The Fatal Flaws of the SoR Movement: SVR and Phonics First

States across the U.S. continue to revise and introduce new reading legislation. As well, states are updating reading standards—all of which is being strongly influenced by the “science of reading” (SoR) movement.

While the SoR movement maintains that powerful influence over policy and classroom practice, I have strongly criticized the media and marketing aspects because of central concepts that are overly simplistic and ultimately harmful for teaching and learning reading. Those key fatal flaws are a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) [1] and practicing phonics-first with beginning readers (systematic phonics for all students in K-2 that is often without context or isolated from comprehension goals).

Recently on social media, a literacy educator raised concern that proposed revised state standards in K-2 ELA do not include comprehension in foundational skills. As I commented, this is the exact problem I have been criticizing and expecting as a result of embracing SVR, an out-of-date and simplistic theory of reading (see note 1 below).

Many, if not most, SoR advocates endorse intensive systematic phonics for all students before they are expected to demonstrate comprehension; some argue K-2 students can’t comprehend. Begun several years ago, this aspect of the SoR movement has re-energized the use of DIBELS, an assessment tool that evaluates student ability to pronounce nonsense words in isolation. This nonsense is often presented as “reading,” even though simply decoding (pronunciation) words in isolation is not reading.

As I will explain later, saying students pronouncing nonsense words is reading proficiency is the same as saying children riding bicycles with training wheels are cyclists.

In short, commitments to SVR and phonics first are a distortion of goals in reading instruction, replacing the authentic goal (critical comprehension) with measuring if students have acquired the entire set of phonics rules. Phonics instruction and emphasizing decoding must remain some of the means and not the ends of instruction; however, the SoR movement too often has created that fatal flaw.

I want to examine here why these commitments are not reading science, but more significantly, why these commitments are harmful to students.

First, recently I was helping my granddaughter, Skylar, with her homework on parts of speech. See the exercise here:

I had to smile and encourage her as I quietly bled internally. This can only be described by the first word—”silly.” Not only is this isolated activity nonsense, I am certain it is ultimately harmful to emerging readers and writers.

Many of these words can function as several parts of speech once in the context of actual usage; for example, “camp” as in “We camp,” “The camp,” “A camp site,” etc.

Setting aside that many aspects of grammar and usage are intuited by proficient and expert readers (we drive our cars without being able to name all the engine parts, without having to know how to disassemble the engine, etc.), even when there is some instructional value in explicit instruction in grammar and usage, that has been shown for a century to be effective only in holistic and contextual ways.

If parts of speech matter (I suspect they don’t), help young readers and writers interrogate that in the reading of authentic texts and in their own original writing.

This essential problem is analogous to misrepresenting and overemphasizing phonics and decoding—especially when the instruction is isolated and not firmly anchored to the real goal of reading instruction, critical comprehension.

So let’s circle back to the bicycling analogy.

Using training wheels to teach children to ride a bicycle is a traditional and deeply misguided approach, one that is grounded in misreading what riding a bicycle is at its core—not the pedaling but the balancing. Therefore, balance bicycles are the better way to start.

Keep in mind one can coast on a bicycle and still be riding if the person has mastered balancing—as well as several other skills that include braking, holding a straight line, turning, and of course pedaling.

Reading is not dependent on decoding, and a child is only reading if they are making meaning from text. Just as someone can ride a bicycle by coasting, a child can read text for meaning purely by using sight word knowledge.

Yes, to be a cyclist one must eventually (and soon) master pedaling, and yes, no one reads entirely by sight word recognition (although expert readers depend on many comprehension strategies, and likely rarely use phonics rules to accomplish understanding).

And as I noted above, both proficient cyclists and proficient readers exhibit a huge array of skills simultaneously, intuitively, and independently—the ultimate goal of any instruction.

For reading instruction with beginning readers, then, systematic phonics instruction in a phonics-first setting that prioritizes pronouncing nonsense words is misguided and harmful practice.

As Stephen Krashen has shown, both systematic phonics for all students and no phonics instruction are harmful; instead, beginning readers need basic phonics combined with many other reading strategies that are all targeting critical comprehension.

