POEM: we sleep (a restless night in new york)

we sleep
as if we
are forgetters

and then we dream

sometimes about ghosts

but mostly
that we are humans
who dream and remember

—P.L. Thomas

NOTE: My original poetry will now be posted here, but please find my poetry-only blog here for older poems.

POEM: grounded (these lies you must come to terms with)

did they tell you
the feathers are merely ornamental?

that’s to keep you from trying

that's to keep you from flying

grounded
ground into dust

•

did they tell you
you are no bird—

or of course
we need the babies?

need you overfull
weighted down

•

these lies
you must carry

these lies
you must come to terms with

—P.L. Thomas

NOTE: My original poetry will now be posted here, but please find my poetry-only blog here for older poems.

POEM: the last rest area in Missouri (this trail of me)

I guess I’ve always been a delicate man

“Lemonworld,” The National
i tiptoe through your garden
but it is dark
so there will be carnage

i should have done this barefoot
and in the daylight
i realize stepping blindly

then i could feel and see
this trail of me
my silent destructions

(other people would just tapdance on your heart
or carelessly bloody your shins
ruthless and graceless)

in the morning you will find me surefooted
knees caked in mud
my head resting apologetically against your back door

—P.L. Thomas

NOTE: My original poetry will now be posted here, but please find my poetry-only blog here for older poems.

Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War

My partner and I took two of my grandchildren—Brees, 6, a kindergartener, and Skylar, 8, a third-grader—to a local high school football game where their father is an assistant coach.

As we were leaving, Brees said “Dorman” as we passed a sign for the school. My partner asked if he read the word, he explained he remembered “Dorman” starts with a “D” and ends with an “N” so he made a contextualized, and correct guess.

We praised him, and then he proceeded to spell “Dorman” with brief hesitations—”D,” “O,” “R,” “M,” “E,” “N.” My partner told him he did a great job and that he was nearly perfect, but the final vowel is “A,” although the “E” was a reasonable choice considering how the word is pronounced (especially here in the South).

I think about these children, beginning and emerging readers both, often as I continue to challenge the reductive current reading war driven by the “science of reading” movement. I have written about Skylar, an eager reader, and included both children on the cover of the second edition of my book about that reading war:

Brees demonstrated the value of having a wide and deep toolbox for reading for meaning, and represents, I think, the real-world value of seeking context and clues beyond simple decoding and reliance on phonics (although both are, of course, part of that toolbox). Ultimately, the key to his reading “Dorman” was experiential—having visited the school and having seen the word on clothes, etc., with his father.

And while this reading war leaves me nearly drained from frustration—and even angry—I am possibly more concerned about the other reading war. That reading war is the rise of censorship by parents and elected Republicans as well as the self-censorship occurring in our schools, self-censorship that is often nearly invisible but eroding literacy and academic freedom.

To paraphrase John Dewey and add a bit of attitude, why the hell are we concerned about teaching children to read if we are bound and determined to erase books and meaningful texts from their hands?

Traditionally, we have implemented in schools two approaches that I reject—whole class assigning and studying of texts (often limited to a very narrow canon) and allowing parents to opt their children out of those assignments.

My frustration with those practices now seems very naive since the new normal is that any single parent can have books and texts banned not just for their children, but for all children. And unlike the occasional complaint I experienced when teaching high school, states have passed book bans and curriculum censorship—exclusively by Republicans—all across the U.S.

I spent a few days this past week in Flatbush/Brooklyn, and while walking around, passed the Brooklyn Public Library just after sunset:

There is no way to justify book bans or censorship—not by Republicans, not by parents, and especially not by educators, the most vile actors in this movement.

There are books and ideas I genuinely loathe, such as the so-called novels of Ayn Rand. I criticize them, and would never encourage anyone to read them, but I would fight to make sure they are on book shelves of school and public libraries and in books stores, that anyone has access to them, that everyone has access to them.

“Coward” seems too mild a word, in fact.

But, yes, people who ban books, people who censor are cowards, and our children as well as academic freedom are the collateral damage in this senseless and UnAmerican reading war.

Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

Increasingly, this is how students are being assessed in classrooms, but also in standardized tests of “reading,” often as evidence that the “science of reading” works (see Coles for a thorough examination of how the media and schools make this misleading claim [1]).

This approach is grounded in DIBELS [2], an assessment of nonsense words, but many reading programs that are phonics-first and phonics-intensive now incorporate having students pronounce nonsense words and promote the programs as the “science of reading” and/or “structured literacy.”

Structured Literacy

Structured literacy describes a scripted approach to teaching reading that requires uniform instruction. It may include the following: scripted lessons, systematic phonics (including programs such as Orton-Gillingham [59] ), decodable texts, [60] prescribed reading instruction for all students based on the needs of struggling students, structured literacy reading programs, and strict requirements for program compliance. [61] Structured literacy draws from cognitive psychology, brain research, and neuroscience, although literacy researchers caution there is still much to learn about the brain and learning to read. [62]

While proponents of competing theories all claim research support, there is general agreement that the evidence-based literature presents at least three consistent and compelling conclusions: Reading is a complex process consisting of a wide range of skills and strategies; culture and experience impact learning to read; and student needs change as they develop reading proficiency. [63]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Several problems exists with this new emphasis on systematic phonics and phonics-first instruction (devoid of comprehension). First, focusing on strict rules of phonics and using nonsense words teaches young readers that mere pronunciation is reading (which it isn’t) and allows overly simplistic definitions to feed overly simplistic (and misleading) assessments.

