time Football, shows that neither was absent violence, but the so-called hidden life was grossly violent outside the lines we have drawn for such destructive behavior.

Misunderstanding Prayer, Religion, and Public Education Again and Again

Poet e.e. cummings understood a foundational combination of approaches common in U.S. politicians; his satirical political speech as poem begins: “‘next to of course god america i/ love you.’”

Patriotism and religiosity are effective political rhetorical strategies, but they also should be red flags to anyone concerned about their nation or their religion (or lack there of).

Current POTUS Trump has matched the buffoonery of cummings’ cartoonish politician, and in keeping with that theater, Trump has grabbed some low-hanging fruit by once again igniting the prayer in public school debate.

The tension between prayer/religion and public spaces such as schools has a long and complicated history. But since the early 1960s, one fact has existed that almost everyone who joins this debate misunderstands or misrepresents: All adults and students in public schools are free to pray, or not, and all types of religious texts can be read and assigned as literature (but not to proselytize).

Here is what people misunderstand: The Supreme Court ruled against coercion by the state in terms of religious practices. The ruling is not about anyone being religious or not, anyone practicing religion or not, but about the role of the state in coercion of religious belief and practice.

In other words, anyone who is religious should welcome this clarification because it protects religious freedom from the potential of anyone in authority abusing that role for religious purposes.

Students, for example, are free to pray at breakfast or lunch each day in school; but also free from any school authorities forcing that behavior or denying those practices.

Also, when I was a public high school English department chair, we purchased a class set of Bibles to use during literature study; for example, students used those Bibles in activities designed to identify Biblical allusions in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is a secular and academic activity in which a religious text is perfectly appropriate.

Sections of the King James version of the Bible were also in the British literature survey textbook as an example of British literature.

Beyond understanding what the current legal status of prayer and religious texts are in the U.S., we should also consider that private spaces can be religiously hostile, legally demanding or denying religious practice. It is our public spaces that must remain vigilant about preserving religious liberty.

Public education is not simply lessons about reading, writing, and arithmetic; every policy and every practice in daily schooling teaches students not only who they are but how the world works, what is valued and what is mere rhetoric.

As another example from my public school teaching career, I was also a coach for many of the years I taught. Since prayer is a common part of the sports ritual, I had to confront my role as an agent of the state while coaching.

Traditionally, coaches gather teams for prayer and then some sort of pre-game chant; however, just as I would never (and should never by law) call a class of students to prayer, I did not ask my players to gather for prayer before matches.

Instead, I gave the team space before the game to gather if they wished (and not to do so if they did not) and pray as a team (I was not involved) before we then gathered as a team and did our pre-game chant.

While this was unusual and caused some concern among parents (most of whom wanted me to follow tradition and lead a team prayer), I was modeling proper professional behavior for a public school employee and honoring all of my players’ diverse religious and non-religious beliefs and practices.

Several players over the years who were not formally religious thanked me for the respect this process showed.

No one forced or coerced to be religious, no one denied their religious identities—this is the current law governing all public spaces in the U.S., including public schools, and it is the law that the deeply religious and the non-religious should vigorously support and protect as one.

Just as the Supreme Court ruling was more about coercion than about religion, political rhetoric about patriotism and religion are likely (as cummings’ first line shows—ending as it does with “i,” “god america i”) more about the interests of the politician than any commitment to a people or a faith.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, however, be wary of voting for anyone who cannot accurately describe the concept they claim to be defending.