Let’s think more deeply about decoding and phonics in ways I asked us to do with parts of speech. Consider asking students to pronounce “dove” and “wind” out of context, and now consider these sentences:

  • The dove dove out of the tree and scared Brees. 
  • Because of the fog, you can watch the wind wind through the valley. 

Phonics first fails in the same way as using training wheels to teach bicycling. Phonics rules provide only one skill in the complex journey to critical comprehension. And phonics is not even foundational or essential when a text includes sight words recognized by the reader.

Finally, again like riding a bicycle, becoming an independent, eager, and expert reader—one who has a large vocabulary and a complex toolbox for making meaning (including phonics)—mostly comes from doing the authentic thing—not from isolated skills instruction as a prerequisite to doing the real thing.


[1] SVR, at best, is one of the major reading theories of the late twentieth century; in my view, it is not even the most compelling. But current theories of reading have moved beyond SVR; for example, (1) according to Duke and Cartwright (2021), current theories have supplanted SVR in three ways: (a) by identifying additional reasons for struggling readers, (b) by demonstrating that rather than being sequential, pronunciation and comprehension overlap, and (c) by stressing the importance of “active self-regulation” in learning to read, and (2) according to Filderman, et al., (2022) SVR is inadequate for teaching students comprehension.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860


Beware The Reading League

In 2019, Richard Allington [1] confronted the outsized influence of state chapters of Decoding Dyslexia on state legislation and classroom practices related to not only dyslexia but also teaching beginning readers.

Ultimately, despite the good intentions of this advocacy and despite the need to address any and all students struggling to read (disproportionately among marginalized and vulnerable populations), Decoding Dyslexia advocacy has caused more harm than good, Allington and others assert.

This dynamic should give all of us pause because the same pattern is now occurring with The Reading League, a national advocacy organization promoting the “science of reading” through an expanding number of state-level affiliates.

The Reading League implores people to “join the movement” and has issued a Defining Guide on the “science of reading,” available as a book or a downloadable PDF (if you fill out a form and share a good deal of your information):

The cover page of the ebook (formatted throughout like a PowerPoint presentation) sets the stage for what proves to be more advocacy that “science” despite the emphasis on “defining” and “science.”

This 40-page ebook is a disturbing but perfect illustration of the core problems among “science of reading” advocates. As other literacy scholars have noted, all across the different factions of “science of reading” advocates, the arguments and claims are riddled with contradictions, oversimplifications, cherry-picking, and casual lapses into anecdote [2].

Similar to many other advocacy organizations masquerading as a (We Don’t) Think Tank (for example, NCTQ), The Reading League uses slick PDF creation and the veneer of scholarly citation (as well as an inordinate number of brain images) to mask the many ways this ebook fails to meet the standard they themselves set for the teaching of reading.

All must beware of The Reading League and its growing influence because this “movement” fails in the exact ways confronted by Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors (2020) in Reading Research Quarterly: “the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques” (S259). [3]

Here I will detail a few of the essential failures of The Reading League’s “movement” in their “Defining Guide.”

The organization advocates for a “common” definition of the “science of reading” and offers one on page 6 with a note to see further justifications for the limited (and limiting) parameters of that definition on page 11. In short, The Reading League is recycling the “scientifically-based” mantra of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and limiting the “science of reading” to experimental/quasi-experimental research.

While this is a popular and politically enticing approach, that limitation has been refuted for a couple decades now. Let me share just a couple reasons (see endnotes for sources) for why excluding evidence outside that parameter is wrong for education and wrong for guiding reading instruction:

  • Problems with the reports issued by the NRP and the difficulty of implementing that evidence have been widely documented by a number of literacy scholars. [4] Repeating the errors of the NRP is bad policy, bad advocacy, and bad thinking.
  • Educational practice requires a wide range of evidence, not a limited view of what counts as science. Many scholars has addressed the tyranny of using “science” as a weapon, a distortion of both the essence of “science” and the on-going nature of inquiry (hint: the science of any field, including reading science, is not settled). [5]

Another element of the limited and limiting parameters for what counts as reading “science” is an over-reliance on brain research. The defining guide implies a diversity of disciplinary sources for defining reading “science,” but their little list suggests otherwise:

The limited parameters are grounded in psychology, and brain research.

