Standards in K-12 Education: A Reader

Recently, Gerald Coles confronted the newest round of the Reading War that once again centers phonics instruction. One of Coles’s points is how keeping the education reform gaze on an instructional practice (phonics) allows reform to ignore the more substantial and causal elements surrounding teaching and learning—socio-economic, racial, and gender inequities.

The now four-decades long venture into accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing has revealed one paradoxical and often ignored fact: The problems with teaching and learning have almost nothing to do with the presence or quality of high-stakes standards.

Currently, we are seeing a wave of acknowledgements that Common Core now has fallen into that pattern of failure.

The research base on standards has been consistent in showing that the accountability process fails; see below:


Student Evaluations of Teaching: Research and Commentary [Updated]

One of the prevalent contradictions in higher education is the high-stakes use of student evaluations of teaching (SET) despite the overwhelming evidence that SETs are flawed measures of teacher/teaching quality and are often harmful for faculty already marginalized in society and academia.

Here is a collection of research and commentary highlighting those flaws and calling for ending this traditional practice:


Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience

I am deeply indebted to the academic and personal kindness and mentoring afforded me during my undergraduate education by one of my English professors, Dr. Nancy Moore.

Dr. Moore combined an admirable ability to challenge students academically while also being sincerely supportive and encouraging. I probably did not need or even deserve her praise, but Dr. Moore always made me feel like a successful student, budding scholar, and most of all, credible writer.

She was one of the first people to treat me as a poet, inviting me to read and share my work in various settings.

But I also recall that she regularly chided me about my literary affections, warning me that I would grow out of some of my favorite authors. Part of that rested on one of my proclivities for authors who dwelled on innocence, such as J.D. Salinger and e.e. cummings.

While my literary tastes have in fact changed and even matured (in the sense that my critical sensibilities are sharper as I have aged), as I am staring down the barrel of turning 60, I remain deeply drawn still to the poetry of cummings, even as my discomfort with him as a person has grown with each biography I read.

This blog post title refers directly to William Blake’s major poetry collection that remains also a favorite of mine since it captures why these works still resonate with me; the tension between innocence/youth and experience/maturity fascinates me since both phases of life are often simultaneously idealized and criticized.

And, of course, it is an existential fact of being human that we experience both phases as well as live through the transition in ways that are often difficult.

I have recently written about the difficulties of physical decline as I age, and that experience sits beside major life changes and being an active grandfather for a five-year-old girl and three-year-old boy.

So yesterday, while spending a few hours with my grand-daughter after picking her up from school before taking her back to her father, I was struck by one of those sudden realizations that she is securely into childhood, no longer any sort of baby. She is very bright, energetic, incredibly loving, and distinctly sensitive in the ways that suggest she has inherited some of the anxiety that runs through my side of the family.

My grand-children have spent their lives navigating fractured families, and she has come to see the world through “whose week is it?” This is sad, but it also shows how she is coming to know the complexity of the world, how she is experiencing the transition from innocence to experience even at the tender age of five.

As our afternoon unfolded, the time together was ripe with the tensions of being a small child in the harsh reality of living. We saw a homeless man sitting by the highway on our way to dinner. At the restaurant, a woman making balloon animals gave her a balloon butterfly that filled her with dread over the probability that the balloons would burst.

I took a picture of her with the balloon butterfly:

balloon butterfly sky

Ad even a video of her talking about navigating the fear of the balloon popping. Eventually, I wrote a new poem, a theory of balloons, which is heavily influenced by [in Just-] by cummings.

On the video, my grand-daughter explains her theory of balloons (slightly edited in the poem):

balloons pop if there’s something spiky
then you cry & cry & then you get one later
i’ve got a balloon butterfly
& i’m never going to pop it
sometimes i’m going to pop it
& that’s okay i’m going to stop thinking about it

Listening to my grand-daughter and thinking about the balloon woman, I was immediately reminded of cummings and [in Just-], which still represents my key moment in life when I made the turn toward English student and writer.

I left high school only modestly drawn to so-called literature, even as I was a voracious reader of science fiction and comic books. I was tepid on poetry and had written some, but it wasn’t until a speech class in my first year of college when discussing this poem by cummings really struck me.

Unlike many poems by cummings, this one is very accessible and powerful in its seeming simplicity. But it also is an effective glimpse into the tension between innocence (the children playing in the poem) and the allure of the balloonman (a real-world Pied Piper and Pan hyrbid that represents the allure of maturity, including budding sexuality).

But I had never, I think, really considered the genius of using the balloon symbolically in the poem until my impromptu philosophical moments with my grand-daughter and the complete accident of her being given a balloon butterfly.

Like a ballon, like a butterfly, our humanity is very frail and fleeting, regardless of where we are on the continuum from innocence to experience.

And as I worked on the poem, blending things that really happened with my own fabrications for effect, I became more and more aware of the bond between my frailty of aging and my grand-daughter’s frailty of being just a child.

She is tiny and very thin, but she also has the tenderest of hearts.

Finding form is always a challenge of poetry, but I also feel the pressure of making sure every poem ends some way that is fulfilling without stooping to anything heavy-handed.

Satisfying to me at least, the last section pulls together an image of heaviness and lightness to combine with the tension of innocence (my grand-daughter) and experience (me) as I carried her inside after our afternoon together:

she falls asleep as we drive
the balloon butterfly clinging
to her tiny child’s arm
too beautiful & terribly frail
i carry her in sleep-heavy in my arms
like a balloon or a butterfly

This morning when I checked on her, I also asked if her balloon butterfly had survived the night.

I am relieved to find out that it has as I recall her sleep-heavy in my arms, completely dependent on my care in that moment, this old man who loves her.

The More Things Change …

As I have previously recommended Jeff McQuillan’s work on reading from the 1990s, I want to highlight briefly another example of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When “Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction” Isn’t by Louisa Moats. This report includes on the cover a despondent looking Black girl with her head down near a book, reminding me of the manipulative imaging used in the documentary Corridor of Shame.

Fordham cover

Moates is touted as a “renowned reading expert” and “author of the American Federation of Teachers’ Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science and an earlier Thomas B. Fordham Foundation report, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced” Reading Instruction.”

The Executive Summary makes a case that may sound familiar to anyone paying attention to media coverage of the “science of reading” since 2018:

While the field of reading has made enormous strides in recent years—especially with the publication of the National Reading Panel’s landmark report and enactment of the federal Reading First program—discredited and ineffectual practices continue in many schools. Although the term “whole language” is rarely used today, programs based on its premises, such as Reading Recovery, Four Blocks, Guided Reading, and especially “balanced literacy,” are as popular as ever. These approaches may pay lip service to reading science, but they fail to incorporate the content and instructional methods proven to work best with students learning to read.

And guess where the failures lie?

Moats exposes popular but scientifically untenable practices in reading instruction, including

  • use of memorization, picture cues, and contextual guessing for teaching word recognition, justified by the faulty “three cueing systems” theoretical model, instead of direct, systematic teaching of decoding and comprehension skills;
  • substitution of “teacher modeling” and reading aloud for explicit, organized instruction;
  • rejection of systematic and explicit phonics, spelling, or grammar instruction;
  • confusion of phonemic awareness with phonics;
  • reliance on “leveled” books and trade books to organize instruction; and
  • use of whole-language approaches for English language learners.

However, a review of this report exposed several key problems that, again, may sound familiar:

In Whole language high jinks: How to tell when ‘scientifically-based reading instruction’ isn’t, Louisa Moats contends that she provides “the necessary tools to distinguish those [programs] that truly are scientifically based… from those that merely pay lip service to science” (p. 10). This review finds that Moats exaggerates the findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP), especially the effects of systematic phonics on reading achievement. She also ignores research completed since the NRP report was issued seven years ago. Perhaps most disturbingly, she touts primarily commercial curriculum products distributed by her employer — products that have far fewer published studies of effectiveness than the products and methods she disparages.

These flaws pervade the report’s subsequent discussion of what “scientifically based reading instruction” should look like. In the end, the Fordham report works more effectively as promotional material for products and services offered by Moats’ employer, SoprisWest, than as a reliable guide to effective reading instruction.

The report and review spurred a few exchanges among Moats, Allington (also here), and NEPC that also capture well the reading debate that will not die.

And here is a fun fact: During the time since NCLB and the NRP that Moats criticizes schools for failing to implement “scientific” reading instruction, Mississippi had an 8-point jump in 4th-grade NAEP reading scores from 2002 to 2009:

MS grade 4 reading 1992 2019.png

Was unscientific whole language/balanced literacy the cause of that jump [1], or is it possible that making any sort of direct causal claim about classroom instructional practices and NAEP score trends is misleading (especially without research to investigate the many causes of test scores)?

Alas! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[1] According to advocates of the “science of reading,” Mississippi did not adopt the “science of reading” until 2013.

James Baldwin (1979): “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood”

Every time I make the case that in order to offer every child the very highest quality education all children deserve, we must address the socioeconomic inequity of homes and communities as well as the schools that serve them, I am chastised by some that teachers and schools cannot control any of those out-of-school conditions.

Yet there remains a historical and current fact that social inequity is almost always reflected in educational inequity; schools, then, mostly perpetuate inequity, but they almost never fulfill their promise as the great equalizer.

In California recently, we see this in action: California students sued because they were such poor readers. They just won $53 million to help them.

Students and teachers have won a lawsuit that exposes political negligence, a failure to fully fund the most burdened schools serving students most burdened by inequity, as Kohli and Lee report:

A Los Angeles Times analysis of the 75 lowest-performing schools on the state’s English language arts test, based on California’s Common Core standards, illustrates the depth of the reading problem. Seven out of 10 third-graders in these schools did not meet the standards, according to state data from 2018 and 2019. The schools have about double the English learners of other elementary schools, and more than 90% of students at those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — a poverty indicator.

While this is now, we must not ignore that social and educational inequity is a historical reality of the U.S.

James Baldwin, speaking in 1979, argued: “the billion-dollar industry [education] is more important than the life of the child,” and “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood.”

It is here, “changing the neighborhood,” that the U.S. as a political body balks. We will label and attempt to change children; we will constantly reform our standards, our tests, and our schools; but we dare not “build a new social order.”

Baldwin criticizes a public school system that cheats Black students, calling for Black people to take their children out, to keep their children off the busses. Baldwin notes that any people (white people) who cannot educate their own cannot educate “other people’s children.”

On today’s date, February 21, Nina Simone was born, and Malcolm X was assassinated. Voices and lives such as Simone and Malcolm X as well as Baldwin, I imagine, are mostly ignored in classrooms across the U.S.—even during Black History Month.

Why? As Baldwin recognized, Black people, especially well educated and literate Black people “are a threat to the machinery.” Baldwin noted about himself: “I’m a disturber of the peace,” a label perfect for Simone and Malcolm X as well.

It takes very little imagination to understand why the U.S. has always cheated and continues to cheat some students, those students already being cheated in their lives by class inequity, racism, xenophobia, and other inequities.

Education and especially literacy can foster power; therefore, equitable access to education and literacy is equitable access to power.

The law suit in California is about equity and access; it is about power.

In a country based on value, we put out money where it matters most. Underfunded and under-resourced schools point at damning finger at what, as Baldwin recognized, the U.S. continues to disregard.

The Real Reading Debate and How We Fail to Teach Reading

Sometimes cliches hit the nail on the head: It’s deja vu all over again.

Sometimes hackneyed metaphors paint the best picture: When you find yourself in a hole, keep digging.

And that brings us to the “science of reading” version of the Reading War.

Here, I want to address the often misunderstood real reading debate as well as outline how there has been a historical failure in teaching reading that continues today.

First, let’s clarify some facts about reading.

For over a century, measurable reading achievement (test scores) has been mostly correlated with socio-economic factors (the students home, community, and school) and not significantly correlated with how students are being taught to read.

In that same time period, there has never been a moment when the U.S. hasn’t declared “reading crisis.” And as a result of this myopic view of reading achievement, the U.S. has a recurring Reading War; some notable moments include the 1940s, the 1950s-1960s, and the 1990s (see especially McQuillan).