And that leads to a second problem—raising scores on basic pronunciation of words, especially nonsense words that are designed to meet the simplistic rules being taught, is much easier to do than to teach and assess comprehension. Notably, raising these scores is even easier once other policies are in place, such as the harmful but effective use of grade retention.

Current examples of reading “miracles” (such as Mississippi from 2019; see here) are mirages; the score gains are distortions of data and the assessments are simply not measuring reading (again, they are measuring a very reduced type of pronunciation devoid meaning).

The greatest problem, however, is that the current nonsense word focus significantly misrepresents what the reading science shows about systematic phonics:

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

Although phonics is only one essential aspect of reading, many researchers emphasize the importance of systematic phonics instruction for beginning and struggling readers. Research on the direct impact of phonics on reading comprehension is complicated because many approaches to phonics exist—from synthetic or analytic phonics [68] and systematic phonics programs (such as Orton-Gillingham) to phonics instruction embedded in holistic instruction [69] (such as whole language and balanced literacy [70]).

In short, research on the importance of phonics instruction is clear, but there is much less clarity about what type of phonics to teach and how much direct instruction students need or when. [71] There is consensus that proficient readers have strong phonics knowledge, but how that occurs (through direct instruction, reading, or both) remains a point of debate.

One recent overview of 12 meta-analyses [72] of the effectiveness of systematic phonics concluded that systematic phonics instruction for all students was no more effective than whole language or balanced literacy approaches. This analysis raises concerns about conducting research comparing competing instructional reading practices and recommends that policy-makers seek additional approaches to reading instruction. [73] As noted earlier, a 2022 analysis of England’s shift to systematic phonics concluded that the new phonics-first approach was not as effective as a “balanced” approach to reading instruction. [74]

Recent research on systematic or direct phonics instruction continues to show effectiveness in children pronouncing real and nonsense words (notably in Grade 1), but less effectiveness in promoting comprehension, especially in kindergarten or for readers in later grades. [75] Instead of systematic phonics, reading amount and comprehension instruction are more effective or at least as important as phonics for fostering comprehension and learning to read. [76]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is oversimplifying the messages the public, parents, and political leaders receive concerning how to teach reading, what counts as reading, and how to assess reading.

Learning to read is complex, and unique to each student; thus, teaching reading is also complex and somewhat haphazard. Ideally, formal schooling in reading should foster reading over many years, recognizing that individual students will progress at different rates.

Yes, we want eager and skilled readers, and we should work purposefully to provide all students the experiences they need to learn both the enjoyment of reading and the power of critical literacy. And yes, skilled critical readers have decoding skills, content knowledge, and a number of inter-related strategies for making meaning from text and other communication signals (we “read” icons all across our technology devices, for example).

But for many of us who are skilled readers, we have gained all those skills from reading, not from doing isolated, decontextualized, and nonsense practice instead of reading.

Pronouncing nonsense words is complete nonsense, and even worse, it is not reading—but it is wasting valuable teaching and learning time that every student deserves, time better spent with meaningful experiences with real words and real texts.


Notes

[1] Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3).

[2] The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is – What It Does, Ken Goodman


59  “Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that was adopted by the International Dyslexia Association to refer to the many programs (like Orton-Gillingham) that teach reading by following the evidence and research behind the Science of Reading. Programs that exemplify the components and methods that are outlined in the term, Structured Literacy, have been found to be beneficial for all students and essential for students who struggle with reading.” Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

60  See, for example, The Reading League. (2022). Decodable text sources. Reading Rockets. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/decodable-text-sources

61  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

62  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from 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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from 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.

63  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348


70  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

71  Brooks, G. (2022, July 18). Current debates over the teaching of phonics. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/ acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-1543

Yelland, N. (2020, August 19). Phoney phonics: How decoding came to rule reading lost meaning. Teachers College Record. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://foundationforlearningandliteracy.info/wp-content/ uploads/2020/09/Phoney-Phonics.pdf

72  “Meta-analysis is the statistical combination of results from two or more separate studies.” See Deeks, J.J., Higgins, J.P.T., & Altman, D.G. (2022). Chapter 10: Analysing data and undertaking meta-analyses. Cochrane Training. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://training.cochrane.org/handbook/current/ chapter-10

73  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

74  Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

75  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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x

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 Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Pearson, P.D. (2019, October 12). What research really says about teaching reading—and why that still matters [Video]. International Literacy Association 2019 Conference. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https:// ila.digitellinc.com/ila/sessions/123/view

Wyse, D. & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

76  Allington, R.L., & McGill-Franzen. (2021). Reading volume and reading achievement: A review of recent research. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S231-S238. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.404

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 Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

August 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]

State Reading Policy: An Overview

In the 2000s, the National Reading Panel (NPR) report and the reports from its subgroups[1] were adopted into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, mandating scientifically based instruction[2] and establishing a framework for how reading should be taught in the U.S.—what is often identified as the Five Pillars of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.[3]

However, only two decades later, the U.S. is facing another reading “crisis” along with an increase in state-level reading legislation and policy being revised or introduced.[4] The current movement is often the result of advocacy by parents concerned about dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia[5]) and media coverage of the “science of reading.”[6] That advocacy and media messaging have been incredibly effective in terms of driving legislation and policy; however, many literacy scholars and researchers have noted the media-based movement exaggerates and oversimplifies claims about reading, science, and research; depends on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and creates a hostile social media climate around reading debates.[7]

A summer 2022 analysis by Education Week shows that at least 30 states have passed revised or new reading legislation in the past decade and 2/3rd of those states includes grade retention policies.[8] Over that decade, state-level reading policies and practices include the following:

  • Legislation focusing on reading proficiency by 3rd grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing.[9]
  • Commercial reading programs being banned at the state level and re-evaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices targeting dyslexia, including universal screening and mandates for systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham[10]).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics in teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.[11]

Two aspects of this reading “crisis” and subsequent legislation and policy are important for all policy makers in states across the U.S.: (1) Continuing to follow the same in-school only policy approaches to education and reading[12] are destined to fail again,[13] and (2) several elements of the “science of reading” movement are contradictory and even harmful for students.[14]

Below, this examination focuses on grade retention as reading policy, highlighting the complicated impact of grade retention on reading achievement (specifically standardized test scores) as well as the disproportionate negative impact of retention on vulnerable populations of students (racial minorities, multilingual learners, students identified as at-risk, high poverty, below reading proficiency, etc.)

Grade Retention as Reading Policy

As noted earlier, grade retention as reading policy is relatively common and expanding across the U.S.:

The “science of reading” movement has increased state policies mandating grade retention based on high stakes testing, copycat versions of the post-NCLB “Florida model,” despite evidence suggesting that retention remains harmful.[15] Media have presented increased standardized test scores in Mississippi (see an examination of Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores below) as proof of the effectiveness of reading science reforms,[16] although it is likely, as Todd Collins for Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains, that Mississippi’s high retention rate[17] and not classroom instruction reform is the primary source of the score increases. Evidence since the mid-2000s confirms grade retention can increase test scores short-term, but the long-term impact is negative, since grade retention remains associated with students dropping out of high school.[18]

Because of short-term reading score increases, grade retention policy remains politically compelling for policy makers because high-profile research is covered in the media and used by advocates to impact policy change based on standardized reading scores.[19] Yet, policy makers must be cautious because research has not yet clarified if those increases are caused by retention or other policies impacting retained students: “This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services”; reviews of short-term gains continue to show that they fade over time and that negative consequences of grade retention (like eventually dropping out of school) remain.[20]

Ultimately, grade retention increasing 3rd and 4th grade standardized test scores is likely a statistical mirage (notably since evidence shows those gain disappear by middle school). That mirage is likely the result of how grade retention changes the population of students being tested by

(1) removing students likely to score low from the testing pool (students retained in 3rd grade would not be in their peer testing pool in 4th grade) and

(2) creating a population of students to be tested when at least one year biologically older than the pool being testing (once those retained in 3rd grade are promoted to 4th grade).

Since grade retention as reading policy is unlikely to produce valid increases in reading proficiency among students and since grade retention remains strongly associated with negative outcomes for students (dropping out of high school, for example), policy makers are strongly encouraged to eliminate grade retention mandates based on standardized test scores in grade 3 as identified by a Resolution from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.[21]

What about Mississippi?

While a high-profile article in the New York Times suggested a Mississippi reading “miracle” based on 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores,[22] that conclusion was greatly misleading and incomplete. However, a closer and more nuanced look at Mississippi provides a valuable understanding for current policy makers concerned about reading legislation and policy.

First, as noted above by Collins, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores are significantly impacted by grade retention, and policy makers must acknowledge that grade retention disproportionately impacts vulnerable student populations (see NCTE Resolution), for example:

[SOURCE: Civil Rights Data Collection, USDOE]

Table 1 shows that, specifically for example, Black students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention. Numbers of students retained and that disproportion are strong indicators of the harm and punitive impact of grade retention.

Further, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for grade 4 were outliers compared to the rest of the U.S, that outlier status suggests that Mississippi may not be a valid source of scaling up reform for other states. Nonetheless, Mississippi’s longitudinal data, since 1998,[23] suggests improved test data over time and well before many of the recent policies:

Although Mississippi’s policies, standards, and assessments have varied since 1998, the state has shown gradual but persistent improvement in grade 4 reading scores on NAEP. The 2019 large increase used by the “science of reading” movement to claim “miracle,” however, is not unique; see the significant increase from 2002 to 2009, occurring well before any use of the term “science of reading.”

Important to understand is that improvement in education is likely complicated to cause and difficult to link to any single practice; therefore, policy makers must be diligent about “first, do no harm” by avoiding policies that may have politically expedient outcomes at the expense of the best interest of students and teachers. The relative increase and success by Mississippi in 2019 when compared to the rest of the U.S. is strongly tempered by a fuller analysis also:

[Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here]

Many policy makers have been seeking ways to close these gaps for decades, and Mississippi shows us that even when there is gradual and persistent improvement, problems of inequity remain.[24] Therefore, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP data are not a “miracle,” but they are an important red flag about the insufficiency of school-only policy and of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.[25]

Grade retention distorts test data, disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students, and creates a distraction from reading reform’s ultimate goal of increased student reading proficiency.

Third-Grade Proficiency and the “Word Gap”

Along with grade retention, policy makers must reconsider two other aspects of reading that often influences policy and practice—third grade reading proficiency and the “word gap.”

Policy makers and educators tend to focus on third grade reading proficiency because it (like grade retention) is correlated with negative outcomes for students, such as dropping out and prison.[26] However, while these concerns are valid, grade-level reading must be recognized as a measurement primarily created and used by the textbook industry; identifying “third grade reading level” is not as accurate or useful as many people think. More importantly, research suggests a correlation between third grade proficiency and negative outcomes, which does not warrant creating high-stakes policy around a single grade or a single measurement.[27]

Based on a popularize and often cited study by Hart and Risley from 1995,[28] it has become “common knowledge” to associate literacy with social class, specifically that high-poverty students have low literacy (fewer words) and that middle-class and affluent students have high literacy (more words). A number of scholars, however, have discredited the study as well as called into question associating literacy with simple word counts.[29] Curt Dudley-Marling notes that the Hart and Risley study is marred by poor methodology (should not be used to generalize about all students) and is grounded in class and race stereotypes; in short, the “word gap” is little more than a misguided assumption about students, reading, and literacy.[30]

Alternative Policy: A Recommendation

States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.

While a broad range of new approaches are needed for state policy and classroom practice,[31] immediately states must repeal retention policy linked to high stakes testing in 3rd grade. Grade retention creates a test-score increase that is a mirage, harms students in the long run, and distracts from more effective and supportive reading policy.

Instead of punitive policies such as grade retention, state policy makers should consider the following:

  • Eliminate high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd – 5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input, etc.).
  • Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


Notes

[1] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[2] Wilde, J. (2004, January). Definitions for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Scientifically-based research. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/rcd/BE021264/Definitions_of_the_NCLB_Act.pdf

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/smallbook

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/report

[4] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers 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

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[5] See https://www.decodingdyslexia.net/

[6] Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APM Reports. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read

Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[7] 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]. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://radicalscholarship.com/2019/12/06/mississippi-miracle-or-mirage-2019-naep-reading-scores-prompt-questions-not-answers/

[8] Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07

[9] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 19, 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

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

See https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

[11] 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

[12] Duran, L., & Hikida, M. (2022, May 2). Making sense of reading’s forever war. Kappan, 103(8), 14 – 19. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://kappanonline.org/readings-forever-wars-duran-hikida/

[13] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers 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

[14] Thomas, P.L. (2022). How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students:

A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (2nd ed.). Information Age Publishing.

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[15] 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. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

[16] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[17] Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

[18] 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 April 28, 2022, from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-getting-farther-ahead-staying-behind-a-second-year-evaluation-floridas-policy-end-s

Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022, https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/mississippi-rising-partial-explanation-its-naep-improvement-it-holds-students

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

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000243

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. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://theoptoutfloridanetwork.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/e782a-executivesummary.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

Access grade retention data from the USDOE/Office of Civil Rights here https://ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2017-2018

[19] Perrault, P., & Winters, M.A. (2020, July 28). Test-based promotion and student performance in Florida and Arizona. Manhattan Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.manhattan-institute.org/student-retention-policies-impact-student-success

[20] Robinson-Cimpian, J.P. (2015, December). Review of The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-NBER-retention

[21] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[22] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/mississippi-schools-naep.html

[23] Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading?grade=4

[24] Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

[25] National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/fyi-reading-wars

[26] Hernandez, D.J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school Ggraduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf

[27] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from https://ncte.org/statement/grade-retention/

[28] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Brookes.

[29] See an overview of that research here: https://radicalscholarship.com/2015/02/17/the-word-gap-a-reader/

[30] Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1), Article 5. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction (NEPC Policy Brief)

Please access this policy brief on the “science of reading” movement from NEPC:

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Find Documents:

Publication Announcement: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication- announcement/2022/09/science-of-reading

NEPC Publication: https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


The policy brief emphasizes the need to avoid one-size-fits-all reading policy and practice. For context, please see:

We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools. Right now, what matters most is finding ways to address and improve students’ mental health so they can get back on track with learning. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate.

Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators with busywork and preventing authentic improvement.

Why one-size-fits-all metrics for evaluating schools must go

See Also

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction (NCTE)

Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice in the Science of Reading (Reading Recovery Community)

A warning on political strategies to boost reading (WFAE)

MY TURN: Different direction needed on state reading policy (Statehouse Report, Charleston, SC)

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

How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED]

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Beware The Reading League

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

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

Ozark’s “Careless People”: Allegory of Race and Class

***Spoiler Alert***

This post is intended for people who have viewed the full series, including the final episode, of Ozark.


Many people have acknowledged that Ozark is a well-acted derivative of Breaking Bad. But an analogy just as important, if not more so, is that Ozark is a 2010s-2020s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1910s-1920s The Great Gatsby.

Marty and Wendy Byrde are essentially Tom and Daisy Buchanan, although Wendy is often more like Tom, and Marty, more like Daisy. None the less, Marty and Wendy fit well narrator Nick Carraway’s description of the Buchanans:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

The Great Gatsby

The Byrdes leave a staggering trail of carnage, larger but similar to the bodies in the wake of the Buchanans. Both couples survive mostly unscathed—at least still wealthy and alive.