If you dont get the focus on “brain research,” the guide is there to make it clear:

Oddly, this image has no text, no citation, leaving me to wonder what the hell this is for (except this is how my brain feels when I have to engage with “science of reading” nonsense).

Here is an extremely important point: Scholars have challenged the conclusions being drawn from brain research:

Within the neurosciences, however, serious critiques of brain-imaging methods have emerged. Many researchers in neurobiology (e.g., Elliott et al., 2020; Hickok, 2014; Lyon, 2017) have voiced alarming concerns about the validity and preciseness of brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect reliable biomarkers in processes such as reading and in the diagnosis of other mental activity….

However, Elliott et al.’s (2020) statement “that commonly used task-fMRI measures lack the minimal reliability standards” (p. 801) for identifying abnormal brain activity should raise serious caveats in interpreting any imaging study as applicable to classroom applications. [6]

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

And Mark Seidenberg, a key neuroscientist cited by the “science of reading” movement, offers a serious caution about the value of brain research: “Our concern is that although reading science is highly relevant to learning in the classroom setting, it does not yet speak to what to teach, when, how, and for whom at a level that is useful for teachers [emphasis added].” [7]

Finally, the ultimate failure of the guide and the “science of reading” movement promoted by The Reading League is the reliance of the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and peppering the guide itself with surprisingly old sources (scroll through for cutting edge scholarship from the 1980s, for example).

About SVR, well, there are a number of problems addressed by leading scholars in the field of literacy. [8]

Notably, Duke and Cartwright explains that the filed of literacy has moved beyond SVR:

The simple view of reading is commonly presented to educators in professional development about the science of reading. The simple view is a useful tool for conveying the undeniable importance—in fact, the necessity—of both decoding and linguistic comprehension for reading. Research in the 35 years since the theory was proposed has revealed additional understandings about reading. In this article, we synthesize research documenting three of these advances: (1) Reading difficulties have a number of causes, not all of which fall under decoding and/or listening comprehension as posited in the simple view; (2) rather than influencing reading solely independently, as conceived in the simple view, decoding and listening comprehension (or in terms more commonly used in reference to the simple view today, word recognition and language comprehension) overlap in important ways; and (3) there are many contributors to reading not named in the simple view, such as active, self-regulatory processes, that play a substantial role in reading. We point to research showing that instruction aligned with these advances can improve students’ reading. We present a theory, which we call the active view of reading, that is an expansion of the simple view and can be used to convey these important advances to current and future educators. We discuss the need to lift up updated theories and models to guide practitioners’ work in supporting students’ reading development in classrooms and interventions.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

And, possibly more significantly, Filderman, et al., conclude:

Theoretical models, such as the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986), the direct and inferential mediation (DIME) model (Cromley et al., 2010; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and the cognitive model (McKenna & Stahl, 2009) inform the constructs and skills that contribute to reading comprehension. The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) describes reading comprehension as the product of decoding and language comprehension. The simple view of reading is often used to underscore the critical importance of decoding on reading comprehension; however, evidence suggests that the relative importance of decoding and language comprehension changes based on students’ level of reading development and text complexity (Lonigan et al., 2018). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies demonstrate that decoding has the largest influence on reading comprehension for novice readers, whereas language comprehension becomes increasingly important as students’ decoding skills develop and text becomes more complex (e.g., Catts et al., 2005; Gough et al., 1996; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Proctor et al., 2005; Tilstra et al., 2009). However, the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires. [emphasis added]

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

The Reading League “movement” is not a comprehensive view of reading and how to teach reading; it certainly isn’t settled (or even compelling) science.

Beware The Reading League because it is an advocacy movement that is too often little more than cherry-picking, oversimplification, and a thin veneer for commercial interests in the teaching of reading.


[1] Allington, R.L. (2019, Fall). The hidden push for phonics legislation. Tennessee Literacy Journal, 1(1), 7–20.

See also:

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

[2] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://newpol.org/issue_post/cryonics-phonics-inequalitys-little-helper/  

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), S255–S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145—S155. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log].

[3] 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), S255–S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

[4] Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-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

Garan, E. M. (2001, March). Beyond smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 500–506. https://doi.org/10.1177/003172170108200705

Stephens, D. (2008). The federal government wants me to teach what? A teacher’s guide to the National Reading Panel report. National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/resources/newsletter/magazine/nrp_report.pdf

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel report: Practical advice for teachers. Learning Point Associates. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489535.pdf Shanahan, T. (2003, April). Research-based reading instruction: Myths about the National Reading Panel report. The Reading Teacher, 56(7), 646–655.

[5] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119–S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

Wormeli, R. (n.d.). The problem with, “show me the research thinking.” AMLE. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.amle.org/the-problem-with-show-me-the-research-thinking/

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[6] Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119–S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

[7] Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S121. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

See also:

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

[8] Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185–S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Debt and Poverty in a Christian Nation

One reason, I think, some people shun history is that historical context can be deeply disturbing—but that context also helps illuminate a better understanding of the present.

The following example is both disturbing (nearly impossible to believe) and an apt analogy for the current debate about college loan forgiveness.

Deborah C. England offers these sobering facts about marital rape in the U.S.:

Marital rape was a term that was viewed by the law as an oxymoron until shamefully late in U.S. history. Until the 1970’s, the rape laws in every state in the union included an exception if the rapist and the victim were husband and wife. In 1993, all 50 states had finally eliminated the “marital rape exception.” But the effects of these archaic exceptions persist and interfere with spousal rape prosecutions in some states.

The History of Marital Rape Laws

Only over the last three decades have wives been allowed to pursue legal consequences for being raped in their own homes, by their spouse, and thus, far more women have lived under the specter of marital rape than not in U.S. history.

Should those women be so offended by the change in law that they resent the new (and morally justifiable) law? Should they demand that all women continue to suffer as they did?

Of course not.

That many suffered needlessly is not grounds for maintaining a wrong.

Many in the U.S. live under the burden of student loans because the U.S. has chosen not to fully fund K-16 education and has chosen to ignore predatory lending and abusive interest rates and repayment schedules.

Student debt relief is acknowledgement of a wrong—not a give-away, not a slap in the face of those who were equally wronged.


My parents were working-class Boomers who made college a clear expectation. I am quasi-first-gen since neither parent graduated college but had 1 year, Mom, and 2 years, Dad, but I was aware paying for college was a burden on my parents.

That “burden” in the late 1970s and early 1980s was semesters that cost hundreds of dollars because I attended my local state university branch, living at home over half of that time as an undergraduate. I also tutored on campus and had other jobs, mostly to fund my recreational time.

My parents were very gracious and would have contributed even more if I had asked, but I always felt guilty and tried to lessen that burden. I enrolled in the maximum hours per semester allowed to make their contribution “worth it.”

And I chose to be a high school English teacher because I felt I should complete a “practical” degree and have a career. English, even in the early 1980s, was viewed as a “useless” degree—although my heart always longed to be a “straight” English major, as the rhetoric of my college years went.

My parents never told me what major to pursue, but I felt it was the right thing to do to honor their sacrifices. I graduated as an undergraduate in December and couldn’t find full-time teaching until the next fall.

That was a very hard time with lots of tension because I worried I wasn’t going to be able to follow through with the right thing. I was living at home and struggling to secure part-time work, including being a substitute teacher that spring and starting my MEd immediately.

My teaching career began in the fall of 1984 in the high school where I graduated in 1979. I taught over a decade and continued to cobble together graduate courses on top of my MEd until I entered a doctoral program in 1995. I took out one $6000 loan throughout my grad experience from 1984 – 1998.

And my school district reimbursed tuition for one graduate course a semester along the way.

I taught full time as a high school teacher, was an adjunct at several local colleges, and completed my EdD simultaneously—while married and with a young daughter. These were very tense and overwhelming years of continuing to do the right thing into my late 30s.

I cannot get past that much of these experiences were about “burdens” on my parents, me, and my family. I missed a lot, including my daughter scoring 6 goals one Saturday morning in recreational soccer while I sat in my 6-hour graduate course 90 miles away.

