Resisting Efficiency in Literacy Instruction

“Third grade reading proficiency matters—enormously,” declares Mike Schmoker in How to Make Reading Instruction Much, Much More Efficient for Education Week.

When I saw this piece from 2019 pop up on my social media feed this week, I immediately noticed the subheading: “Scaling back small-group instruction would have dramatic improvements in literacy.”

Since Schmoker’s article fell solidly in the current “science of reading” crisis rhetoric and misguided reading policy being passed across the U.S., it certainly was poised to create even more harmful classroom level decisions for students and teachers.

Two aspects of this argument are compelling and misguided—the standard but false appeal to “third grade reading proficiency” and the prioritizing of “efficiency” for making instructional decisions.

Of course there are well documented correlations between third grade reading achievement and later negative educational outcomes for students (low reading achievement correlated with dropping out and low overall academic achievement, for example), but the traditional response to those correlations has resulted in over-reactions that do far more harm than good.

One of the worst over-reactions has been states adopting grade retention based on third grade reading assessments—despite grade retention having a causal relationship with students dropping out.

Doubling down on practices that increase students dropping out to address misunderstanding the research on third grade reading achievement is a profound failure in logic.

Some of the motivation for making these policy mistakes is that U.S. cultural norms are too often grounded in punishment. Many affluent and privileged people embrace the concept of grade retention as a way to insure that children are taught lessons about achievement and effort, but they also embrace punitive measures because they suspect grade retention, for example, will only impact “other people’s children.”

There is more than a little bit of racism and classism in the urge to embrace punitive schools and aggressive policing and legal systems.

But another source of making terrible policy decisions, especially about reading, is the core of Schmoker’s argument—determining instructional practices by prioritizing efficiency.

Although an enduring Urban Legend criticizes U.S. public education as essentially progressive (which it isn’t, and has never been), scholar Herb Kliebard detailed that by the early twentieth century U.S. public education had become driven by efficiency.*

One powerful example of that commitment is the use of standardized testing, primarily multiple choice tests that can be quickly scored, such as the SAT and most state-level accountability testing.

Despite decades of research showing that standardized testing is often a weak measure of learning, is most strongly correlated with status (socioeconomic, racial, gender), and creates inequity, standardized testing has persisted in the U.S. because it is more efficient than what we tend to call authentic assessment—essays, performances, projects, etc.

In fact, our blind commitment to efficiency is so strong that when we do use authentic assessment we now demand highly structured rubrics to insure that the grading is efficient (which erases the authentic nature of the assignment).

Formal education in the U.S. has structures that, of course, create the need for “efficiency”—grade levels around biological age and courses provided through a format that requires one teacher to serve the largest number of students possible (in K-12, typically 1 to 25-35, but university-level ratios can be 1 to hundreds of students).

Although universal education is a public good, we are bound by market forces when providing education for all children.

I do recognize that efficiency must be one concern for instructional practices, but I have witnessed across five decades of teaching since the 1980s that we overemphasize efficiency, especially in literacy instruction.

For 18 years as a high school English teacher, I struggled within a system demanding efficiency while attempting to teach writing authentically—a workshop method requiring students to write multiple drafts that I provided ample feedback on throughout the process.

This experience was physically and mentally exhausting; I left K-12 education with my right wrist in a brace from writing on about 4000+ essays per year for almost two decades.

Could I have implemented something identified as writing instruction more efficiently (and less taxing for me)? Of course.

But that would have been a lie (many efficient approaches, such as direct grammar instruction, is simply not writing instruction) and would have cheated my students.

Teaching first-year writing at the college level has further cemented my awareness that efficiency is extremely harmful for writing instruction effectiveness.

For example, teaching 100-125 students at a time (more efficient and the reality of high school English teaching) is far less effective than my current obligation to classes as small as 5 students and semester loads including no more than 3 or 4 dozen students (less efficient, more effective).

So this brings me back to the misguided “scaling back small-group instruction.”

As long as we are committed to current teacher/student ratios (one-on-one tutoring/mentoring is, of course, the ideal teaching/learning context), the best instructional approach to managing effectiveness and efficiency is balancing the whole-class, small-group, and individual instructional practices.

If anything, most K-12 teachers need to reduce whole-class instruction and increase small-group and individual instruction.

Why? Whole-class instruction is often the least effective of the three, particularly with writing instruction. For example, my first-year writing students continue to struggle with whole-class assignments and instruction but thrive in our face-to-face conferencing (even in comparison to the individualized instruction they receive from my comments on their essays).

But also, small-group and individualized instruction can often be, ironically, more efficient because that instruction is targeting identified need and allows student choice (instead of the teacher making all decisions for students).

Even the best whole-class instruction is addressing only some students’ needs. And another irony of whole-class instruction is that it tends to more effective after students have submitted authentic artifacts of learning that they are then required to revise (as opposed to giving great deal of instruction up front before students perform).

The ugly truth about prioritizing efficiency is that we are valuing coverage of prescribed instruction over student need or student learning.

Finally, we must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Current teacher/student ratios of 1/25-35 are cheating teachers and students. Yes, we should address those teaching/learning conditions.

But until that political commitment occurs, we must support teachers managing well the tension between effective and efficient. The trick, despite Schmoker’s claim, is maintaining our commitments to small-group and individualized instruction that targets identified student needs.

In fact, we we pull aside the curtain of efficiency, we discover that whole-class instruction as effective is a mirage.


Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Was There Really a Social Efficiency Doctrine? The Uses and Abuses of an Idea in Educational History, Thomas Fallace and Victoria Fantozzi (2013) (H/T Jennifer Binis)

*NOTE: From Fallace and Fantozzi: “For Callahan (1962) and Kliebard (1995), social efficiency educators diverted progressive education away from the democratic ideas of John Dewey and Harold Rugg” (p. 145). As a critical scholar of the history of education (curriculum and instruction), I think we must make distinctions between the scholarly world (philosophy and theory) and the “real world” of day-to-day education. While I agree with the claim above, I also understand that nuanced and complex philosophy/theory often finds its way into practice in reductive and distorted ways (consider “behaviorism,” “whole language,” “progressivism,” etc.). My argument here is not about the actual social efficiency movement, but that some of the elements of that movement have manifested themselves in powerful and enduring ways (consciously and unconsciously) in how we “do” education in the U.S., one of which is prioritizing “efficiency” in harmful ways. My best example, again, is standardized, multiple-choice testing.


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