All posts by plthomasedd

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a former column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English), current series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Brill), and author of Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What ‘Teaching Writing’ Means (IAP, 2019) and How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP, in press). NCTE named Thomas the 2013 George Orwell Award winner. He co-edited the award-winning (Divergent Book Award for Excellence in 21st Century Literacies Research) volume Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America (Brill, 2018). Follow his work @plthomasEdD and the becoming radical (

Lessons Never Learned: From VAM to SOR

The US is in its fifth decade of high-stakes accountability education reform.

A cycle of education crisis has repeated itself within those decades, exposing a very clear message: We are never satisfied with the quality of our public schools regardless of the standards, tests, or policies in place.

The sixteen years of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were a peak era of education reform, culminating with a shift from holding students (grade-level testing and exit exams) and schools (school report cards) accountable to holding teachers accountable (value-added methods [VAM] of evaluation).

The Obama years increased education reform based on choice and so-called innovation (charter schools) and doubled-down on Michelle Rhee’s attack on “bad” teachers and Bill Gates’s jumbled reform-of-the-moment approaches (in part driven by stack ranking to eliminate the “bad” teachers and make room for paying great teachers extra to teach higher class sizes). [1]

Like Rhee and Gates, crony appointee Secretary of Education Arne “Game Changer” Duncan built a sort of celebrity status (including playing in the NBA All-Star celebrity games) on the backs of the myth of the bad teacher, charter schools, and arguing that education reform would transform society.

None the less, by the 2010s, the US was right back in the cycle of shouting education crisis, pointing fingers at bad teachers, and calling for science-based reform, specifically the “science of reading” movement.

Reading legislation reform began around 2013 and then the media stoked the reading crisis fire starting in 2018. However, this new education crisis is now paralleled by the recent culture war fought in schools with curriculum gag orders and book bans stretching from K-12 into higher education.

Education crisis, teacher bashing, public school criticism, and school-based culture wars have a very long and tired history, but this version is certainly one of the most intense, likely because of the power of social media.

The SOR movement, however, exposes once again that narratives and myths have far more influence in the US than data and evidence.

Let’s look at a lesson we have failed to learn for nearly a century.

Secretary Duncan was noted (often with more than a dose of satire) for using “game changer” repeatedly in his talks and comments, but Duncan also perpetuated a myth that the teacher is the most important element in a child’s learning.

As a teacher for almost 40 years, I have to confirm that this sounds compelling and I certainly believe that teachers are incredibly important.

Yet decades of research reveal a counter-intuitive fact that is also complicated:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words

Measurable student achievement is by far more a reflection of out-of-school factors (OOS) such as poverty, parental education, etc., than of teacher quality, school quality, or even authentic achievement by students. Historically, for example, SAT data confirm this evidence:

Test-score disparities have grown significantly in the past 25 years.  Together, family income, education, and race now account for over 40% of the variance in SAT/ACT scores among UC applicants, up from 25% in 1994.  (By comparison, family background accounted for less than 10% of the variance in high school grades during this entire time) The growing effect of family background on SAT/ACT scores makes it difficult to rationalize treating scores purely as a measure of individual merit or ability, without regard to differences in socioeconomic circumstance.

Family Background Accounts for 40% of SAT/ACT Scores Among UC Applicants

Let’s come back to this, but I want to frame this body of scientific research (what SOR advocates demand) with the SOR movement claims [2] that teachers do not teach the SOR (because teacher educators failed to teach that) and student reading achievement is directly linked to poor teacher knowledge and instruction (specifically the reliance on reading programs grounded in balanced literacy).

This media and politically driven SOR narrative is often grounded in a misrepresentation of test-based data, NAEP:

First, the SOR claims do not match grade 4 data on NAEP in terms of claiming we have a reading crisis (NAEP scores immediately preceding the 2013 shift in reading legislation were improving), that SOR reading policies and practices are essential (NAEP data have been flat since 2013 with a Covid drop in recent scores), and that 65% of students aren’t proficient at reading.

On that last point, the misinformation and misunderstanding of NAEP are important to emphasize:

1.  Proficient on NAEP does not mean grade level performance.  It’s significantly above that.
2.  Using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.

The NAEP proficiency myth

Now if we connect the SOR narrative with NAEP data and the research noted above about what standardized test scores are causally linked to, we are faced with very jumbled and false story.

Teacher prep, instructional practices, and reading programs would all fit into that very small impact of teachers (10-15%), and there simply is no scientific research that shows a causal relationship between balanced literacy and low student reading proficiency. Added to the problem is that balanced literacy and the “simple view” of reading (SVR) have been central to how reading is taught for the exact same era (yet SOR only blames balanced literacy and aggressively embraces SVR as “settled science,” which it isn’t).