I want to add “unnecessary” to “burdens” because the US is a mostly hateful people, not meeting the label of “Christian Nation,” who think this sort of suffering is a good thing.

It isn’t.

All this to say—there should be no student debt and K-16 education should be fully publicly funded.

Regardless or especially because of those who have survived the horrible system we have created and allowed.


Many in the U.S., especially conservatives and libertarians, love to talk about choice, and that overlaps significantly with those who claim the U.S. is a Christian Nation.

The backlash over forgiving student loans is proof that both are veneers, essentially lies and distractions.

So in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, I, a humanist and non-Christian, want to leave you all with a little reading, a meditation of sorts (emphasis mine in bold):

15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward themRather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they needBe careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Deuteronomy 15: 1-11

So it goes.

Rank: Having a foul or offensive smell

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.

Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.

The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

Once again, our schools are ranked 46th out of the 51 public school systems, according to the website WalletHub.

Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.

Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Where is the accountability for student learning?

Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.

W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.

The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.

If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?

Do they not see failing as a bad thing?

The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.

To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.

In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.

I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.

JAMES DANIELS

Lake City

Why does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?

There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.

The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.

The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”

But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.

Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:

At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:

Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.

Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.

There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).

But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.

Recommended

Brief: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

Howard Zinn: August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn was born 100 years ago today, and I cite, quote, and draw inspiration from his work often. My public work and scholarship are grounded in one of Zinn’s central concepts:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

In 2022, Zinn’s radical confrontation of the past and present as well as his steadfast commitment to activism is urgently needed.

See the Zinn Education Project and a couple posts of mine below:

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure Post-Vergara

REVISED: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)

Published 2022

The twenty-first century Reading War is, in fact, nothing new, but some of the details are unique to our current culture driven by social media. This volume seeks to examine the current Reading War in the context of the historical recurrence of public and political debates around student reading abilities and achievement.

Grounded in a media fascination with the “science of reading” and fueled by a rise in advocates for students with dyslexia, the current Reading War has resulted in some deeply troubling reading policy, grade retention and intensive phonics programs.

This primer for parents, policy makers, and people who care confronts some of the most compelling but misunderstood aspects of teaching reading in the U.S. while also offering a way toward ending the Reading War in order to serve all students, regardless of their needs.

The revised/expanded 2nd edition adds developments around the “science of reading,” including the expanding impact on state policy and legislation as well as robust additions to the research base around teaching students to read.

CONTENTS
Introduction: Parent Advocacy and the New (but Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading. Acknowledgments. CHAPTER 1: A Historical Perspective of the Reading War: 1940s and 1990s Editions. CHAPTER 2: The 21st Century Reading War: “The Science of Reading,” Dyslexia, and Misguided Reading Policy. CHAPTER 3: Misreading Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. CHAPTER 4: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions About Literacy. CHAPTER 5: The “Science of Reading” in 2022, and Beyond: Not Simple, Not Settled. Conclusion: The Science of Literacy—A 5-Decades Journey and Counting. Appendix A: Recommended Reading. Appendix B: Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”—A Quick Guide for Teachers.

Looking Back to Understand “Science of Reading” and Censorship: Lou LaBrant 1936-1949 [Updated]

One of the most important aspects of understanding any issue or field of knowledge, I think, is to have nuanced historical perspective. That is vividly true about education and especially reading.

The current reading crisis, often referred to as the “science of reading” movement, and the incredibly chilling impact of curriculum bans, book censorship, and attacks on teaching and learning are not, I regret to emphasize, all that new (except the degree of the bans are in many ways unprecedented).

I am currently working on completing my online annotated bibliography of Lou LaBrant, and offer below some historical perspective on teaching reading and why censorship is always wrong for education and democracy.

Access my blog post on each work by clicking the hyperlink in the essay titles; many of her publications can also be accessed through JSTOR (links at end of bibliographies when available). I am including memes of key passages from LaBrant with the recommended works below.


Witty, P.A., & LaBrant, L.L. (1936, June). Aims and methods in reading instructionEducational Trends, 5-9, 18.