Throughout the history of reading instruction, phonics instruction has always been a key component of how students are taught to read in school. The Urban Legend that in some eras (such as the 1990s) and that some philosophies/theories of literacy (whole language, balanced literacy) have rejected completely phonics instruction has been compelling to the media and the public, but it is factually false.

The Real Reading Debate

Phonics instruction, however, is at the core of the real and enduring reading debate. That debate includes three approaches to phonics instruction detailed by Krashen: “(1) intensive, or heavy phonics, (2) basic, or light phonics, and (3) zero phonics.”

Here is where mainstream media, the public, and politicians fumble the debate; the popular framing is that the Reading War is about phonics versus zero phonics.

The real debate is between intensive phonics (systematic intensive phonics for all students or phonics first for all students to be able to read) and basic phonics (phonics as one component of teaching reading among many). But as Krashen clarifies: “Zero Phonics. This view claims that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful. I am unaware of any professional who holds this position.”

From late 2018 until today, the “science of reading” movement has promoted intensive phonics and misrepresented the current field of teaching reading as being in the nonexistent zero phonics camp (this is how whole language and balanced literacy are typically mischaracterized, especially in media coverage).

This intensive phonics/phonics first advocacy also misrepresents that position as settled science, which it isn’t.

The basic phonics position (whole language, balanced literacy) embraces the following:

  • Phonics instruction is one of many instructional practices that can be effective in teaching early reading, but many students enter formal schooling already able to read without any formal instruction in phonics; therefore, formal reading instruction must be guided by student needs, not commitments to instructional practices (such as systematic intensive phonics for all students).
  • In-school reading instruction should include direct phonics instruction for students who need that, but reading instruction should recognize those students for whom direct phonics is ineffective or unnecessary. Broadly, beware any one-size-fits-all claims about teaching reading.
  • Phonics must always be an instructional means (never phonics for phonics’ sake), but evaluating the role of phonics in fostering fluency, comprehension, joy, and critical literacy is often incomplete or absent.

The current “science of reading” movement is also misguided in its claims about research. Systematic intensive phonics must be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness for student reading fluency and comprehension (not simply does systematic intensive phonics produce phonemic awareness, pronunciation).

The research base, in fact (and including the National Reading Panel), suggests that systematic intensive phonics is limited in effectiveness to first grade and only when that direct instruction is grounded in holistic and authentic literacy instruction. Isolated systematic intensive phonics is ineffective for fostering comprehension and necessarily wastes time better spent on other literacy instruction and practices.

There also is a large and compelling research base that shows out-of-school factors and access to books in the home and school are far more important in students learning to read than how much phonics they receive in formal schooling.

The paradox, then, is that every time the Reading War reignites, the media misrepresent the debate (phonics v. no phonics) while the real debate (intensive phonics v. basic phonics) is never really addressed.

How We Fail to Teach Reading

And thus, the paradox about how we fail to teach reading.

Historically and currently, we have mostly failed U.S. public education and reading in the same ways (but not how most mainstream critics claim).

The first level failure is that we consistently ignore the impact of out-of-school factors on all student learning and measurable achievement, including especially reading. Poverty, racism, sexism, and all sorts of systemic inequities are reflected in reading scores on tests such as NAEP.

Yet, most education reform, including reading legislation, targets in-school policies only, misdiagnosing the problem but also setting up the reforms for appearing to fail.

Next, responses to reading as a crisis are clouded by presentism, a lack of historical context. The reading crisis always includes the same flawed arguments and offer the same solutions that have never succeeded in the past.

However, the third level is grounded in more recent history, the accountability era in education begun in the 1980s and 1990s and driven by standards and high-stakes testing. This recent historical trend has failed reading instruction because student needs have been ignored because schools and teachers have been hyper-focused on standards (always changing) and high-stakes tests (always changing).

Connected to those distractions is that over the last 40 years districts and schools have overcommitted to reading programs that are correlated with those standards and high-stakes tests; most teachers have been held accountable for implementing those prescriptive reading programs, instead of being professional stewards of student literacy needs.