One of the worst aspects of the SOR movement has been policy shifts in states that allocate massive amount of public funds to retraining teachers, usually linked to one professional development model, LETRS (which isn’t a scientifically proven model [3]).

Once again, we are mired in a myth of the bad teacher movement that perpetuates the compelling counter myth that the teacher is the most important element in a child’s education.

However, the VAM era flamed out, leaving in its ashes a lesson that we are determined to ignore:

VAMs should be viewed within the context of quality improvement, which distinguishes aspects of quality that can be attributed to the system from those that can be attributed to individual teachers, teacher preparation programs, or schools. Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment (2014)

Let me emphasize: “the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions,” and not through blaming and retraining teachers.

The counterintuitive part in all this is that teachers are incredibly important at the practical level, but isolating teaching impact at the single-teacher or single-moment level through standardized testing proves nearly impossible.

The VAM movement failed to transform teacher quality and student achievement because, as the evidence form that era proves, in-school only education reform is failing to address the much larger forces at the systemic level that impact measurable student achievement.

Spurred by the misguided rhetoric and policies under Obama, I began advocating for social context reform as an alternative to accountability reform.

The failure of accountability, the evidence proves, is that in-school only reform never achieves the promises of the reformers or the reforms.

Social context reform calls for proportionally appropriate and equity-based reforms that partner systemic reform (healthcare, well paying work, access to quality and abundant food, housing, etc.) with a new approach to in-school reform that is driven by equity metrics (teacher assignment, elimination of tracking, eliminating punitive policies such as grade retention, fully funded meals for all students, class size reduction, etc.).

The SOR movement is repeating the same narrative and myth-based approach to blaming teachers and schools, demanding more (and earlier) from students, and once again neglecting to learn the lessons right in front of us because the data do not conform to our beliefs.

I have repeated this from Martin Luther King Jr. so often I worry that there is no space for most of the US to listen, but simply put: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

While it is false or at least hyperbolic messaging to state that 65% of US students are not proficient readers, if we are genuinely concerned about the reading achievement of our students, we must first recognize that reading test scores are by far a greater reflection of societal failures—not school failures, not teacher failures, not teacher education failures.

And while we certainly need some significant reform in all those areas, we will never see the sort of outcomes we claim to want if we continue to ignore the central lesson of the VAM movement; again: “the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions.”

The SOR movement is yet another harmful example of the failures of in-school only education reform that blames teachers and makes unrealistic and hurtful demands of children and students.

The science from the VAM era contradicts, again, the narratives and myths we seem fatally attracted to; if we care about students and reading, we’ll set aside false stories, learn our evidence-based lessons, and do something different.


Joshua Bleiberg
Eric Brunner
Erica Harbatkin
Matthew A. Kraft
Matthew G. Springer
Working Paper 30995


Federal incentives and requirements under the Obama administration spurred states to adopt major reforms to their teacher evaluation systems. We examine the effects of these reforms on student achievement and attainment at a national scale by exploiting the staggered timing of implementation across states. We find precisely estimated null effects, on average, that rule out impacts as small as 0.015 standard deviation for achievement and 1 percentage point for high school graduation and college enrollment. We also find little evidence that the effect of teacher evaluation reforms varied by system design rigor, specific design features or student and district characteristics. We highlight five factors that may have undercut the efficacy of teacher evaluation reforms at scale: political opposition, the decentralized structure of U.S. public education, capacity constraints, limited generalizability, and the lack of increased teacher compensation to offset the non-pecuniary costs of lower job satisfaction and security.

[2] I recommend the following research-based analysis of the SOR movement claims:

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

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

[3] See:

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

Research Roundup: LETRS (PDF in link above also)


Part of the problem in debates about schools and education is the relentless use of “teacher quality” as a proxy for understanding “teaching quality”. This focuses on the person rather than the practice.

This discourse sees teachers blamed for student performance on NAPLAN and PISA tests, rather than taking into account the systems and conditions in which they work.

While teaching quality might be the greatest in school factor affecting student outcomes, it’s hardly the greatest factor overall. As Education Minister Jason Clare said last month:

“I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin.”

We know disadvantage plays a significant role in educational outcomes. University education departments are an easy target for both governments and media.

Blaming them means governments do not have to try and rectify the larger societal and systemic problems at play.

Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues

Stand with the Banned: May 2023

Americans are less free in 2023 than just a couple years ago.

While some may see Florida’s assault on books, school curriculum, and higher education as an aberration, censorship, bans, and curriculum gag orders are increasingly common across the US, as reported by Eesha Pendharkar:

This is the third year in a row in which Republican lawmakers have increased their legislative efforts to restrict LGBTQ students’ rights and curtail lessons, books, and other materials about LGBTQ people.