LaBrant, L. (1939). The relations of language and speech acquisitions to personality development. In P.A. Witty & C.E. Skinner (Eds.), Mental hygiene in modern education (pp. 324-352). Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), 289-291. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20330759

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

LaBrant, L. (1943, March). Our changing program in languageJournal of Educational Method, 21(6), 268-272.

Witty, P., & LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching the people’s language. Hinds, Hayden, & Eldredge, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

LaBrant, L. (1949, January). A little list. English Journal, 38(1), 37–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/808110

Misreading Innocence in Teaching and Learning

Back to school 2022 looks different than any of my many years as a student and even more as a teacher. “Back to school” now means curriculum bans for teachers and censorship for students.

It’s the Upside Down of the American Dream and academic freedom.

One recurring (and misleading) justification by Republicans banning curriculum and censoring books is a manufactured crisis around “age-appropriate” content; however, several Republicans have also directly begun including in their claims that the role of school and teachers is to protect childhood innocence:

As a parent, grandparent, and almost 40-years a teacher, I want to emphasize that the role any adult plays in mentoring, parenting, or teaching children is not to protect their innocence (more on why later), but to provide support and guidance as children mature and come to know the full, complicated, and often disturbing real world.

To keep a child or teen innocent is to deny them their full humanity and autonomy.

As a reader and teacher of literature, I am aware of the power and allure of idealizing innocence.

Setting aside for a moment the tremendous problems with author J.D. Salinger, his career was built on a nearly fawning adoration of his central motif, the “catcher in the rye” imagery of Holden Caulfield’s quest to protect his sister’s (and all children’s) innocence because he clearly has been traumatized by his entry into the adult world.

Author Eudora Welty praised Salinger as a writer in her review of Nine Stories in 1953:

The stories concern children a good deal of the time, but they are God’s children. Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence, and starts with innocence: from there it can penetrate a full range of relationships, follow the spirit’s private adventure, inquire into grave problems gravely–into life and death and human vulnerability and into the occasional mystical experience where age does not, after a point, any longer apply. Mr. Salinger’s world urban, suburban, family, mostly of the Eastern seaboard is never a clue to the way he will treat it: he seems to write without preconception of shackling things.

Threads of Innocence

Like Salinger (and nearly as problematic as a human), e.e. cummings idealized childhood and seemed to lament adulthood: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.” Like many writers and artists throughout history, cummings portrayed childhood innocence as being closer to God (or the Universe); adulthood is a forgetting.

Both of these authors were attractive to me as a young writer, teacher, and even scholar, but the most compelling work about innocence was always William Blake, who complicated the innocence/experience dynamic. Blake’s work shows the necessary duality of life without idealizing innocence—even as he detailed the darkness of experience.

What is innocence?

It is a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge, the absence of living life that is idealized not only in literature but in Christianity—the fall from grace, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, being cast out of the idyllic innocence of the Garden of Eden.

But innocence is extremely dangerous, and the innocent are easily manipulated, easily controlled.

And here is the truth about curriculum bans and book censorship: Republicans, conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists are primarily concerned about control—especially controlling women and children.

There is no crisis in our schools concerning exposing children and teens to content and books that are not age appropriate. If anything, traditional schooling still coddles children and teens—and especially young adults.

Protecting the innocence of children is not a valid goal for teachers or schooling; protecting the innocence of children is cruel and dehumanizing, in fact.

But that is not what Republicans are concerned about.

This is pure and simple a power grab, a way to control minds and impose a worldview on others.

Welcome to the Upside Down of the American Dream.


Recommended

Experimentalism and its relation to a new psychology (1935), Witty and LaBrant

Black Widow Underestimated: “I Reap What I Sow”

[NOTE: This is the next installment of a series begun at Comics Bookcase, which has made some changes; therefore, I am completing the series here, with this and then two final posts. I also hope to develop these posts into a book proposal because I think Black Widow deserves a deep dive into how the character has been underestimated (and hypersexualized) throughout Marvel’s less-than-adequate handling of the character.]


After Nathan Edmondson, writer, and Phil Noto, artist, set the bar very high in v.5 of Black Widow—avoiding the pitfalls of underestimating and hypersexualizing her—another all-star team took over with v.6, Chris Samnee handling pencils and co-writing with Mark Waid. This reboot repeats many aspects of previous volumes: a Daredevil team trying their hands at Natasha Romanov and portraying Natasha as possibly disloyal because of the ghosts of her abusive past that cannot be exorcized.

Yet, Samnee and Waid maintain the momentum set by Edmondson and Noto, especially with a visually compelling 12-issue run that also does not stoop to focusing on exposed cleavage and Black Widow bound by chains or rope.

A couple covers do involve Black Widow embraced—although these portrayals fit well into the tone and imagery of the run without reducing Black Widow’s agency as a character and a woman.

Covers for issue 002 and 009 feature Black Widow embraced. Pencil by Chris Samnee and ink by Matthew Wilson.

Enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Again?)

Issue 001 opens with dynamic action and panels; Samnee (pencil and ink) and Wilson (colors) set the tone for the series by centering Black Widow’s athleticism and intelligence. However, once again, readers are in for another exploration of Natasha’s trustworthiness and how damaged she remains because of the trauma of her childhood training as an assassin.

Samnee and Wilson build to Black Widow’s dramatic escape in the opening pages of issue 001 in v.6, highlighting Samnee’s panel designs and Wilson’s brilliant coloring.

Similar to Noto, Samnee carries the narrative through textless panels and creates a film effect for much of the volume. After her dramatic escape from S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha finds her foe for the volume in issue 002, Weeping Lion, and is again threatened with having her deepest secrets revealed. In many ways the focus of this series feels overworked already, but visually Samnee and Wilson maintain a compelling narrative.

Samnee and Waid also craft a smart approach to old topics because they clearly honor the complexity of Natasha/Black Widow as a rich and complicated human as well as superhero.

Once again, Black Widow finds herself bound and threatened in issue 002, but Samnee and Waid never stumble into the hypersexualized and reductive patterns in early volumes.

Instead of focusing on Natasha’s exposed body, Samnee depicts Black Widow in the context of images as a ballerina through the use of pastel colors and emphatic shading. As well, Natasha remains physically vulnerable, often battered, stabbed, and brought to exhaustion through a relentless parade of battles for her life.

A perfect scene for Natasha/Black Widow, in fact, in issue 003 involves her being stitched up in a flashback mixed in with her actual return to the Catacombs in the Red Room Academy. Natasha is told: “It will scar, which is good. A scar is not the mark of a mistake made, Natasha. It’s another lesson.”

Natasha as Black Widow is a life lived among scars, pain, and seemingly lessons that never end.

Issue 003 offers powerful uses of pastels—blues, pinks—contrasted with black shade and faded images.

Natasha is badly wounded and finds the help of Iosef in issue 004. Caught between the Weeping Lion and S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha must secure the tools, old weapons from Iosef, to confront the Headmistress and Recluse in the Dark Room Academy, a replacement of the Red Room Academy, where young girls continue to be trained as assassins like Natasha was.

Samnee and Waid use parallel narratives—present and flashback—and motifs well despite this being overworked ground with Black Widow. The issues continue to be visually dynamic and compelling, breathing life into stories and conflicts we have read again and again.

Natasha and Iosef are one of the better pairings used in Black Widow series, at times playful but absent the empty sexual banter and tension too often present in Natasha’s relationship with men.

Issue 004 also highlights the power of images, the use of color and dynamic paneling, and either textless or sparse-text full-page spreads. Samnee gives this volume the same presence and visual weight that Noto provided in v.5.

The use of blue on this full-page panel and the simple “Well, damn” captures the vastness of Nastasha living in the present while continuing to fight the past.

The Arc of Black Widow’s Universe

After parallel stabbings—from her past and in the present, returning to the Catacombs—Natasha confronts the Red Room Headmistress and Recluse, complicating the main narrative involving S.H.I.E.L.D. and Weeping Lion. After recovering with Iosef’s help, Natasha moves to her mission to recover intel for Weeping Lion, which goes wrong, dramatically and violently with S.H.I.E.L.D. involved. The lingering question of Natasha’s loyalty is left in the balance.

The next test is Tony Stark/Iron Man joining issue 006, mixed with another flashback of Natasha’s life as a ruthless assassin. The Stark scene shows Natasha manipulating Stark: “Makeup and acting, Tony. You’ve always been a sucker for both. Thanks for the access.”

The “former lover” motif is a return to a pattern found in many Black Widow series; however, Samnee and Waid insert a power shift and portray Stark as the weaker of the two instead of hypersexualizing or reducing Natasha to stereotypes that do not suite her character.

The access she secures leads to Natasha discovering that Weeping Lion is part of a duo, including the telepath brother Ilija Knezevic in issue 006. Black Widow now turns the focus of the plot to her confronting the Headmistress and Recluse to rescue the girls from the Dark Room.

“No one gets into my head unless I let them,” Natasha informs Ilija Knezevic after turning Stark’s weapon on him. “And I rarely let them.”

Possibly the perfect tagline for Natasha/Black Widow is found in issue 006: “I reap what I sow.”

In issue 007, “No More Secrets,” readers witness a truly violent and disturbing flashback that centers both this series and Natasha/Black Widow by alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Natasha as a child assassin was supremely dedicated to her mission, a sort of moral code that is graphically displayed in the flashbacks depicting cold and calculated violence even in the face of innocence, notably other children—more of the weight of Natasha reaping what she has sown.

Issue 007 forces the reader to consider “justice” but also reveals the moral tension of the assassin’s mandate to leave no witnesses.

Natasha, the duo that is Weeping Lion, the Headmistress, and Recluse are all entangled by the end of issue 007 in a web of violence and an urge to seek justice warped by revenge and under the dark cloud of their pasts because Natasha failed to follow the full mandate of her assassin’s creed. After Headmistress’s death, Natasha claims, “…her mother did just die. I am not a monster.” The issue ends with Knezevic’s ominous, “Right.”

Issue 008 involves current-day child assassins in the White House with Natasha undercover. When the child assassins are exposed, Natasha confronts the girl calling herself “Death” with “You have been programmed for as long as you can remember. I know this. I was too.” Natasha adds that the Headmistress made her a “living weapon.”

Here, an important question about who is culpable and for how long when the actions are extreme, but the person is only a child, a child behaving in ways that they have been indoctrinated to believe and act upon.

Black Widow seeking to save these child assassins foreshadows later issues with Bucky Barnes involving tensions of savior and sacrifice.

The killing of Iosef in issue 009 adds to Natasha’s fear of death in the wake of anyone knowing her, and sets up her confrontation with Recluse, who has captured Bucky Barnes. Natsha chastises Barnes for wanting to protect her, but Barnes has another mission, bringing Black Widow to Nick Fury, now The Unseen.

On the moon in issue 010, Black Widow, Weeping Lion (telepath), and Bucky meet Fury/The Unseen. This dense issue includes the death of the telepath, a child assassin stowaway, and a familiar plot element, Natasha demanding that she be sacrificed: “My turn…to be the savior.”

Paneling and color continue to stand out as some of the most powerful work on v.6.

In the final two issues, Natasha must subvert the plan of a group of child assassins, charged with destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. and eventually confront Recluse.

The determination and skill of Natsha/Black Widow are highlighted in v.6.

The series ends with a climactic battle between Black Widow and Recluse, displaying some of Samnee’s finest work. The issue is also well written by Samnee/Waid as the plot builds to Natasha surrounded by the child assassins stating to Recluse, “I remain a better fighter than you. But a lesser assassin.”

Here is Natasha as savior without being sacrificed.

Yet, when all is said and done (including another scene with Stark), Natasha is asked to confront that her “lone wolf act” doesn’t mean she is alone. To that, Natasha agrees to “come in out of the cold.”

Samnee and Waid’s run on Black Widow fulfills the message of the universe bending toward justice, at least momentarily, at least for some.

Regretfully, Marvel abandons Black Widow again, until v.7 in 2019, a brief 5-issue run that regresses to early, weaker runs and breaks the excellent momentum created by Edmondson/Noto and Samnee/Waid.

Noto variant covers for v.6.