A key lesson we are not learning is that standards, high-stakes testing, and reading programs have been incredibly harmful for student learning and reading achievement. Changing the reading programs to ones that are systematic intensive phonics will not correct this flaw.

Finally, and cumulatively, we fail to teach reading well in the U.S. because we are negligent about the conditions of our students’ lives and then negligent about the teaching and learning conditions of our students’ schools.

Here is a very sad fact: It is easier for most people to say for the hundredth time that all students need systematic intensive phonics than to admit and then address the following:

  • All children deserve universal health care.
  • All children deserve food security.
  • All children deserve to have parents with work security.
  • All children deserve a stable and safe home.
  • All students deserve the highest quality learning environment (low student/teacher ratios, experienced certified teachers, well funded supplies and school).
  • All students deserve access to reading materials in their homes, their communities, and their schools.
  • All students deserve individual and patient instruction from their teachers and their schools.
  • No student is merely a test score.

Once again, however, we are faced with a very real reading debate and with how we are still failing to teach reading.

Once again, we are failing both.

Requiem: Meditation on Innocence by Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music)

Requiem: Meditation on Innocence: Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music)

See my Selected Poetry

[From Soundcloud link]

I remember watching my first grade teacher stare in horror at the tube television in our elementary school classroom as reports of Columbine High School’s deadly school shooting flooded the news. My elementary school was 20 miles north of Columbine High School; teachers all but stopped classes, gathering in the hallways in muted chaos, whispering and wondering what to do.

Paul L. Thomas wrote “calculating (the erased)” in the week following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I wrote “Requiem for Youth: Meditation on Innocence” in the year following the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Truthfully, 20 miles is a short distance when one school attacked feels like an attack on every school. “Tragedy is often reserved for single catastrophic events, but cumulative loss is no less tragic, particularly when the lives of innocent children and teens are placed in the context of daily violence (PLT).” Paul’s insightful blog posts on the subject of education reform and student safety as well as the heart-breaking speech made by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting serve as narration and interjection amidst the calm of the Latin requiem mass, When paired with traditional Latin requiem mass texts, Paul’s poetry, haunting and unfortunately timely, serves as both a reflection and call to action.

Live performance, Voertman Hall, University of North Texas, Denton, TX. February 16, 2020.
Charlotte Botha, conductor, Holly Holt, Piano.
Morgan Horning, soprano soloist; Nicole Stover, mezzo-soprano soloist; Kevin Rosacia, tenor soloist; Aaron Hunt, baritone soloist.
Sheridan White, soprano; Gillian Boley, Edith Campa, Autumn Cappoci, and Gift Pratoomvieng, altos; William Martin, J. Andrew Smith, tenors; Andy Diaz, T. J. Mattson, Gavin Santopetro, Andrew Trimble, basses.

My Dysfunctional Relationship with Sugar, Salt, and Protein: Chasing Fitness, Sacrificing Health

For much of my adult life, well over 30 years, I have spent a significant portion of my time as a serious recreational cyclist, endurance cycling. Most of those years, I rode my bicycle about 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year, but for many years from about 2004 until 2016, I rode about 9,000 to 10,000+ miles a year.

While I found myself well suited to endurance and intense cycling because I have a high ability to suffer even though I am physically limited, to ride at the higher levels I wanted to achieve, I often dealt with being prone to cramping, and struggling to keep up with energy reserves (carbohydrates) and fighting to maintain enough protein in my diet (I was for almost 30 years not eating beef) to make up for how much intense cycling tears down the body.

As I was approaching 60, I had to change insurance companies for the first time in almost 40 years. My university requires blood tests and screening when you choose new coverage. Late in 2019, my blood work labeled me pre-diabetic and pre-hypertensive.

In that moment, I was forced to admit that I had spent much of my life chasing a level of fitness that sacrificed my health in ways that may not be recoverable.

Sugar and salt, especially, had dominated my life purely for performance on the bicycle; I have never been one much for sweets in my normal diet. But cycling food, sports drinks, and supplements were pervasive parts of how I navigated fueling and refueling around my riding, often 5 or more days a week.