“There certainly seems to be renewed energy around passing censorship legislation around LGBTQ identity, which is law really only in one state,” said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.

“But that’s likely to increase dramatically this year.”

Since 2021, lawmakers in 22 states have introduced 42 bills with language and restrictions similar to those in the “Don’t Say Gay” measure, formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law. Since the start of this legislative session, 26 of those bills have been introduced in 14 states that use the same language as Florida’s law, with many imposing more severe restrictions compared with the original bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed in 2022.

Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Continues to Spur More Extreme Versions Nationwide

Republicans and conservatives have launched a campaign to ban books, censor ideas and topics in schools from elementary school through higher education, eradicate academic freedom, and indoctrinate children by seizing control of education through legislation.

These legislative attacks target the LGBTQ+ community, minoritized races, the legacy and history of racism in the US, and everyone who embraces a pluralistic democracy.

I am advocating here a companion month of solidarity in May 2023 that builds on National Days of Teaching Truth in 2022.

Please contact me by email paul(dot)thomas(at)furman(dot)edu or message me through Twitter if you’d like to sign on in support or offer any events that carry this tag #standwiththebanned.

Below I will list signees, individuals or groups/organizations, who offer support as well as list resources for fighting bans and censorship.

I will also be posting day-by-day books, texts, and authors. for the entire month of May 2023.

We Stand with the Banned

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, Furman University

Katie Kelly, Associate Professor of Education, Furman University

Brandon Inabinet, Professor of Communication Studies, Furman University

Victoria L. Turgeon, Academic Director of Prisma Health Partnerships, Professor of Biology & Neuroscience, Furman University

Miles Dame, Outreach Assistant, Furman University Libraries, and Facilitator with Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group

Mary Howard, author

Rosemarie Jensen

Chris Goering, University of Arkansas

Deborah Cromer

Ellen Hopkins, author

Michael E. Jennings, Professor of Education, Furman University

Emily Pendergrass, Associate Professor of Literacy, Peabody College 

Shameera Virani, Clinical Faculty, Department of Education, Furman University

Day-by-Day Books, Texts, and Authors: May 2023


May 1:
May 2:
May 3:

Open Letter on Fighting “Anti-Woke” Censorship of Intersectionality and Black Feminism

May 4:

Ellen Hopkins

What about Will

Most-Banned Author in America Calls BS on Parents’ ‘Concern’

May 5:
May 6:
May 7:
May 8:
May 9:
May 10:
May 11:
May 12:
May 13:
May 14:
May 15:
May 16:
May 17:
May 18:
May 19:
May 20:
May 21:
May 22:
May 23:
May 24:
May 25:
May 26:
May 27:
May 28:
May 29:
May 30:
May 31:


Please download and share:

NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

Zinn Education Project

Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools

American Library Association

“Only Cowards Ban Books” T-shirt HERE

Pro Truth South Carolina

SC for Ed




Podcast: What You Can Do: How ‘Sold a Story’ sold us a story ft Dr. Paul Thomas

How ‘Sold a Story’ sold us a story ft Dr. Paul Thomas

See Also

Which Is Valid, SOR Story or Scholarly Criticism?: Checking for the “Science” in the “Science of Reading”

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

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

My 70s Show: Marvel Edition

I recently posted about my new collecting focus after completing my Daredevil and Black Widow runs.

Recollecting from my 1970s collection is filled with nostalgia but is also extremely satisfying.

Here are some updates as well as some cool stuff I still have from that original collecting era of about 1975 through 1979.


Amazing Spider-Man

Conan the Barbarian

ChatGPT and a New Battle in the Citation Gauntlet for Students and Teachers

The responses to AI writing in the form of ChatGPT have run the gamut from thoughtful to frantic (see both in my own consideration), but the International Baccalaureate response has added a new battle in the citation gauntlet for students and teachers:

Schoolchildren are allowed to quote from content created by ChatGPT in their essays, the International Baccalaureate has said.

The IB, which offers an alternative qualification to A-levels and Highers, said students could use the chatbot but must be clear when they were quoting its responses.

ChatGPT has become a sensation since its public release in November, with its ability to produce plausible responses to text prompts, including requests to write essays.

While the prospect of ChatGPT-based cheating has alarmed teachers and the academic profession, Matt Glanville, the IB’s head of assessment principles and practice, said the chatbot should be embraced as “an extraordinary opportunity”.

