One of the most important and too often ignored works by Martin Luther King Jr. is his Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (see an excerpts here).
I have relied on this work for many years in the context of my public writing and scholarship addressing equity, poverty, race, and literacy (for example, see pt. 1 and pt. 2). What has always rung true and important is King’s practical call for needed direct action instead of the status quo of political indirect action.
For example, King noted that the political will in the US was to view education as a mechanism for erasing poverty, racism, and inequity (indirect action) instead of directly eradicating the forces that create poverty, racism, and inequity.
I have reached a very sobering moment in my public work addressing the “science of reading” (SOR) movement as that has informed reading legislation across the US:
Since 2015, 47 state legislatures have enacted, or are currently considering, a remarkable total of 145 bills that address reading and reading instruction in public schools.1 Many of these bills are relatively routine appropriations, procedural issues, licensures, and so forth. However, an increasing number define, endorse, and sometimes mandate instructional approaches—a legislative excursion into matters that in other fields of practice, such as medicine or law, are left to certified professionals and the standards set by their professional organizations or accrediting agencies. In that sense, the existence of such laws suggests a perception of a problem with the teaching of reading of such consequence that it demands legislative action. In so doing, it moves professional practice into the political realm, subject to all the forces and vested interests inherent to that domain.
More specifically, it moves the teaching of reading into ideological territory, at least in the narrow pragmatic sense suggested by Fine and Sandstrom (1993; see also Seliger, 1970/2019). They defined ideologies as uniting individuals around shared beliefs and offering “diagnoses of what is and is not problematic in the sociopolitical world” (p. 24). Ideologies, they say, motivate ameliorative action, create affinity by energizing emotional reactions, and set boundaries of acceptable belief, inoculating members against outside influences and helping to recruit new members. Further, ideologies, so conceived, naturally generate a dissimulating rhetoric in which “speech about topics of public controversy, including political and ‘scientific’ speech . . . is subject to slanting and shaping when those treatments seem beneficial to [ideological] groups” (p. 30).Reinking, D., Hruby, G. G., & Risko, V. J. (2023). Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? Teachers College Record, 125(1), 104–131. https://doi.org/10.1177/01614681231155688
In my own work about reading policy, I had cited 32 states less than a year ago, and now, I must admit, SOR reading policy has become the dominant approach to teaching reading in the US despite extensive and credibly scholarly evidence that the reading crisis; blame leveled at reading programs, balanced literacy, and teacher educators; and misrepresentation of reading science are false narratives.
Media stories, political responses, and state-level legislation have resulted in pre-service and in-service training/retraining (often LETRS) and reading programs being banned with short lists of SOR-approved programs being mandated—both of which substantially change the landscape of how children will learn to read and how teachers will be mandated to teach (often in scripted environments).
Therefore, where do we go from here?
First, we must resist fatalism, and thus, we must adopt practices and strategies for advocating for addressing individual student needs as readers and teacher autonomy as reading teachers—even as both students and teachers must adopt ways to navigate this new SOR reality.
Key concerns about SOR legislation and policy include reducing reading instruction to scripted programs (often labeled “structured literacy) that erase individual student needs and teacher professionalism.
Educators, parents, and advocates for reading must acknowledge and reinforce that reading science is not settled, even as we have decades of valuable evidence for what works when teaching children to read.
This advocacy must walk a very difficult path of honoring individual stories of parents, children, and teachers while also raising cautions that anecdotes do not equal science (credible generalizations).
Anecdotes are powerful and compelling, but they often perpetuate overly melodramatic stories that misrepresent reading and teaching reading.
Next, we must hold SOR practices and policies to the highest standards of meeting the equity and diversity needs of our students.
Early evidence suggests that SOR-labeled reading programs and materials often have the same lack of diversity that has plagued reading materials for decades.
One of the historical negative consequences of “science” (which has historically been used to support racism and sexism) is that it promotes authority grounded in claims of being objective, which allows science to often be a veneer for practices that are, in fact, inequitable and biased.
The technocratic focus of the SOR movement and policy is fertile ground for continuing to see reading and students in monolithic ways that erases their humanity. Cultural backgrounds, regional dialects, and individual experiences must all be honored and fostered in our pursuit of teaching reading and the love of literacy that all children deserve.
There simply is not one right way to become a reader, and not one right way to teach children to read.
Finally, we must begin to detail and document what learning to read and teaching reading should look like if we do in fact embrace addressing individual student needs and teacher autonomy.
As a start, that requires that everyone must resist forming reading camps (labels are our enemy) and that we shift away from adopting reading programs to teach reading and call for teaching children to read.
I don’t see what we must do next as a compromise, but as a different way forward.
At its core, the SOR movement and the legislation that has become a national norm are deja vu all over again. We have lived the reading crisis/reading reform merry-go-round for almost a century.
I remain committed to King’s vision of recognizing that status quo approaches to systematic and important problems are doomed to fail again, to feed the entrenched political cycle.
Each child is precious, and unique, and each child deserves the opportunity to love reading, to become an eager and critical reader in order to enjoy the sort of human autonomy we claim to cherish.
Too often adult pettiness stands in the way of that opportunity.