High-intensity cycling and training have kept me in a constant state of physical discomfort since the 1980s. Sore muscles, tight muscles, a general state of fatigue—these became what I considered normal.

After a serious car/cyclists accident on Christmas Eve 2016, I was forced to reset my life, especially my cycling life. I was 55, about to turn 56, and the few years since then have included exponential physical decline, both in my abilities as a cyclist but also my daily life.

For about a year, I semi-retired from cycling, no longer riding on the road and mountain biking fewer days a week than I had ridden most of my life until then. The troubling health warnings from the blood work a few months ago has forced me to acknowledge those physical declines—almost constant fatigue, muscular soreness and stiffness, far less agile and stiff hands, weak and aching shoulders.

To be honest, none of these aches and pains are new; they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But with less and less intense cycling, they haven’t improved; they have in some cases gotten worse and more intrusive in my life and happiness.

I live a life now that includes avoiding added sugar in my food, eating one or two vegan meals a day, and lowering dramatically the intensity and amount of exercise I do.

But it remains very discouraging since I often do not feel better and likely am dwelling on those discomforts and changes more now since I am not distracted by my excessive cycling and relentless training. I also think I am recognizing that decline due to aging combined with decades of abusing my body and health is exponential, the consequences are magnified and cumulatively more noticeable than the expected decline I experienced in my 40s and early to mid-50s.

What may also be contributing to the discouragement is that my peak as a cyclist quantifiably occurred from my mid-40s into my early 50s, when I had some of my top finishes in key cycling competitions and events. That achievement helped mask that I was sacrificing health for fitness, but it also lulled me into thinking I could experience endless improvement (not a rational belief, of course).

So I was struck by the opening paragraph of Haruki Murakami’s newest short story, “With the Beatles”:

What I find strange about growing old isn’t that I’ve got older. Not that the youthful me from the past has, without my realizing it, aged. What catches me off guard is, rather, how people from the same generation as me have become elderly, how all the pretty, vivacious girls I used to know are now old enough to have a couple of grandkids. It’s a little disconcerting—sad, even. Though I never feel sad at the fact that I have similarly aged.

Like this narrator, I too am often thrown off when I see someone from my youth after many years without contact; their having aged is very jarring. Unlike the narrator, I have such jarring moments about myself from time to time—looking in the mirror, seeing an older photograph, simply rolling over to get out of bed.

These moments are not just “people age, people die,” but “I am aging, I will die.”

Cycling provided me for more than three decades proof that I could demand more of my body than it was willing to concede. I was quite good at pushing myself beyond the margins and seemingly willing my body beyond its capacity. In the moment, this made me feel good about myself, quelling my low self-esteem and my fears that I would never be the athlete I had always aspired to be (that I had imagined my father wanted me to be).

There is, however, another capacity that would have served me better—the ability to recognize those margins, those limitations as part of who I am and to accept that instead of trying to push beyond them.

Fewer days now find me on the bicycle, almost none riding at high intensity or long distances.

Instead, I walk into the grocery store, pulling items off the shelf, slipping on my readers, and checking for added sugar.

Today I bought sparkling water, no added sugar, and found new protein bars, also no added sugar, my new Holy Grail in a life seeking better and longer health and no longer hyper-focused on fitness.

What Federal and State Reading Legislation Should and Should Not Do

Since the early 1980s, a significant role of state government has included funding and mandating public school practices and policies. Spurred by A Nation at Risk under Ronald Reagan, most states committed to the accountability era in U.S. public education grounded in state standards and high-stakes testing.

Bringing that state-based process to the federal level, George W. Bush ushered in the federal role in the accountability era with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s.

The federal and state templates for education policy and reform have been fairly consistent for forty years, and currently, most political leaders and media pundits continue to claim that public education is failing, specifically targeting reading achievement by students.