ChatGPT allowed in International Baccalaureate essays

This hamfisted move by IB has prompted another layer to the debate:

IB’s “exactly wrong” response to ChatGPT and McCormick’s criticism come on the heels of my first-year writing students submitting their second essay of the semester, an assignment that introduces them to academic citation at the college level through using hyperlinks to support their claims and discussions.

This assignment is grounded in two concerns.

First, students often come to college having learned “to do MLA” and “to write research papers,” which inculcates in them writing like students instead of writing in authentic ways or as scholars/academics.

Second, first-year students are often buried under the weight of formatting citation and less engaged with why and how citation works in authentic texts.

Therefore, hyperlinking as citation and incorporating online sources into original writing allow students to navigate that why and how of citation and using sources while primarily focusing on original ideas and claims in the context of finding and using credible sources to establish their authority as writers.

The next essay assignment requires students to do scholarly citation using APA; therefore, essay 2 is a type of scaffolding to address student misconceptions learned before college.

My teaching style is grounded in workshop structures—students doing holistic behaviors and producing authentic artifacts of learning—as well as providing less upfront direct instruction, models of products being created by students, and then individualized instruction grounded in the artifacts students submit. Of course, much of the learning comes from, in writing-intensive courses, conferencing and revising.

One student, for example, who seems sincerely engaged in the course submitted their essay 2 with the first hyperlink being to Wikipedia.

I had given the class the standard Wikipedia talk I offer: Academia frowns on Wikipedia so you should never cite it, but Wikipedia may be a good place to start thinking and brainstorming, although it certainly isn’t a solid source to end your research.

I reminded them of that in my comment, and once again, reminded the class of this aspect of finding and using credible sources in academic writing.

Essay 2 is once again proving to be a valuable instructional tool about seeking out sources to understand topics and claims better, incorporating citation into writing to support claims and give writing (and the writer) authority, and the seemingly arbitrary standards for citation that vary among different fields (journalism has a much different standards for citation than academia, for example).

Now that IB has christened ChatGPT as citable, students and teachers have yet another layer of problems in the tensions between plagiarism and citation.

Despite IB’s stance, as McCormick rightfully notes, ChatGPT is not citable, not a credible source.

Part of the reason reminds me of the SAT writing debacle that also included computers—machine grading of the writing portion of the test.

As Thomas Newkirk mused in 2005, machine graded writing on the SAT allowed students to “invent evidence” because the computer rubric rewarded the appearance of evidence, not the credibility or even accuracy of evidence; simply putting words in quote marks and ascribing that to someone could fulfill the rubric for proof.

This, as some have noted, is what ChatGPT will do, along with other forms of fabrication.

Citation and incorporating sources in original writing are about the conversation of deep and critical thinking as well as about the ethics of attribution of ideas; in academia, we often call that standing on the shoulders of giants.

It doesn’t have to be that grand, but scholarship and thoughtful thinking and writing should acknowledge that knowing and knowledge are communal, not the product of the solitary mind.

I have come to recognize citation as an unnecessary gauntlet for students, something like academic hazing.

As I tell students, I hope someday we all simply hyperlink as citation to eradicate the mindless formatting nonsense from an otherwise noble behavior: Simply acknowledging that I am not alone in this thinking and many smart and careful people have wrestled with this also in diverse and engaging ways.

Until then, sigh, we teachers and our students are now confronted with another battle tossed in the heap of traps for the emerging students-as-writers.

Added to our lessons on choosing sources, warnings about Wikipedia, and fervent fist-waving about plagiarism, the Brave New World of ChatGPT—and the likelihood that students will arrive in higher ed not only trapped in “doing MLA” and “writing research papers,” but citing AI because their IB program told them it is ok.

See my many posts on citation.

Plantation Ghosts Past and Present

I was pretending to stay awake or fighting to wake up, but when I slightly opened my eyes, I realized I was in my bedroom from my teen years.

I was my age now, in my sixties, and my father was standing over me. The room was brightly lit; my father was in his late 30s—although he died about six years ago.

This was a very vivid dream the last night I was in Hilton Head recently. Although I was born in and lived my entire life in South Carolina, this was only my second trip to Hilton Head, the first time just a couple years before.

We were a Myrtle Beach family when I was growing up, and those vacations were usually off-season, in winter. For a while my maternal grandparents managed a hotel in Myrtle Beach (after doing so in Asheville); both places provided us cheaper ways to vacation like we could afford it.

You see, my parents were solidly working class in my childhood during the sixties—but decidedly middle-class aspirant.

My teens were spent in the 1970s at the house my parents built on the golf course just north of my home town. By then, they were middle-class adjacent, having bought the first lot as the course was being developed.

It took everything my parents had to buy the lot and then build the house. The house payment was less than $100 per month, and Mom always paid extra so they eventually paid off the house early, their way of proving they belonged in the middle class.

