The Politics of Reading Proficiency (and Charter Schools)

It seems almost quaint now, except for the racism, but in 2009, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie” at Barack Obama. Post-Obama, the issue of political lies intensified dramatically, however, with Donald Trump building his presidential campaign on an extreme practice of lies that was well outside the norm of the sorts of lies people tend to expect from politicians.

In the wake of Trump, political lies have maintained the new low bar set by Trump; however, as I have detailed, there is a long history now of political leaders building their political careers on education reform, recently reading legislation, and that strategy in part depends on politicians, not educators, having the power to mandate standards, high-stakes testing, and most important of all, what counts as “proficiency” for reading achievement (currently, by the way, “proficiency” is set by each state with no federal oversight [see explanation here]—despite the stated goals of the Common Core movement to address that).

Many elements of the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s have served a similar political function, especially charter schools; the Obama administration, for example, solidified charter school expansion as a bi-partisan political strategy.

Since the release of the 2019 NAEP data on reading and after high-profile media coverage, a key example of politicians using reading achievement as political capital is Mississippi. The so-called “Mississippi Miracle” (a haunting cousin of the “Texas” and “Harlem” miracles that proved to be lies) is easily unmasked as a mirage (a lie) once the data is contextualized.

While Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for 4th grade were heralded as an aspirational outlier, Mississippi is not alone in its effective political game of smoke and mirrors using reading proficiency scores; see the following comparison of state proficiency scores compared to national NAEP data:

Most states have some degree of lower standards for proficiency than NAEP, but the issue is not that NAEP is a credible measure of reading (it isn’t); the issue is that state-level reading proficiency is a political tool of elected officials.

While the media and political leaders in Mississippi have claimed “miracle” for the state, the data show otherwise:

As the scatterplot suggests, Mississippi has a fairly normal strong correlation between socioeconomic status and reading achievement (low poverty correlated with high scores and high poverty correlated with low scores). Yes, Mississippi has had a long pattern of raising reading scores since the 1998 while not closing key achievement “gaps” (see NAEP longitudinal data), but the state is not somehow miraculously serving high-poverty students (because of the “science of reading”) in a way that is superior to other states (whose failures are being falsely attributed to an absence of the “science of reading”).

While a perverse way to say it, Mississippi reading achievement isn’t a “miracle” (and there currently is no scientific evidence that reading achievement gains are caused by a switch to the so-called “science of reading”) but is mostly “normal” in terms of producing measurable student achievement that is more a reflection of socioeconomic status (and race) that actual achievement.

In short, if you look at the data from all states, you will find a pattern of political hype (lies) not matching the data.

Similar to Mississippi, my home state of South Carolina tends toward that normal, but since this tool allows adding charter schools, please note how charter school (red dots) achievement (as I have documented before) mostly matches traditional publics schools (TPS), with a few outperforming and several underperforming when compared based on similar demographics:

The key to charter school analysis is to compare charter and traditional public schools with similar demographics (in the scatterplot above, that is the vertical axis); note that most charter schools cluster with TPS, but several fall lower on achievement when compared to TPS.

None the less, a great deal of political capital has been and is currently being spent on claiming the “science of reading” has created “miracles” (a lie) and that charter schools save children in poverty and Black/brown students (another lie).

Reading achievement is once again a hot media and political topic, but that discourse and legislation coming from it, are mostly lies that are serving the needs of political leaders and not students.