If we include the Breaking Bad comparison, the two series’ creators made some important and different decisions about Marty and Walter White—the main white male center of the “vast carelessness”—and some profoundly important different decisions about the parallel characters of Jesse and Ruth—both sympathetic characters who suffer some of the greatest consequences of the carelessness.

Ozark and Breaking Bad ultimately offer some excellent aspects of contemporary series, and nearly equal elements that are problematic. Notably, the shows center whiteness against Mexicans as murders and drug lords—with the whiteness often seeking viewer empathy.

The back story of Walter White—and the annoying messaging that being reduced to a high school teacher is proof Walter has been cheated by the universe—folds into his cancer diagnosis; this feels much reduced in the scene where Marty is on his knees about to be murdered, only to start the momentum toward nothing ever really touching Marty Byrde, unlike Walter’s fate.

Bryan Cranston and Jason Bateman go a long way to help the writers skirt past the ugliest of truths beneath these men scorching the earth for the good of their family. They are, in fact, the worst sort of “careless people,” selfish and calculating.

Breaking Bad, like Better Call Saul, are far better written and filmed than Ozark, even as these series are carried by incredible acting, possibly even better in Ozark than its obvious inspiration.

On balance, Break Bad is the better series, but in its last episode, Ozark makes a case for itself because of the decisions around Ruth, in contrast to her parallel, Jesse, from Break Bad.

Like the Buchanans, the Byrdes are outsiders, and although Jesse is a local like Ruth, Ruth’s parallels in Gatsby are the Wilsons, low- to working-class characters. And like Myrtle and George Wilson, Ruth as redneck young woman, is sacrificed beside her not-yet-finished empty pool with a corpse buried beneath. The imagery of her death is intensified as we hear her telling Wyatt he doesn’t know how to be rich—paralleled by Myrtle’s pathetic efforts to play rich in Gatsby.

Ozark seems to argue that the class barrier trumps race and gender. It certainly dramatizes that class trumps character and intelligence and work ethic.

Hard working and smart—Ruth and Wyatt cannot survive the carelessness of the Byrde’s. (BY TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX)

Ruth splayed on her dirt yard—reminiscent of Myrtle mutilated in the road by Daisy driving Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce—comes after mid-final-episode the Byrde’s suffering a dramatic car accident, one shown in an earlier episode, one no one could simply walk away from.

For me, the car wreck had no emotional weight, even as Marty and his children crawl free, miraculously unharmed, even as Wendy appears unconscious (dead?) until Marty rouses her. The family soon after arrives at their house in a taxi, Wendy noting they survived only somewhat battered and bruised.

But it is Wendy’s comment to Novarro’s priest that reveals the narrative purpose of the accident—not to tease the audience with one or more Byrde deaths but to show that the entire series is an extended allegory about the Teflon promises of whiteness and wealth.

As Wendy boasts to the priest as she takes him by the shoulders, they will survive, and they do.

The series ends black screen, a gun shot, the Byrde’s winning (a more honest and cynical ending than Breaking Bad), murderously (again) after Marty softly nods to his teen son, Jonah, who fires the shot.

Like Walter White, for Marty, and now Jonah, “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”

Many plot lines and characters force viewers to repeatedly interrogate that very concept; Walter and Marty live by the ends justifying the means.

Yet, none confront that central question more vividly than the tensions between Wendy and Ruth about the killing of Wendy’s brother, Ben.

The last episode highlights the emptiness pervading Ozark with Ruth caving to Wendy about culpability for Ben’s murder, prompted by Wendy committing herself in yet another grand manipulation (suggesting viewers should feel empathy for Wendy since, as the scene depicts, she shares with Ruth the consequences of an abusive father).

Ozark and Breaking Bad left me wondering how I am supposed to feel about the characters.

It is there I focus on Ruth and Jesse, the characters with the most lingering sympathetic qualities in spite of their very human flaws, and frailties. I think we can (and should) find more sincerity in the struggles of Jesse and Ruth against the backdrop of the posing and ruthlessness of Walter and Marty.

Like Gatsby, Ozark is a deeply cynical work about the American Dream. This American nightmare is more like what John Gardner lamented:

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

“Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)

The Byrdes shit all over the Ozarks, and we are left with one final wry smile from Marty and, yes, the gun shot.

“[L]et other people clean up the mess they had made”…

Black Widow Underestimated: “I Am What I Am”

In the Marvel Universe(s), including the MCU, Black Widow has endured just about every compelling and nonsensical plot line and character development that represent the larger sub-genre of superhero comic books. As I have been documenting, however, Marvel and even their best creative teams find ways to underestimate (and, of course, hypersexualize) Natasha/Black Widow.

With Marvel committing more issues and superstar teams in v.5 and v.6, readers may have held out hope that the fate of Black Widow (both inside the comic book universe and more broadly as a character Marvel would develop more substantially) had turned a corner. However, v.7 ultimately is a regression with only 5 issues, and then, the Web of Black Widow offers another brief 5-issue run after that.

Black Widow v.7, issue 1 (cover art by Clayton Crain) and Web of Black Widow issue 3 (cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon) remind us that too often Black Widow is hypersexualized with her outfits and the relentless urge to show her bound.