When I graduated high school, my father had just turned forty so I have a very powerful set of naive memories of him in his 20s and 30s, just before I was able to confront the realities of my parents as deeply flawed people.

That golf course—being members and living there—was incredibly important for my parents, materially and symbolically. But the private course was segregated, and I lived in a sort of hazy awareness that institutional racism was both an entrenched fact and really disturbing.

One club member had a wife who was Native American (we said “Indian” then); that was a whispered scandal every time he came to play a round alone with her simply walking the course beside him.

She had incredibly black straight hair, and members would stand in the club house pointing and mumbling among themselves as he and his wife walked along the fairway.

The larger scandal was the very dark Indian family who joined the club, a doctor who had come from India to earn his medical degree in the US and then settled in our small town to practice.

Those children were at the course pool where I worked one day. The board president drove by and went directly to the club pro to complain that Black people were at the pool (I feel certain he did not say “Black”).

By college and my early adulthood, I recognized the racism I had been raised in, both in my home and community. My parents were mostly passively matter-of-fact in their racism, but my father could spew pretty vile racist rhetoric when upset.

That dream while in Hilton Head was clinging to my naive memories of my young, fit, and smiling father—who I loved and who was mostly incredibly loving and supportive of me, although in his hard-ass 1950s sort of toxic male way that included being whipped with a belt as a child and wrestled to the ground or tossed across the room as a teen.

But that naive memory of him I still love—that smiled at me in the dream—wasn’t my father really or fully; that was only a ghost.

And a fitting dream in Hilton Head where plantation ghosts past and present haunt everything.

As I said, we were Myrtle Beach people, working-class rednecks who fully embraced the tackiness and crass commercialism of Myrtle Beach as the black eye of the SC Grand Strand that stood in stark contrast to the golf courses and coastal islands that run all down the coast and attract mostly very wealthy people not from the South.

During my family trips, we met dozens of people from Ohio and Canada, and my father—as was his way—spoke at length to everyone of them as if they had been friends forever. He did this with everyone, everywhere, regardless of who those people were or the color of their skin.

Eventually, my father’s gregariousness weighed on me against the man I knew at home.

At least Myrtle Beach was open about the shitty thing it has always been, I tend to feel, but Hilton Head, like Kiawah, takes on a disturbing pose of nature preservation to cloak the crass commercialism and obscene wealth.

Signage and lighting laws and dozens of notices asserting preserved land reinforce the narrative that Hilton Head, and other coastal islands, are very concerned about the sea turtles, the moss, and the trees.

Except for where they have carved out golf courses and the McDonald’s and Starbucks you can barely see through the moss in those trees allowed to stand between the highways and parking lots.

Although just before sunrise or at night, you can’t see a damn thing.

Because of the sea turtles, Hilton Head is very dark. But there is more than a little symbolism in that darkness since many of the areas and several of the establishments still carry the monicker “plantation.”

Governor DeSantis ain’t got nothing on the ability of the rich in SC to act as if nothing really happened here and to cling to our past like Emily clutching her dead lover’ corpse each night.

“Plantation” down here is somewhere between a “Bless your heart” and “Fuck you,” depending.

The drive from and to the Upstate takes about four hours, a grueling trek along I-95 and I-26, with some of the most stark poverty lining the pot-holed I-95.

At least the tourists can drive 70-80 miles an hour and keep their eyes focused on the crumbling roads, lest they catch a glimpse of the squalor between their luxurious homes and the vacation plantation of their dreams.

During the drive home, I could not shake the dream of my father, and once back home, the shower didn’t ease the feeling that I was very dirty having visited for a few days that island punctuated repeatedly with “plantation,” indelibly so.

Plantation ghosts invade the skin, burrow into your bones, seer into your eyes.

Well, if you allow yourself to feel the weight of that past—and the present.

Not feeling, not thinking, and not giving a good goddamn are special talents among many in the South.

That’s one way to get filthy rich.

That’s one way to get elected.

I do not hold any sort of false pride about living in the Upstate and not among those island ghosts because we have plantations up here also, places marketing for tourists as well.

But I was very happy to return to the soil of my working-class roots, where we have garish signs and so much lighting you can see everything—except what you choose to ignore.