Since most states have passed or are rushing to pass education legislation targeting reading practices and policies, here are guiding principles for what any federal or state legislation directly or indirectly impacting reading should and should not do:

  • Should not publicly fund private vendor comprehensive reading programs.
  • Should not endorse private vendor reading programs or reading materials.
  • Should not adopt “ends justify the means” policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term (for example, 3rd-grade retention policies).
  • Should not prescribe a narrow definition of “scientific” or “evidence-based.”
  • Should not prescribe a “one-size fits all” approach to teaching reading, addressing struggling readers or English language learners, identifying and serving special needs students, or teacher education and preparation of teachers of reading.
  • Should not ignore the limited impact in-school only practices have on measurable student outcomes (test scores).
  • Should not prioritize reading test scores over a wide range of targets and types of evidence to insure all students have high-quality access to learning to read.
  • Should not teacher-proof reading instruction or de-professionalize teachers of reading or teacher educators through narrow prescriptions of how to teach reading and serve struggling readers, English language learners, or students with special needs.
  • Should not prioritize advocacy by parents and non-educators over the expertise and experiences of K-12 educators and university-based scholars of reading and literacy.
  • Should not conflate general reading instruction policy with the unique needs of struggling readers, English language learners, and special needs students.
  • Should not over-react to short-term measurements of reading achievement (test data).

And thus,

  • Should fully fund and guarantee to all students the highest quality teaching and learning conditions for learning to read: low student/teacher ratios, well funded and supported instructional materials for learning to read chosen by teachers to fit the needs of their unique populations of students (prioritizing authentic texts for students in the classroom and in their homes), guaranteed and extensive time to read and learn to read daily.
  • Should reduce significantly the amount of and consequences for standardized testing and adopt accountability structures that include a wide range of types of evidence of student learning over a long period of time.
  • Should support the professionalism of K-12 teachers and teacher educators.
  • Should adopt a complex and robust definition of “scientific” and “evidence-based.”
  • Should embrace a philosophy of “first, do no harm.”
  • Should acknowledge that students needs across the general population, struggling readers, English language learners, and special needs students are varied and complex.
  • Should acknowledge the teacher as the reading expert in the care of unique populations of students and prioritize evidence-based student needs over complying with uniform standards or prescriptive programs.
  • Should provide funding and oversight for guaranteeing all students access to high-quality teachers (certified, experienced) and challenging, rich reading/literacy experiences regardless of student background or geographical setting (equity [input] standards over accountability [output] standards).
  • Should recognize that the research base and evidence base on reading and teaching reading is diverse and always in a state of change (i.e., there is no settled science of reading).
  • Should acknowledge and support that the greatest avenue to reading for all students is access to books and reading in their homes, their schools, and their access to libraries (school or community).
  • Should prioritize longitudinal data (test scores) on reading achievement as guiding evidence among a diversity of evidence for supporting instruction and teaching/learning conditions.
  • Should guarantee that all students are served based on their identifiable needs in the highest quality teaching and learning conditions possible across all schools.

Education legislation targeting reading needs to be guiding concepts and not prescriptions. But the overarching guiding principle should be grounded in the abundant evidence of failure by education reform over the past four decades; at the very least, federal and state legislation should not continue to do the same things over and over while expecting different outcomes.

The Politics of Blind Faith

Image result for trump 2020 fuck your feelings

Recently, after driving over twelve hours, much of that through darkness and light snow across Kentucky and Indiana, from South Carolina to Wisconsin, I sat the next day around 6 AM in a Starbucks across from the convention center where I would be presenting later that morning.

I was exhausted and quite cold after walking from my hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

One other man was already sitting in the coffee house connected to another hotel. As I sat near him, I heard him talking and laughing on his cell phone. He was loud and clearly from Wisconsin by the sound of his voice.

His animated conversation focused on Trump’s recent firing of people who testified against him in the impeachment hearings. This man and the person her was talking to were exuberant about Trump’s behavior, including a discussion of Trump carrying his revenge even further.

I held my tongue and tried to ignore his loud and adolescent joy, but I could not help being disturbed that I had traveled so far across the U.S. only sit beside a person who, except for his accent, could have been having this same exchange in my home state of SC.

And this joyous glee over bullying among Trump supporters is a constant refrain on social media, mostly among conservative Christians who are included in my connections because I was born, grew up, and then taught in a deeply conservative and small Southern town until I was a couple years past 40.

While there is a range of evidence and informed opinions about who supports Trump and why, a combination of white people, racists (conscious or not), and Christian conservatives form a significant portion of the solid Trump base.

What these groups have in common is a sense of impending loss of a status or “values” that many of these people feel define the U.S. Where there is dominance or privilege, many Trump supporters believe that dominance or privilege has been earned.

Compounding these feelings, of course, is that Trump supporters include people experiencing some sort of hardships, often job insecurity or loss as well as deflated wages.

For a working-class white person recently laid off, being told this person benefits from white privilege is a very hard pill to swallow. There is a kind of pale hypothetical for a person to understand life would have been even harder had they not been white and/or male.

It becomes safer to say that Trump support is mostly visceral and emotional—often a type of blind faith in ideals and rhetoric.

Trump speaks to those ideals and uses the rhetoric that engages that base; whether or not Trump’s claims are factual becomes irrelevant, including whether or not Trump actually embodies those ideals or practices the rhetoric.

Trump the bully can lambast others for bullying with impunity among that base. Any effort by those outside the Trump circle to discredit Trump’s claims or expose his hypocrisy falls on deaf ears among those supporters.

This Trump moment is ongoing and possibly far too of the moment for some people to interrogate it in the way I have above. Few people are able to step back from believing all Trump criticism is simply partisan politics.

A few days after I returned from Milwaukee, however, I watched Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix).

Late in the documentary, a lawyer for one of Bikram Choudhury’s accusers keeps referring to Bikram as both an idiot and incredibly self-assured and arrogant. A friend watching with me asked who that reminded me of, and of course, we both mentioned Trump.

If you want to understand Trump’s appeal and how otherwise reasonable people can fall victim to that appeal, I recommend watching this documentary—although (spoiler alert) the outcome for Bikram isn’t all that encouraging for those of us hoping Trump suffers the consequences he deserves.

And I am currently reading The Girl Who Lived Twice (David Lagercrantz after Steig Larsson’s The Millennium Series) where a passage speaks to both Trump and Bikram: “It had been an awful day, and she had just been talking to an idiot of a policeman who, like most idiots, thought he was a genius” (p. 67).

This pulls into the dynamic, I think, a key component of how blind faith allows people to be duped by idiots—authority.

The policeman’s idiocy is buffered by his authority the same way Trump’s privilege and smoke-and-mirrors wealth and celebrity buffer his idiocy.

Organized religion (and cult-like situations such as Bikram’s yoga empire) breeds into people a vulnerability to authority to which they must defer through blind faith.

“It’s God’s will” is a powerful cover that preys on human vulnerability; even when a rational person sees through this ploy, it takes a great deal of courage to confront “God’s will.”

Bikram has been credibly accused by many women of sexual abuse and assault. Watching these women detail those assaults and having remained in his circle, watching men collapse into tears over coming to accept Bikram’s atrocities over their faith in Bikram—these speak to the problem faced with refuting Trump and changing the minds of his faithful supporters.

Like Trump, Bikram remains in power over the fake empire he has created.

Trump benefits from both the flaws inherent in the cult of celebrity that pervades the U.S. and the vulnerability of people raised to have blind faith in authoritarian leaders who use compelling rhetoric and speak to traditional ideals—even when the leader is a hypocrite and the ideals are hollow or false.

To rightfully call that leader an idiot suggests something as awful about those supporting an idiot—and there is little to suggest those followers are compelled in any way by such truth.

As a complicated understanding of Trump and his supporters become clearer, I am less and less optimistic that such a phenomenon can be overcome with truth or by reaching out to Trump’s base.

Before leaving for Wisconsin earlier last week, I was at one of my favorite places to eat when a man and wife with their two young children walked in.

The man had on a T-shirt: Trump 2020. Fuck Your Feelings.

A nuclear All-American family.

He and the gleeful man in the Milwaukee Starbucks would be quick friends.

What are we to do?