Since we have the benefit of hindsight—this post sitting as it does after one of the best (if not the best) run on Black Widow, v.8 (thanks to Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, and others)—many of us are now dealing with both the afterglow of a stellar 15-issue run and the recurring disappointment of Black Widow once again trapped in publishing limbo.

Here, I want to consider v.7 and Web as a stumbling journey to that excellent Thompson series, holding onto the hope that at some point Marvel will overcome underestimating and hypersexualizing Natasha/Black Widow.

Black Widow, Lost and Found

The creative team of Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska, writers, and Flaviano Armentaro, artist, are tasked with v.7 in the wake of Natasha Black Widow’s death in Secret Empire issue 7.

Cover art by Max Brooks.

The opening of v.7 issue 1 establishes, again, the double-identity and secret identity motifs very common in superhero comics, but especially in Black Widow narratives. Here, the dual Captain Americas (one of which has killed Black Widow in Secret Empire before she is resurrected through cloning and memory implants) face off again as Natasha helps—while trying to maintain the veil of people believing she is dead.

While Black Widow and the real Captain America fight the evil Captain America, this volume returns to considerations of dual and secret identities as well as the tensions at the core of being a superhero—fighting for good while trying to honor human life.

Natasha is a perfect pairing for Captain America’s identity crisis since she has long suffered doubt and suspicious about her loyalties despite her heroism.

The dynamic between Black Widow and Captain America works well here, but once again, sexual banter returns in a way that feel reductive and unneeded:

Hypersexualized Black Widow would not seem as abrupt in v.7 if not for the more nuanced and fuller explorations of the character in v.5 and v.6.

The core tension of this issue is one of the most enduring elements of the superhero subgenre, one that includes the problematic aspects of vigilanteism, embodied by Black Widow and Captain America arguing over taking a life:

Black Widow, cold and practical, resists Captain America’s idealism with “I am what I am.”

And Natasha remains vividly aware of who she is: “The violence. The rage”:

Ominous beginnings for v.7 highlight what likely are the strongest elements of the Black Widow narrative, a woman fighting herself because of the injustices she has suffered even as she seeks to fights for other people’s justice.

For v.7, the Soska sisters explain the are committed to “Black Widow … unleashed,” and placing Natasha motivated by avenging child sex trafficking provides fertile soil for just that—as Black Widow herself revels in the opportunity:

Natasha’s passionate resolve stand in contrast to Captain America’s naive view of the ugliest aspects of humanity.

And Black Widow unleashed shifts the reader’s gaze away from Natasha’s body (when creators underestimate the character) and highlights the violence she has embraced, and justifies. We must confront the allure along with the problems of ends-justify-the-means justice:

Placed side-by-side with Wilson Fisk’s infamous car door scene in Netflix’s Daredevil, v.7, issue 2 allows Black Widow to take no prisoners.

The focus of v.7 maintains the “unleashed” commitment of the writers, and much of the action involves several women characters—Black Widow, Tyger Tiger, Madame Masque—against the backdrop of the most horrific child sex trafficking (including a child recovered who had her hands cut off).

Throughout this series, I struggle with Flaviano’s artwork, however. Too often the style leans to the cartoon side, unlike the dynamic and even hyperrealism of previous artists such as Phil Noto and Chris Samnee. These concerns are more about my tastes than quality, I think, because Flaviano’s work suits well the “unleashed” tone throughout.

As one example, the creators of v.7 turn the tables on one of the most reductive ways Black Widow is portrayed—bound (and often nude or semi-nude):

A great deal is at work here in v.7, issue 3—a twist on the bound motif, the working-class slur, and extended scenes between two women in what is too often a misogynistic media.

However, after Natasha takes on Madame Masque’s identity to infiltrate the child trafficking ring, issue 3 slips right back into old habits—Natasha exposed, and bound:

It is hard not to be disappointed when creative teams cannot resist Natasha returning to the role of victim and almost always finding herself bound, helpless, and exposed.

By issue 4, “unleashed” becomes hyperviolent and cathartic for Black Widow, and likely readers. Despite my concerns raised above, Flaviano’s paneling and design lend a powerfully dynamic look that reinforces the narrative.

And at the center of it all, the weight of Natasha’s past remains at the heart of Black Widow, super-agent, and Natasha, deeply traumatized woman:

“I am through being a plaything, a pawn”—this refrain drives v.7, but also speaks to the essence of my series, raising concerns about underestimating and hypersexualizing this important character.

Identity and rebirth open the last issue of this series with Black Widow surviving a blast, portrayed with subtle phoenix imagery:

Survival and rebirth sits at the center of who Natasha is a woman and as a superhero.

The volume ends with some of the strongest aspects of this too-short series. Natasha/Black Widow imposes her world view—not Captain America’s—on her revenge, exposing the emptiness of the sex traffickers and fulfilling her own resolve to enact justice (even as that takes life).

The final pages reveal Natasha providing Winter Soldier-like hands to the mutilated girl and reuniting with Steve Rogers: “It doesn’t matter how our story started. It’s up to us how it’s going to end.”

This series becomes a story of power with the gender roles reversed—Natasha taking control of her world and urging Steve to let go of his fatalistic worldview.

Black Widow ends, again, yet the rage remains:

One of the best pages of v.7 occurs at the very end.

O, What a Tangled Web…

Marvel released a limited solo series, Web of Black Widow, after v.7 and before v.8, the celebrated Thompson run.