Poem: when she appeared

I keep what I can of you

“New Order T-Shirt,” The National

when she appeared

he worried that appeared
mattered more than happy

sitting with her in the odd warmth
of a south carolina february
pollen dusted
a coastal island breeze
and no-see-um flies

he worried that appeared
mattered more than happy

as he noticed her skin glistening
like sitting poolside in summer

when he loved her so much it hurt
like all the other times

she pulled his mind and eyes
from the cormac mccarthy novel
fanned open between his legs

a novel she really wanted to read
if he would just fucking finish reading it

(she often talked in her sleep
cussing like a sailor as she did awake
fucking choose your mission and go to sleep)


you cannot ask someone
he realized like the bags under his eyes
are you happy or do you seem happy

and you can never climb on the table
to shout your love without causing a scene

or say with a straight face and sigh
i am too old for this

so he said nothing at all aloud
that silence of loving deeply and sincere

like the bite of a tiny tiny fly
that you never see until you feel it

—P.L. Thomas

Still Only 25¢: Recollecting 1970s Marvel Comic Books

My formative years stretched over the 1960s and 1970s. Even through the amber haze of nostalgia, many things from those decades are forgettable, even regrettable.

I wrapped up the end of the 70s in a body brace for scoliosis—nerdy, scrawny, and possessing of 7000 Marvel comic books.

I recently completed an entire run of Daredevil launched in 1964 and had completed the much smaller runs of Black Widow before that while I wrote a series of blogs addressing how the character has been underestimated and hypersexualized.

My recommitting to collecting comic books started out very targeted, but since I completed my Daredevil collection, I have floundered a bit where to turn next. I have been collecting Daredevil appearances in other titles and started working on Moon Knight volume 1 after finding issue 1 in an antique store.

Then, the other day, Nova issue 1 from the summer of 1976 popped up on my Instagram feed. As a beginning collector and a wanna-be comic book artist, I was immediately drawn to Nova as possibly the first #1 of a comic that occurred during my early collecting days. I also was drawing Nova by later that year:

This is, then, a sort of nostalgia post, about my turning to recollecting some of those comic books from my 1970s Marvel collection that still have a special place in my heart—Nova, the Ross Andru Amazing Spider-Man run, Conan the Barbarian, and Deathlok (premiering in Astonishing Tales and once in Marvel Spotlight).

Below are my scans of my newest nostalgia collecting including those titles and some wandering when an issue catches my eye.

Nova v1 was key for me as a Sal Buscema fan, although this title only ran 25 issues (at the writing I am about 2 issues from a full run):

Nova 1-25 [1976-1979]

It is a bit cliche, but my immediate love as a comic book collector was Amazing Spider-Man. My introduction to Spider-Man was during the Gil Kane and John Romita years, a truly wonderful era that may even rival Steve Ditko’s original run.

However, my purchasing years were mostly during the Ross Andru run on Amazing Spider-Man (issues 125-185) and that work still has a special place in my heart.

Here are a few older issues and some initial grabs of those Andru issues:

Amazing Spider-Man 86, 92, 147, 152-155 [1970, 1971, 1975, 1976]

One of my more embarrassing confessions is my delayed nostalgia for Conan the Barbarian. My dad and I made two large purchases of a collection early in my collecting; that included many (if not all) of the early 1970s Marvel titles.

One of which was the Barry Windsor-Smith Conan run. At the time, I wasn’t really all that engaged with BWS’s work, and during my main collecting days, John Buscema took over (often with wonderful Kane covers and Ernie Chau inking).

I purchased the The Barry Windsor-Smith Archives Conan (v1, v2), but haven’t quite fully committed to collecting, again, those excellent issues:

Here are scans of a few early Conan issues in my recollecting stack:

Conan the Barbarian 22, 50, 52 [1972, 1975]

When I began collecting again, I immediately searched for Deathlok, who first appeared in Astonishing Tales. I was actually a Rich Buckler fan, although I think his work was considered second-tier, and this character series fit perfectly into my science fiction obsession.

Recently, I completed this run, although I need to find a better quality AT 25:

[Astonishing Tales featuring Deathlok 25-28, 30-36, Marvel Spotlight 33 (1974-1977)]

Above are galleries of some of my favorite covers, but I am a huge fan of those 1970s covers and the gradual increase in issue prices. I collected many comics costing 12¢, 15¢, 20¢, and 25¢, and watched as they creeped into the 35-40¢ era.

I find the dramatic “Still only 25¢” endearing and miss that era of comic books. There is something we have lost since the basic coloring and newsprint from the 1960s and 1970s—although there is much to enjoy and praise in the current era of comic books.

Hope you enjoy the walk down memory lane that I am taking, recollecting the issues I held in my hands as a teen who fell in love with Marvel way before it was cool.

The Reading Puzzle and the Media’s Caricature Blame Game

As an aging adult, I have returned with mature gusto to childhood things—comic books, Lego, and puzzles.

