Does the “Science of Reading” Fulfill Social Justice, Equity Goals in Education? (pt. 1)

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

First, simply stating something (or posting on Twitter) doesn’t make it true.

And, second, good intentions are not enough—especially in education.

Before considering whether or not the “science of reading” movement is fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, let’s acknowledge how two relatively recent movements in education help inform a credible answer to that question.

For many years now, educators have been embracing both grit and growth mindset uncritically, promoting these concepts and practices as both scientific and especially necessary for marginalized and vulnerable populations of student (Black students, poor students, multi-language learners, and special needs students). [See HERE and HERE for research and examinations of grit and growth mindset.]

However, two important aspects of these movements must be considered: the science and research base is increasingly challenging the initial claims of both grit and growth mindset, and the appeal of both are grounded in deficit ideologies that are essentially racist and classist.

Grit and growth mindset prove to be cautionary tales, in fact, because education is often victim of faddism that spreads before the full science is understood and that is embraced without critical analysis of how well the concepts and practices actually accomplish what advocates claim.

Grit and growth mindset speak to a cultural belief that struggling students (disproportionately minoritized racial groups, speakers of languages other than English, impoverished students, and special needs students) lacks experiences and qualities existing in students who excel (disproportionately students who are white and affluent).

These beliefs are a subset of the rugged individualism mythology of the U.S. that needs success and failure to be centered in who people are and whether or not people work hard, even in the face of substantial challenges not of their making (and even when we are dealing with children).

This is why faddism in education is often driven by sloganism also—“no excuses” charter schools thrived even as they harmed the vulnerable and marginalized populations that they were disproportionately marketed to.

That belief system either carelessly ignores or brazenly rejects the power of systemic forces such as racism and classism.

Again, the science is gradually catching up with these claims and proving them to be false: A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform.

Over the past few years, the “science of reading” movement has ridden a similar wave of claiming “scientific” paired with advocates associating the movement with social justice and equity goals. As a result, the “science of reading” movement is still in the uncritical phase of fadism.

What complicates this dynamic is that we have a century of evidence that the students who struggle the most as learners and as readers are the very vulnerable and marginalized groups that these fads’ advocates target, and justifiably so.

This brings us to the opening points: Saying the “science of reading” movement is a social justice and equity movement doesn’t make it true, and those very real and justifiable good intentions simply are not enough to ignore that the “science of reading” movement, in fact, is harming the students who need reading reform the most (see, for example, HERE).

Over the course of a 65-year career, educator Lou LaBrant lived and worked through multiple back-to-basic movements, lamenting those cycles in her memoir.

In the U.S., we seem fatally attracted to viewing children and students in the most harsh and deficit perspectives, determined to prove that those who succeed and those who fail somehow deserve those outcomes.

The “no excuses” movement has been one of the worst examples of demanding that children/students and their teachers somehow ignore the realities of their lives when they enter schools and just suck it up and learn.

Like grit and growth mindset, the “science of reading” is a reductive and deficit belief system that diagnoses students struggling to read as lacking structure and basics (the exact same claim that has been made without success for a century, LaBrant lived and documented).

The result is reading policy that promotes scripted curriculum that erases teacher autonomy and student individual needs and then reduces reading in the early grades to pronouncing nonsense words.

The social justice and equity reckoning hasn’t quite taken hold yet with the “science of reading,” as it has with grit and growth mindset, and the “science of reading” movement has successfully deflected that the practices and policies actually are not supported by science (see HERE).

But the evidence is starting to build as critics have warned.

First, the education miracle machine is being unmasked. Florida, for example, represents how political marketing can use early test-based achievement mirages to mask that the entire system still fails to meet the needs of all students (see also Mississippi where celebrating 2019 NAEP grade 4 reading scores masked their persistent achievement gap and struggling students at later grades).

And, reading programs marketed as meeting the “science of reading” mandate are being exposed as failing to meet social justice and equity goals.

Consider for example two reading programs heavily marketed as “science of reading” endorsed: Wonders and HMH Into Reading.

An analysis from NYU of three programs, including these two, found the following:

1. All three curricula were Culturally Destructive or Culturally Insufficient.

2. All three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.

3. All three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling that provided a single, ahistorical narrative. 

4. All three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color, while encouraging empathy and connection with White characters.

5. All three curricula provided little to no guidance for teachers on engaging students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds and cultures; or reflecting on their own bias, beliefs and experiences.

We found that these three curricula, which collectively reach millions of students across the country, have deficits that are mostly not being raised in the current public debate about curriculum. Their texts, language, tone and guidance communicate harmful messages to students of all backgrounds, especially Black, Indigenous, students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. 

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The “science of reading” movement is often championed for legitimate concerns about learning and students and by people with good intentions. But that movement is also another example of faddism and marketing boondoggles at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized students who need and deserve a reckoning for reductive mythologies and deficit ideologies.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is not fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, and like grit and growth mindset, the reckoning is one the horizon, but our students and teachers deserve better and now.


Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from
deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology
in teacher education
, Paul C. Gorski

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli