“Science of Reading” Advocacy Stumbles, Falls

First, the stumble.

Yet another education journalist (also identified as a novelist and historian), Natalie Wexler, has weighed in on the “science of reading” (SoR). Wexler isn’t an educator, and she seems to suffer from the Columbus Syndrome far too common among journalists covering education.

I am not linking to the article, but it has already been updated since Wexler has received strong challenges to her tactics in this over-stated and misleading article

Accompanying the standard misrepresentations about teaching reading in the U.S., Wexler attempts to cast an accusatory shadow—invoking racism—over teaching reading by joining the “science of reading” propaganda movement.

However, Zaretta Hammond set the record straight on Twitter. In brief, Hammond challenges Wexler’s jumbled attempts at calling out racism and misguided references to recent racist police violence as well as implicating Hammond’s work in Wexler’s claims.

As Hammond notes, Wexler’s failure exposes the problems with fanning a Reading War that, once again, keeps our gaze on so-called failed students and failing teachers instead of systemic inequity and racism.

Wexler is wrong about reading and racism, but the criticism her article prompted has only nudged her to retract the racism stumbles, whitewashing her mistakes by apologizing on Twitter and revising her article.

Now, the fall.

One of the most damaging aspects of the “science of reading” movement has been how swiftly advocates of SoR and dyslexia have translated their movement into state-level reading legislation.

While I have been helping literacy educators and activists resist these efforts to change state education laws, some of us saw at least a pause in the SoR momentum with the Covid-19 pandemic, an unfortunate consequence that now seems to have had unintended positive outcomes for education (flawed reading legislation not passing for financial stress prompted by the pandemic).

For example, “A bid to improve Louisiana’s dismal reading skills for its youngest students died near the legislative finish line, leaving backers baffled on just what happened,” writes Will Sentell.

The surprise at this defeat comes, as Sentell explains, because “[t]he proposal, House Bill 559, had led something of a charmed life until it wilted at the end.”

However, as with other state-level reading legislation agendas across the U.S., this bill was grounded in misinformation about reading achievement as well as claims about the “science” they claim is missing in reading instruction.

Advocacy for the SoR has a fatal flaw found in both Wexler’s article and the “charmed” but failed bill in Louisiana—a “rigid refusal” to address first and fully the systemic inequity that is at the root of all educational measurements, including reading achievement.

SoR advocacy is grounded in a deficit lens that sees only individuals (students, teachers) and measures them against very reduced and narrow ideas of what counts as “normal.”

This advocacy also falls victim to silver-bullet solutions, reducing teaching to “all students must” and suggesting that this program is better than that program (without recognizing that the problem is reducing reading instruction to any program).

SoR advocacy is a misuse of “science” and a misunderstanding of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic.

There is a powerful relationship among measurable reading achievement by students, reading instruction provided students in formal schooling, and the corrosive persistence of racism and systemic inequity in U.S. society and schools—systemic racism and inequity.

Since the SoR playbook is wrong on all of that, as Hammond ends her Twitter thread, “Know the difference.”

See Also

NEW: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”