Puzzles are, like Lego, incredibly satisfying, and I have discovered a wonderful puzzle company, Magic Puzzle Company, that combines fascinating original art with its own version of “magic”; once the main puzzle is completed, you can move sections, reveal an open section in the middle, and then complete the puzzle for a big reveal:

I have a daughter and three grandchildren so I have watched child development paralleled with puzzles for many years.

Babies and small children often start with simple one-piece puzzles that challenge them with fitting that one piece into a basic shape. As the child develops, the puzzles become progressively more complex—more pieces and piece shapes more varied and unpredictable.

That sequential process is incredibly compelling for adults trying to teach children. In other words, most adults want learning to be that simple, and yes, predictable from child to child.

However, many human behaviors are not that simple even when they are linked to what we might call natural behaviors. Language is typically viewed as natural, yet reading and writing are somewhat artificial and constructed extensions of that natural inclination.

The current media-driven reading crisis, the “science of reading” movement, is fatally attracted to oversimplification, caricature, and fanning an ugly and misleading blame game.

According to journalists, student reading achievement is abysmal because teachers are trapped in balanced literacy and not the “science of reading.”

That is a one-piece puzzle view of reading and teaching reading.

If we just take one step forward, the three-piece puzzle, this caricature falls apart.

The problem at the three-piece puzzle level is that since about the 1990s, we can fairly identify three forces surrounding how reading is taught in the US.

The first piece, although not universal, is that balanced literacy (BL) has been a dominant reading philosophy (although popularly identified as a “theory”) since about the 1990s when media and public attacks on whole language, while misguided, were very effective in challenging that philosophy/framework.

However, the media version of BL is caricature (often presented as a cartoonishly incomplete reading theory or program) instead of its intent as a philosophical framing:

Next, the second piece of the puzzle, most pre-service teachers have been taught the “simple view” of reading (SVR) as the dominant reading theory over that same era (including currently). [1]

If we pause and consider the first two puzzle pieces—balanced literacy and the “simple view” of reading—the media messaging falls apart since the SOR movement has demonized BL as the core cause of reading failures, yet embraced SVR as settled science.

In the real world of teacher education, however, these two have equally informed how teachers are prepared to teach reading—although teacher prep is , in fact, highly diverse in the application of both.

And now the third puzzle piece—most teachers are required to implement reading programs once they are in the classroom, regardless of the their teacher education program.

Here the puzzle becomes incredibly complicated because despite the media’s misinformation campaign, reading programs are not all BL inspired; many of the dominant programs, in fact, assert reading philosophies and theories that are explicitly not BL.

While the media messaging is stuck in the one-piece puzzle and by moving to a three-piece puzzle the inherent logic falls apart in that oversimplification, the reality is that the reading puzzle is much more like the Magic Puzzle Company’s highly complex puzzle with moving parts and remaining work to be done:

The one-piece puzzle blame game, regretfully, is very compelling so the media message remains mostly unchallenged at the popular and political levels.

Culturally, the large and very complicated reading puzzle with moving parts may be more than we can handle, but even if we just move to the three-part puzzle, the story being told about reading proves to be a simplistic blame game.

Reading, teaching reading, and students deserve a bigger, better picture that simply isn’t easy to piece together.

[1] See the discussion of the SVR in this policy brief. Note that in this brief, BL is included in reading theories because of the popular use of the term as a theory, even as that contrasts with its original intent as a philosophical grounding, similar to whole language.

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.

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44.

The Myth of the Bad Teacher: 2023

If you are paying attention to traditional or social media, you are aware of the following stories being told about US public school teachers in 2023:

  • Elementary teachers are failing to teach reading effectively to US students.
  • That failure is “because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it,” according to Hanford.
  • Elementary, literature/ELA teachers, and history teachers are brainwashing students with CRT.
  • Elementary and literature/ELA teachers are grooming children to be gay or transgender by forcing them to read diverse books and stories.

Except for teachers themselves and some education scholars, these new bad teacher myths are both extremely compelling and almost entirely false. Writing in 2010 during a peak bad teacher movement in the US, Adam Bessie explains about the bad teacher stories represented by Michelle Rhee and perpetuated by the Obama administration and Bill Gates:

The myth is now the truth.

The Bad Teacher myth, [Bill] Ayers admits, is appealing, which is why it’s spread so far and become so commonly accepted. Who can, after all, disagree that we “need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom?” Even Ayers agrees that he, like all of us, “nods stupidly” along with this notion. As a professor at a community college and former high school teacher, I nod stupidly as well: I don’t want my students held back, alienated, or abused by these Bad Teachers.