Web, regretfully, immediately introduces Tony Stark, and of course, Natasha’s cleavage:

Web is written by Jody Houser with artwork by Stephen Mooney. Issue 1 doesn’t suggest another brief series, 5 issues, will rise above well-worn ground.

While issue 1 too often remains reductive and derivative, Mooney’s artwork soars none the less:

Mooney captures many of the best qualities found in superior runs of Black Widow.

Noted above, v.7 built to an issue of power; Web establishes the issue of history, switching the tension from between Natasha and Captain America to between Natasha and Iron Man.

Natasha continues to build who she is on who she has been, and how her history has often been what others do to her.

Web is intended as a noir take on Black Widow, and as acknowledged earlier, the artwork certainly aspires to the very best of previous Black Widow series, but too much of this solo run falls back into the underestimated and especially the hypersexualized:

Cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon

Comic books have long suffered the misleading, unnecessarily provocative covers. Throughout Web, we are confronted not with Natasha’s cleavage, but the possibility of her cleavage behind that zipper. I am reminded of a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale: “They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose” (p. 25).

I am unable to trust what choices are allowed for Natasha in Web, genuine power and autonomy, against the objectification of her throughout. But I do sense a strong grounding of Web in all that has come before, not just Natasha’s backstory but the many series I have been covering:

Issue 2 alludes to v.6, issue 9 as the Winter Soldier is introduced to this plot line.

Ultimately, Web proves to be a mildly interesting thought experiment, Black Widow noir, and it looks good while muddling through being mostly derivative.

Worse things can be said about a comic book series, but I continue to hope for better, and with my last post coming next, I can assure you that v.8 is better—if not the best.

Daredevil’s Righteous Anger: “I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do”

More often than not recently, many people have come to know Marvel superheroes through Netflix, the MCU, and now Disney+. That sets up tension between the recent fans and those of us coming from a comic book background.

I am a Marvel reader and collector from the 1970s, and fell in love with Daredevil when his comic book was co-titled with Black Widow. I also grew up a Marvel fan when shows such as The Incredible Hulk hit mainstream TV.

Once CGI allowed superhero movies to look the way we now-older fans always hoped, I have been mostly thrilled with the mainstreaming of Marvel comics—despite the many problems with that different universe compared to the too-often rebooted and jumbled universes of comic books.

I am also one of those fans who loved the Netflix Daredevil series because it captured almost everything that makes the Daredevil character and narratives nearly equally compelling and deeply problematic.

Matt Murdock becoming Daredevil incorporates the traditional silliness of superhero origins (a chemical spill doesn’t kill young Matt, but renders him superhuman) as well as some refreshing and compelling elements (Matt develops many of his superhero qualities because of his character, one grounded in a relentless righteous anger than is more than vengeance).

Although Daredevil is one of the earliest Marvel creations, debuting in 1964, and has endured almost 60 years and numerous reboots over 7 volumes, in many ways, the character is a low tier one, if not a top tier two figure in the Marvel Universes (certainly a notch down in the MCU).

Daredevil, however, is currently trending regularly on social media because, as many of us Netflix Daredevil fans have wanted, the character is being reintroduced to the Disney+ and MCU versions—although at a glacial pace. With that, we comic book fans who have been stung many times by various types of reboots have been fretting about a Disney+ series ruining the Netflix version, one that is incredibly violent (Kingpin’s car door scene, for example, is very not Disney) and one that owes a great deal to Frank Miller’s reboot of Daredevil that boosted Miller to superstardom and laid the foundation for his heralded Batman work.

Many comic book fans also fretted about Moon Knight, a much more clearly second tier Marvel superhero. However, in some ways, I think, the success of Moon Knight tempered our fretting about how Daredevil would be recreated (again).

Another element of the relevance of Moon Knight and Daredevil in the MCU is religion. Moon Knight being Jewish has been examined with the Disney+ series, in terms of how relevant his faith was portrayed in the series. Matt Murdock, and the entire ethos of Daredevil, Man without Fear, is grounded in Miller’s emphasizing Murdock’s Catholicism.

In similar ways to concerns about Moon Knight being Jewish, it seems important to interrogate whether or not Murdock’s Catholicism is being trivialized or honored in the MCU. Some fear Murdock’s faith is mere “stained-glass window dressing” (Cressler, 2022, p. 113).

The Born Again trade paperback’s cover has reached iconic status, thanks to Miller emphasizing Catholicism and David Mazzucchelli’s run as artist.
Daredevil 15 (v5) reflects Miller’s Man without Fear. (Artwork by Dan Panosian)
Daredevil 34 (v6) pays homage to the Miller reboot, and Chip Zdarsky’s version reads strongly grounded to Miller’s vision as well.

Ironically, Matt/Daredevil’s righteous resolve is the antithesis of glass. In many ways, people find Daredevil compelling because his superpowers are certainly skewed closer to being human, thus frail, than other superheroes such as Luke Cage, The Hulk, or Superman. Yet, Daredevil is often the most determined human in any conflict, counting on his ability to suffer and persevere—because he is certain (usually) that he is right.

That brings me to Matthew J. Cressler’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities. Like Miller, Cressler centers Murdock’s Catholicism and interrogates how that faith drives Daredevil in relationship to how well any version of Daredevil acknowledges his devoutness.

Cressler admits a concern I raised above (with the Netflix series a notable exception):

The extent to which Murdock’s religiousness features in any given story—and indeed, whether it features at all—depends of course on the artists involved. Some center other elements of the Daredevil mythos (secret ninja societies, for instance). Most of the time Catholicism seems more like stained-glass window dressing, offering a thematic or aesthetic palette without much depth: fistfights in front of altars, vaguely religious themes, jokes about Catholic guilt. (p. 113)

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities

What makes Cressler’s analysis compelling is using Catholicism as a lens for understanding not only Matt/Daredevil but also portrayals of Daredevil as that intersects with who is drawn to the character and why. Citing Andrew Greeley and others, Cressler asserts, “Daredevil’s abilities accentuate what is often cited as the distinguishing feature of Catholic Christianity: the sensuousness of its religious culture,” including violence (p. 116).

But even more significant, I think, Cressler notes that Catholicism reinforces a central motif of most portrayals of Daredevil, suffering. In the Netflix series, for example, a motif of the show is how often people express disbelief in the amount of suffering Matt can and does endure. Nearly even more so than his blindness, Matt’s willingness—even eagerness—to suffer defines him.

Daredevil 2 (v7), by Chip Zdarsky (writer) and Marco Checchetto (artist), embraces the ever-suffering Daredevil who always gets back up—to kick ass.

Among the most informative aspects of Cressler’s analysis is his explaining how Miller’s own working-class Catholic background builds on the origin of Daredevil: “Daredevil thus presents a working class twist on the classic comic book origin story” (p. 120).

Miller’s working-class Catholicism, I think Cressler demonstrates compellingly, contributes to both why Daredevil is an enduring character (maintaining Miller’s stamp) and a very problematic one as well.

The best analogy I have is that Miller-influenced Daredevil (Netflix and Disney+ versions) are similar to why so many people are drawn to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul despite the deeply problematic elements. When the craft is high, the work soars, but often with any work, the flaws of the artist and the world seem to inevitably creep in:

This reluctance to call white Catholics white and have that word signify something substantive is particularly problematic when talking about the era in which Miller came of age and eventually began a career in comics. In the 1950s, white Catholics defended “their turf” against Black migrants in the urban North. In the 1960s, some fled to federally subsidized and racially segregated suburbs while others fought on the frontlines of resistance to integration. The so-called “Catholic vote”—by which pollsters meant working-class white Catholics—helped usher in a half century of conservative rule, first as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” and then as members of the “Reagan revolution.” Born Again bears this influence….

By the time Frank Miller began drawing Daredevil in the late 1970s, white Catholics had thrown bricks at civil rights activists in Chicago, firebombed school busses in Boston, and brutally quelled a prison uprising in Attica, just to name a few notorious instances of white Catholic violence. (pp. 124-125,127)

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities

Miller’s own misogyny and bigotries grounded in his upbringing tarnish even the best aspects of his run on Daredevil. Like too much of the comic book world, stereotypes often populate Miller’s narratives in the most reductive ways.

Yet, as Cressler explains, we must acknowledge the key role of Catholicism:

When Frank Miller said Daredevil “had to be Catholic,” the Catholic he created was a white working-class Irish American Catholic man prepared to save his woman and defend his block with brute force. This is the Catholic Daredevil brought to life in Marvel’s Daredevil. And this is not merely a work of fiction. (p. 127)

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities

Ultimately one of the most interesting tensions here is between Matt’s devoutness and his righteous anger turned violent:

Daredevil’s religiousness, reviewers seem to say, can be found in biblical quotes, religious images, and theological themes. Violence is another matter, one that has to be forgiven in the confessional and reconciled with faith. (p. 128)

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities

However, as Cressler shows, Matt—notably in the opening scenes of Netflix’s Daredevil—has fully embraced both his faith and his violence:

If we resist [the] urge to separate the two, however, it quickly becomes clear that religion and violence are bound together for both Frank Miller and Netflix’s adaption of his work. Recall how the series opens. We meet Matt Murdock in confession, where he admits “I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.” (p. 128)

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and White Catholic Masculinities

The portrayal of Matt/Daredevil, by Charlie Cox in the Netflix series, I think, is at its best when viewers can see in the acting that Matt/Daredevil has switched to “violence is the only solution”—sometimes accompanied by a slight head tilt. And we feel a little rush of adrenaline as we anticipate that despite all the odds against him, Daredevil will leave the “bad guys” regretting not only their immediate actions but also being bad guys.

I do not see Daredevil as a base vigilante bouncing from act of vengeance to act of vengeance. I am compelled by the character Daredevil because of the tensions created through Matt being a lawyer and his Catholic drive to rid the world of evil (starting, of course, with saving all of Hell’s Kitchen). Cressler referencing Birzer notes that Daredevil embodies “righteous violence meted out in defense of moral order” (p. 129).

The Disney+ era of Daredevil has been announced, Daredevil: Born Again. There is no doubt that Miller will be lurking there, but what remains to be seen is how seamlessly the Disney+ era will grow from what Netflix established.

Will we have to endure mere “stained-glass window dressing,” or will we feel the hair raise on our arms anticipating Daredevil single-handedly pummeling the bad guys down a cramped and dark hallway?