Peter Greene, former teacher and one of the best public thinkers about education today, found this Tweet “familiar” as a veteran of education reform debates:

Greene and I share long careers in education and the mind-numbing experience of rebuking education reform claims and policies over the last few decades. Education reform, in fact, has followed the exact path Richard Sever warns against in his Tweet.

While some of the larger aspects of the education reform movement that began after A Nation at Risk was released under Ronald Reagan have sputtered—charter schools, Teach For America, standards and high-stakes testing, stack ranking and value-added methods for teacher evaluation—the reform du jour is focused on reading.

Since the mid- to late 2010s—specifically 2018—the science of reading (SOR) movement has been driven by media and parental advocacy, resulting in new or revised reading legislation in dozens of states across the U.S. [1]

The problem is that political leaders are disproportionately influenced by inexpert advocacy such as Emily Hanford’s journalism and parent organizations for dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia).

Journalists and parents often share missionary zeal for topics, especially issues related to education, but lack historical, disciplinary, and statistical expertise to see clearly both the very real failures in education and the complex solutions that are needed.

Are too many students being mis-served as emerging readers in our schools, as media claim? Yes!

Is the current education system failing to identify and serve students with reading challenges, including dyslexia, as parents claim? Yes!

None the less, media and parental evidence, claims, and demands for solutions are mostly jumbled, misleading, and not scientific.

And the really bad news is that political leaders and the public receive almost exclusively the misleading messaging from media and parent advocates, but not the high-quality scholarship that debunks the claims and offers more credible and needed solutions.

For example, Hanford’s “Hard Words” and Decoding Dyslexia’s advocacy are both compelling on the surface, especially to the general public and political leaders with no background in education or literacy.

Hanford triggered the SOR movement by highlighting the claimed outlier success of schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania linked to a phonics-intensive program and increased test scores, for example:

This arguments fits into the larger education reform narrative started decades ago—that poverty is an excuse (and thus the “no excuses” reform movement) and that simply changing how we teach students can increase achievement (in-school only reform absent social change).

As those of us in education have witnessed since the 1980s, this argument is very compelling to the public and political leaders, and it is completely false.

“Miracle” schools, in fact, do not exist. [2]

The problem with media covering education miracles is that the basic evidence is both accurate and deeply misleading.

Because of pressures to raise test scores during the accountability era of education, many educators and policy makers have found ways to raise scores, but those test score gains are mostly weak forms of assessment (do they really measure what they claim?) and those gains often disappear over time (see the Florida model that uses grade retention to raise scores [3]).

To the first concern—are the test scores measuring reading?—those of us in the field of literacy recognized that the test data is from DIBELS, a phonics-intensive program that teaches and then measures students’ ability to pronounce real and nonsense words.

In other words, this test defines reading as “pronunciation”—not comprehension, which intensive phonics instruction does not increase [4] and which, in most cases, is what we mean when we are concerned about “reading.”

Therefore, yes, these schools did raise pronunciation test scores among high-poverty students, but no, this is not a reading miracle.

And to the second concern—are increased test scores real, sustained learning over time?—Gerald Coles investigated and discovered:

As I noted above, follow-up studies on the effects of early phonics programs have failed to find long-term benefits on reading achievement. Therefore, I wrote to two administrators in the Bethlehem schools, asking for information about the students’ reading ability in later grades. Neither replied to my request. Consequently, I used the publicly available Pennsylvania reading/language arts tests results, which provided scores for Bethlehem schools. By these measures, the reading achievement for students in SBSL early-reading program either stayed the same as students who had not used the program in previous years or else made only very modest improvement….

[T]here is Hanover Elementary school, where only 15.6 percent of students qualify for free or discounted lunch. There the impact of students’ economic circumstances was clearly in the opposite direction: About 85 percent of its students—virtually the same percentage as lunch standards—met the reading/language arts standards both before and after the introduction of SBSL program. Similar parallels between the beginning reading skills program and literacy outcomes can be found for all other Bethlehem schools.

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

Like almost all the “miracle” claims before this—often among charter school advocates—Bethlehem, PA is a mirage, not a miracle.

But this misrepresentation is typical of media coverage of SOR in that journalists advocate for “science” but use “anecdotes” as their evidence. In short, Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors conclude: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.”[5]

Parental advocacy has the same problems as media advocacy, as represented by the Decoding Dyslexia movement. Richard Allington has detailed that Decoding Dyslexia is both highly effective in advocating for dyslexia legislation while also being misinformed about the complexity of dyslexia, a highly contested diagnosis within the fields of literacy and special needs.

Parents advocating for struggling readers is grounded in a valid concern. However, recent overviews of the research on dyslexia and the International Literacy Association (ILA) have clearly detailed the following: (1) no clear definition for identifying dyslexia exists, (2) no one instructional approach is appropriate for all students identified with dyslexia (including Orton-Gillingham phonics or systematic phonics for all students), (3) universal screen for dyslexia is likely to cause more harm than good, and (4) teacher expertise and autonomy are essential for teaching any students struggling to read.

Yet, parents advocating for dyslexia endorse policy and practices counter to that research while also likely greatly overestimating the number of students who should be identified as dyslexic.

The irony of the SOR movement promoted by media and parental advocacy is that it is significantly out of touch with the evidence, the research, and the science.

The media and parents certainly can and should play a role in monitoring how well our education system teaches reading and serves the needs of all students. But neither the media or parents are credible advocates for identifying either the problems or the solutions around reading achievement.

Media and parents demonstrate both the hubris Richard Sever warned about in his Tweet and the tragic flaw of hubris portrayed in literature for eons. The expertise and humility that come with understanding the complexity of science and research, it seems, is far more important than good intentions and the sort of arrogance that comes from never having thought long and deeply about an issue.


[1] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policymakers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/literacy

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2241

[2] Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo (Eds.), Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA (pp. 223-232). Charlotte, NC: IAP.

[3] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22n18.2014

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis.

[4] From Coles:

Based on the research on phonics in previous decades, cited in the Report of the National Reading Panel, these results should not be surprising. The conclusions of one study on phonics and similar word-level training represents the overall findings on intensive phonics instruction: Benefits for “reading comprehension were not significant” (Reading the Naked Truth, 92). A recent analysis by literacy researcher Jeff McQuillin drew similar conclusions from a large-scale study in England.20 Once again, “phonics instruction has a modest effect on initial literacy levels, but little to no impact on reading achievement in later grades.”

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

[5] Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S259. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

See also Hanford’s misleading claims about Mississippi as another false SOR “miracle.”