The Return of Missionary Zeal in Education Reform: “Science of Reading” Edition

Increasingly, I am contacted by email or spoken to in person by teachers with a similar and disturbing series of experiences.

These teachers ask to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because they have already been reprimanded or dismissed for simply asking questions about their school/district’s implementing the “science of reading.”

One recent communication I received represents well that pattern (I am paraphrasing and reducing specifics to protect anyone trying to identify the specific teacher, and this is representative of dozens and dozens of similar communications).

The teacher has been a literacy educator well over a decade and also has earned a doctorate. A few years ago, this teacher had a first experience with LETRS training being required for university faculty where they were on one-year contracts.

After asking about why LETRS was being required and noting that the research base doesn’t support that training as effective, the teacher was shunned by their administrator and then their contract wasn’t renewed.

Before leaving that school, they noticed some faculty had simply stopped attending the training, but the administrator sought other faculty to log in to complete that training. The teacher grew concerned that there seemed to be some incentive for simply having many faculty trained.

At a new school, that teacher was immediately required to go through LETRS training. They described the training as a “cult” experience in which professional educators were handed pipe cleaners and asked to make models of the “simple view” of reading (Scarborough’s rope).

While I have repeatedly documented (along with several other scholars; access materials HERE) that the “science of reading” movement is primarily over-simplified narratives and misinformation, I want here to address that the central flaw in the movement is one we have seen in recent history regarding education reform: missionary zeal.

It is important to emphasize that I am aware of no one who rejects that a body of reading science/research exists and that should be a significant part of what drives classroom practice.

However, the media-driven SOR movement and the political consequences of that advocacy that has resulted in SOR-labeled policy are oversimplified and misguided versions of that research base.

And that new policy is often unscientific and harmful such as the pervasive implementation of grade retention.

Further the SOR movement fails to ground the narrative in the history of the field of reading and education reform.

For example, during the “miracle” school/teacher era spanning from George W. Bush through Barack Obama, missionary zeal drove Teach For America, charter schools, “miracle” school claims, and value-added methods for evaluating teachers.

At the core of these connected elements of education reform is a missionary zeal that ultimately failed to produce what was guaranteed, primarily because the reformers misidentified the problems and offered misguided solutions. In the case of the SOR movement, the same mistake is being made by claiming that reading science is simple and settled.

Currently, the “science of reading” movement has fallen into the missionary zeal trap as represented by The Reading League:

The similarities in these two recent movements are important and damning:

The criticisms I have raised are directly targeting the missionary zeal and misinformation found in the media story [1] and the political reaction [2] to that false narrative.

Reading proficiency in the US is about the same now as well before anyone implemented balanced literacy or current popular (and demonized) reading programs. And persistently over the last 80 years, scholars have lamented the “considerable gap” between research and practice in all aspects of K-12 education.

Throughout those 80-plus years, no one has ever been satisfied with student reading achievement regardless of the reading theory being implemented or the reading programs being adopted.

And teacher preparation has been significantly hampered for the past 40 years by top-down accountability mandates that have reduced most teacher certification to more bureaucracy than preparation. A dirty little secret that SOR advocates ignore is that how teachers are prepared to teach reading matters little because most teachers are bound to reading programs and reading standards once they enter the classroom. A huge gap exists between how teachers are prepared and how they are allowed to teach.

But manufacturing a crisis, perpetuating melodramatic stories, and casting simplistic blame are doing the same things we have done in education reform for decades without ever truly supporting teachers or better serving all students.

Just like the TFA and charter/”miracle” school era immediately behind us, the SOR movement is anti-teacher and anti-schools. The public and political leaders have been well primed since the 1980s to believe that schools are horrible and that teachers are incompetent. Regardless of what SOR advocates intend, that is what most people hear.

SOR advocates have falsely attacked teacher expertise, both that of K-12 teachers and that of teacher educators (many of whom had long careers as K-12 teachers); these attacks are often grounded in agendas and reports that are not themselves scientific (such as reports from NCTQ), and solutions offered (LETRS) lack scientific grounding as well.

Just as there is a robust and deep body of reading science, there are sincere educators who are engaged with that research base but also recognize that the SOR movement and SOR policy are not aligned with the complex and still developing reading science.

The SOR movement and much of SOR implementation are corrupted by missionary zeal that creates a veneer for the essentially anti-teacher elements—scripted curriculum (structured literacy), mandated retraining (LETRS), and caricatures of teacher educators, teacher education, balanced literacy, three cueing, and reading programs

An authentic embracing of reading science would acknowledge that current research is complex and evolving, that the causes of students struggling to read are also complex and include influences beyond and in the classroom (not just teacher practice but teaching/learning conditions such as class size and funding), that professionals engaging with research should raise questions and challenge conventional wisdom and traditional assumptions in order to serve the individual needs of students, that one-size-fits-all solutions for students and teachers don’t exist, and that educational practices should be grounded in teacher expertise—not journalists, parents, and politicians.

Missionary zeal is problematic in the same way as people who claim to know the mind of god (I unpack that in the newest arc of Daredevil), creating tunnel vision and arrogance while casting blame and judgment toward anyone or anything that dare raise a valid question or concern.

Just as TFA lured thousands into the program and thousands more to champion the idealistic (and unrealistic) blame-game as well as promises of miracles only to collapse under the weight of its own propaganda, SOR is following the same guaranteed-to-fail strategy.

And, yes, many good people jump on bandwagons with good intentions (I have several people I greatly admire who came through TFA), but eventually, we must all come to terms with the deeply flawed elements of this SOR movement. We must remain committed to individual student needs and teacher autonomy—not movements, slogans, and market boondoggles.

The reasons students have struggled for decades to acquire reading as well or as soon as we’d like are multi-faceted and mostly grounded outside of schools; therefore, the solutions are also complex and quite large.

From the TFA/”miracle” school era to today’s SOR movement, these false narratives are compelling because they are simple (simplistic), but they are destined to cause far more harm than good to students, teachers, and schools.

Beware missionary zeal—especially when dealing with why our schools and students struggle and what solutions advocates offer with passionate certainty.


Recommended

Trainwreck For America

[1] Media Coverage of SOR [access materials HERE]

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

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. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

The Science of Reading and the Media: Is Reporting Biased?, Maren Aukerman, The University of Calgary

The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?, Maren Aukerman

The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?, Maren Aukerman

Making sense of reading’s forever wars, Leah Durán and Michiko Hikida

[2] 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

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