This myth is also seductive in its simplicity. It’s much easier to have a concrete villain to blame for problems school systems face. The fix seems easy, as well: all we need to do is fire the Bad Teachers, as controversial Washington, DC, school chancellor superstar Michelle Rhee has, and hire good ones, and students will learn. In this light, Gates’ effort to “fix” the bug-riddled public school operating system by focusing on teacher development makes perfect sense. The logic feels hard to argue with: who would argue against making teachers better? And if, as a teacher, you do dare to, you must be “anti-student,” a Bad Teacher who is resistant to “reforms,” who is resistant to improvements and, thus, must be out for himself, rather than the students.

The Myth of the Bad Teacher

Bessie concludes, “The only problem with the Bad Teacher myth, as anyone involved with education is intimately aware of, is that problems in education are anything but simple,” and ultimately, in 2023, these myths are not supported by the evidence.

For example, as the authors of a report out of UCLA assert about anti-CRT attacks on teachers:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

The Conflict Campaign

The bad teacher myth in 2023 “thrives on caricature” and anecdotes that, as noted above, as very compelling but ultimately not only lack credible evidence [1] and logic, but also cause far more harm than good in terms of reforming education, serving student needs, or recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

The bad teacher myth in 2023 is targeting educators who are 70-90% women, and those teachers under the most intense attacks tend to be elementary teachers who are even more disproportionately women and the lowest paid educators [2]:

Further, there is little evidence that students today are uniquely underperforming in reading achievement, yet the bad reading teacher myth is perpetuated by misrepresenting reading achievement through misleading messages around NAEP reading data (see Hanford’s chart that ironically suggests gradual improvement, not a crisis).

Two problems with the bad reading teacher myth is that NAEP reading proficiency is not grade level reading, as Loveless examines:

NAEP does not report the percentage of students performing at grade level.  NAEP reports the percentage of students reaching a “proficient” level of performance.  Here’s the problem. That’s not grade level. 

In this post, I hope to convince readers of two things:

1.  Proficient on NAEP does not mean grade level performance.  It’s significantly above that.
2.  Using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.

The NAEP proficiency myth

And the low levels of reading proficiency are historical, not a recent set of data that constitutes a reading crisis:

If we want to rely on NAEP reading scores, however flawed that metric, the historical patterns suggest a relatively flat state of reading achievement with some trends of improvement in the 1970s (which was followed by the manufactured myth of schools failing with A Nation at Risk [1983]) and steadily from about 1990 until 2012 (an era demonized as a failure due to reliance on balanced literacy).

Notably, the “science of reading” movement tends to be connected to legislation starting around 2013 and Hanford’s journalism beginning in 2018, and that NAEP data has remained relatively flat except for the Covid drop.

Again, as Bessie acknowledged over a decade ago, the real problems with education, teaching, and learning are very complex and far larger than pointing fingers at teachers as “villains.”

For most of the history of US education, student reading achievement has been described as “failing,” and vulnerable student populations (minoritized races, impoverished students, students with special needs such as dyslexia, and MLLs) have always been underserved.

The dirty little secret about teacher quality related to student reading proficiency is that those vulnerable students are disproportionately sitting in class with early-career and uncertified teachers who are struggling with high student/teacher ratios.

Are students being underserved? Yes, but this is a historical fact of US public education not a current crisis.

Are low student achievement and reading proficiency the result of bad teachers? No, but these outcomes are definitely correlated with bad teaching/learning conditions and bad living conditions for far too many students.

In 2023, just as in 2010, the myth of the bad teacher is a lie, a political and marketing lie that will never serve the needs of students, teachers, or society.

Way back in 1984 when I entered the classroom, I was excited to begin my career but quickly discovered that despite my respect and even love for my English professors and teacher educators in my undergraduate degree, I simply was not prepared well enough to do my job, notably as a teacher of writing.

I set out to learn by teaching, and do better. During the late 1980s, I was fortunate to learn further through the Spartanburg Writing Project (Nation Writing Project), where I discovered that much of my on-the-job training was misguided (thanks, Brenda Davenport).

Anyone who teaches knows that becoming an effective teacher is a journey and that those first 3, 5, or even 10 years are challenging and include a great deal of growth that cannot be accomplished in teacher certification programs.

None the less, everything surrounding teaching, and especially the teaching of reading, can and should be better.

That was true in 1940 and every decade since then.

Teacher and school bashing, shouting “crisis”—these have been our responses over and over; these are not how we create a powerful teacher workforce, and these will never serve the needs of our students who need great teachers and public education the most.

The myth of the bad teacher is a Great American Tradition that need to end.

[1] Valcarcel, C., Holmes, J., Berliner, D. C., & Koerner, M. (2021). The value of student feedback in open forums: A natural analysis of descriptions of poorly rated teachers. Education Policy Analysis Archives29(January – July), 79.

[2] See Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues