Category Archives: Crisis

Test Scores Reflect Media, Political Agendas, Not Student or Educational Achievement [UPDATED]

In the US, the crisis/miracle obsession with reading mostly focuses on NAEP scores. For the UK, the same crisis/miracle rhetoric around reading is grounded in PIRLS.

The media and political stories around the current reading crisis cycle have interested and overlapping dynamics in these two English-dominant countries, specifically a hyper-focus on phonics.

Here are some recent media examples for context:

Let’s start with the “soar[ing]” NAEP reading scores in MS, LA, and AL as represented by AP:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

Now, let’s add the media response to PIRLS data in the UK:

Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey
Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey

Now I will share data on NAEP and PIRLS that shows media and political responses to test scores are fodder for their predetermined messaging, not real reflections of student achievement or educational quality.

A key point is that the media coverage above represents a bait-and-switch approach to analyzing test scores. The claims in both the US and UK are focusing on rank among states/countries and not trends of data within states/countries.

Do any of these state trend lines from FL, MS, AL, or LA appear to be “soar[ing]” data?

The fair description of the “miracle” states identified by AP is that test scores are mostly flat, and AL, for example, appears to have peaked more than a decade ago and is trending down.

The foundational “miracle” state, MS, has had two significant increases, one before their SOR commitment and one after; but there remains no research on why the increases:

Scroll up and notice that in the UK, PIRLS scores have tracked flat and slightly down as well.

The problematic elements in all of this is that many journalists and politicians have used flat NAEP scores to shout “crisis” and “miracle,” while in the UK, the current flat and slightly down scores are reason to shout “Success!” (although research on the phonics-centered reform in England since 2006 has not delivered as promised [1]).

Many problems exist with relying on standardized tests scores to evaluate and reform education. Standardized testing remains heavily race, gender, and class biased.

But the greatest issue with tests data is that inexpert and ideologically motivated journalists and politicians persistently conform the data to their desired stories—some times crisis, some times miracle.

Once again, the stories being sold—don’t buy them.


Three Twitter threads on reading, language and a response to an article in the Sunday Times today by Nick Gibb, Michael Rosen

[1] 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 Education10(1), e3314.


Mainstream media continues to push a false story about MS as a model for the nation. Note that MS, TN, AL, and LA demonstrate that political manipulation of early test data is a mirage, not a miracle.

All four states remain at the bottom of NAEP reading scores for both proficient and basic a full decade into the era of SOR reading legislation:


The Proficiency Trap and the Never-Ending Crisis Cycles in Education: A Reader

The newest NAEP crisis (until the next one) concerns history and civics NAEP scores post-pandemic.

Similar to the NAEP crisis around reading—grounded in a misunderstanding of “proficiency” and what NAEP shows longitudinally (see Mississippi, for example)—this newest round of crisis rhetoric around NAEP exposes a central problem with media, public, and political responses to test data as well as embedding proficiency mandates in accountability legislation.

As many have noted, announcing a reading crisis is contradicted by longitudinal NAEP data:

But possibly a more problematic issue with NAEP is confusing NAEP achievement levels with commonly used terms such as “grade level proficiency” (notably as related to reading).

Yet, as is explained clearly on the NAEP web site: “It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards (e.g., state or district assessments).”

Public, media, and political claims that 2/3 of students are below grade level proficiency, then, is a false claim based on misreading NAEP data and misunderstanding the term “proficiency,” which is determined by each assessment or state (not a fixed metric).

Here is a reader for those genuinely interested in understanding NAEP data, what we mean by “proficiency,” and why expecting all students to be above any level of achievement is counter to understanding human nature (recall the failed effort in NCLB to mandate 100% of student achievement proficiency by 2014):

NAEP-mania! 2023: US History and Civics Edition

Way back in the late 1970s, I changed my schedule—either in grade 10 or 11—and found myself in two class periods without my friends; I had been trafficking among the top-ranked students in my class (I graduated number 8 out of about 150 students), but the schedule change put me in a so-called “regular” history class.

The class was taught by a football and track coach. He had a very simple and even elegant instructional strategy.

In the center of the classroom stood an overhead projector. Beside it, daily, he had a designated stack of overheads.

After the first couple classes, he assigned the slowest note taker (or better named, note copier) to sit beside the stack of notes to rotate as that student completed copying.

After one day of this tedium, I rushed to guidance and returned to my original schedule along side my friends.

Something that is rarely discussed in the many public discussions of US education is that history, social studies, civics, and government courses in public schools are disproportionately taught by coaches.

Most coaches are coincidentally teachers—and a few teachers are coincidentally coaches. A significant number of US public school students get begrudging instruction in history, social studies, civics, and government—and that instruction is superficially facts, easy to test (or at least easy to put on tests that are easy to score).

So while Republicans have been dismantling history curriculum and banning books, US students produced our latest NAEP education crisis: Eighth-Graders’ History, Civics Test Scores Hit Record Low, cries the WSJ.

Yet, here is an interesting tidbit (especially for those of us mired in the manufactured reading crisis over the past five years or so):

This relatively flat data line for NAEP history scores should remind you of reading NAEP data:

Despite evidence to the contrary, once again, mainstream media, the public, and political leaders have only two ways to react to anything about US public education—crisis or miracle.

We might anticipate that the drop in US history and civics NAEP scores (despite the obvious connection to Covid, as noted above in NAEP reading) will prompt “science of history” and “science of civics” movements.

But, honestly, those will not materialize because politically the US does not care about history or civics—at least not about the quality of teaching and learning in history or civics.

Politically, we only care about anything that allows a public outrage and melodramatic media response to further prove that students suck, teachers suck, and schools, well, suck.

Similar to the false stories around reading, however, the actual problems with history and civics teaching and learning in the US have little to do with a very bad test (that, we should note, is what NAEP is, a very bad test).

History, social studies, civics, and government courses have for decades been part of an open secret—a set of content eagerly sacrificed to the scholastic sports Gods.

And more recently, history, social studies, civics, and government are the political tool of the Republican Party who wants schooling to indoctrinate children in the fairy tales that maintain the status quo of inequitable power, freedom, and humanity that is the good ol’ U.S. of A.

The real purpose of NAEP is to give periodic space to the only way journalists know how to respond to education:

Ironically, that journalists and the public are so easily fooled by this nonsense is the strongest indictment of the failures of US public education.

We all should know better. We all should do better.

But we won’t.

That, by the way, is one predictable lesson of history.

SOR Movement Maintains Conservative Assault on Teachers and Public Schools [Updated]

Although Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton exposed A Nation at Risk many years ago, James Harvey calling the Reagan-era “report” “gaslighting” is possibly the best way to frame the manufactured crisis that set off five decades of misguided education reform in the US.

The crisis rhetoric of A Nation at Risk has become the norm for how media covers education, how the public perceives public education (mostly “other people’s schools”), and how politicians gain political points.

Harvey notes: “One of the tragedies around ‘A Nation at Risk’ was not simply that it misdiagnosed the problem and put forth ersatz solutions, but that it refused to face up to the financial implications of its argument.”

The elements of that crisis approach to education include the following:

  • Teachers are failing students.
  • Teacher education is failing teachers and students.
  • Public education is failing.
  • But this “miracle” school is doing the right thing!

As many scholars have noted, these claims are baseless but made primarily as a political move to dismantle public education and teacher education (and also teachers unions).

The media has now spoken directly into that conservative machine with the “science of reading” (SOR) movement that follows the tired and destructive pattern begun under Reagan in the 1980s.

For example, there is now a clear merging of the SOR movement and conservative politics as well as education market interests—from charter schools to the Bushes and Republican governors:

What is very disturbing is that the false claims of crisis and the misguided policy solutions being passed in almost every state now were already exposed twenty years ago by Richard J. Meyer’s Captives of the Script: Killing Us Softly with Phonics:

The SOR movement is yet more teacher bashing and school bashing, serving the conservative anti-school agenda of Republicans and market interests that feed off our public schools.

This has never been about reading.

This has never been about serving the needs of children.

This is more partisan politics; this is about conservative ideology at the expense of children, teachers, and public education.

Update May 24, 2023

From Texas, more pieces to the puzzle:

‘Woke’ filter? Texas teachers face less creative control under pair of bills

No Crisis, No Miracles: The False Narratives of Education Journalism

With a sort of humility rarely found when someone of prominence speaks to or about education in the US, celebrated author Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) found himself speaking at a teachers conference in 1963 “to discuss ‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the identified population making up the drop-out crisis of the time [1].

One of the most impressive aspects of Ellison’s talk is his emphasis on systemic influences on children and their language acquisition: “The American scene is a diversified one, and the society which gives it its character is a pluralistic society-or at least it is supposed to be,” explaining:

The education which goes on outside the classroom, which goes on as they walk within the mixed environment of Alabama, teaches children that they should not reach out for certain things. Much of the education that I received at Tuskegee (this isn’t quite true of Oklahoma City) was an education away from the uses of the imagination, away from the attitudes of aggression and courage. This is not an attack. This is descriptive, this is autobiographic. You did not do certain things because you might be destroyed. You didn’t do certain things because you were going to be frustrated. There were things you didn’t do because the world outside was not about to accommodate you….

It does me no good to be told that I’m down on the bottom of the pile and that I have nothing with which to get out. I know better. It does me no good to be told that I have no heroes, that I have no respect for the father principle because my father is a drunk. I would simply say to you that there are good drunks and bad drunks. The Eskimos have sixteen or more words to describe snow because they live with snow. I have about twenty-five different words to describe Negroes because I live principally with Negroes. “Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth ’Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

What These Children Are Like

And then Ellison goes right to the core issue about language in marginalized and minoritized populations:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex. I’m talking about how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them to find their way, and about that which helps them to be at home in the world. All this seems to me to constitute a culture. If you can abstract their manners, their codes, their customs and attitudes into forms of expression, if you can convert them into forms of art, if you can stylize them and give them many and subtle ranges of reference, then you are dealing with a culture. People have learned this culture; it has been transferred to them from generation to generation, and in its forms they have projected their most transcendent images of themselves and of the world.

What These Children Are Like

On social media, I had a cognitive scientist SOR-splain to me literacy in my home state of South Carolina, recommending I look at narrow assessments of reading (a popular program) to admit that SC has a reading crisis. Like Ellison, I pointed out I don’t need a test to know the truth about reading and literacy in SC, all across the South, and even in the US.

In my 39th year as a literacy educator in SC, where I was born in 1961 and attended formal education from 1967 through 1998, I have lived and witnessed firsthand a fact that the media narratives never capture, but let me ask you to help me before I explain the real story.

Here are longitudinal data for SC NAEP reading scores in grades 4 and 8 from 1992 to 2022; could you please identify where the “crisis” is?:

I lived, learned, and taught in the three decades before these three decades, and I can only conclude that reading achievement (whatever that is) as measured in formal testing has been about the same forever.

In my home state and across the nation, this is the real story: We have become content with a historical and current negligence about the reading acquisition of some populations (Black and brown students, poor students, special needs students, multi-lingual learners), and we lack the political will to address the systemic forces of inequity in the lives and schooling of these students to do anything about it.

Historical negligence is not a crisis; it simply is how things are, what we have come to accept as “normal.”

As I have examined in my scholarship [2], journalism in the US has only two false stories about education—crisis and miracle.

The problem is that neither narrative is true; they are anecdotal and melodramatic so they are compelling to the public, politically useful, and likely to drive reader/viewership for the media.

The US remains in a false crisis cycle begun by A Nation at Risk, and then powerfully expanded under the Obama/Duncan era of shouting education crisis while propping up the false charter school miracle machine (for example, the Harlem “miracle” celebrated by David Brooks citing the Obamas).

The crisis/miracle narrative approach from the Obama era has recently been replicated by the media obsession with SOR; Hanford’s seminal story planted both seeds by falsely claiming the US has a reading crisis and promoting a miracle school that wasn’t.

Again, please point out the crisis here:

And as I have explained, the miracle of the moment, Mississippi, like all the other educational miracles, simply doesn’t exist; MS has had steady growth and some jumps, often well before any SOR reading legislation:

And MS remains below NAEP proficient and continues to have drops between grade 4 and 8:

For many years, I have had to help my students navigate the media obsession with the melodramatic—crisis! miracle!—often found in films such as Waiting for Superman (false union crisis v. charter miracles) and the compelling documentary about education in SC, Corridor of Shame (an emotionally manipulative film about the powerful connection between poverty and educational negligence in the state).

The media, public, and politicians love and benefit from the crisis/miracle rhetoric about education. But those stories do not serve the needs of children, teachers, or schools.

Ellison ends his talk powerfully:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

What These Children Are Like

Education journalism has reduced education to crisis or miracle, and like the reductive formula Ellison rejects for children, I must reject this false pair of stories.

There is no reading or education crisis, and there are no miracle schools.

There is historical and current political negligence for addressing inequity in the lives and schooling of “other people’s children” in the US.

But that reality doesn’t sell or garner votes.

[1] Toward end, Ellison is scathing:

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What These Children Are Like

[2] Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte, NC: IAP.

Thomas, P.L. (2015). Ignored under Obama: Word magic, crisis discourse, and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope (still) audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 45-68). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

The “Manufactured Crisis” and the Repeated Failure of Education Journalism [UPDATED]

For people not in the field of education, A Nation at Risk is either a hazy (or nonexistent) footnote of history or a pedestrian (and obvious) claim that didn’t need a government committee to announce—US public education is a failure.

However, for all its fanfare and eager media coverage, the real significance of the politically driven report is that it set in motion a pattern still vibrant in 2023; mainstream media is constantly fanning the flames of “manufactured crisis.”

A Nation at Risk was a media, public, and political hit, but scholars were quick to note that the claims in the report were overstated, oversimplified, and lacking any credible evidence [1].

In short, manufactured.

From the early 1980s and into the 2020s, mainstream education journalism has hopped feverishly from crisis to crisis and endorsed boondoggle after boondoggle—never once stopping to say “My bad!” or to pause, step back, and reconsider their template.

David Labaree concludes:

When the state takes the quantified depiction of schooling that educational researchers provide and uses it to devise a plan for school reform, the best we can hope for is that the reform effort will fail.  As the history of school reform makes clear, this is indeed most often the outcome.  One reform after another has bounced off the classroom door without having much effect in shaping what goes on inside, simply because the understanding of schooling that is embodied in the reform is so inaccurate that the reform effort cannot survive in the classroom ecology.  At worst, however, the reform actually succeeds in imposing change on the process of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Scott provides a series of horror stories about the results of such an imposition in noneducational contexts, from the devastating impact of the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union to the parallel effect of imposing monoculture on German forests.  The problem in all these cases is that the effort to impose an abstract technical ideal ends up destroying a complex distinctive ecology that depends on local practical knowledge.  The current efforts by states across the globe to impose abstract technical standards on the educational village bear the signs of another ecological disaster.

The Lure of Statistics for Educational Researchers

As a result, a stunningly harmful pattern has emerged:

  • Amanda Ripley was wrong about Michelle Rhee.
  • Jay Matthews and Paul Tough were wrong about “no excuses” charter schools and Teach For America.
  • David Brooks was wrong about “miracle” charter schools (and everything else).
  • [Insert journalist] was wrong about Common Core and VAM.

And now, rest assured it will come to pass, Emily Hanford and Natalie Wexler are wrong about the “science of reading.”

Remember Waiting for Superman?

Sold a Story and The Truth about Reading are the same melodramatic misinformation campaign depending on an uninformed public to sell yet another educational crisis.

There will be no reckoning; there never is.

But some day (soon?) the “science of reading” histrionics will be a faint memory while everyone scrambles to the next education manufactured crisis.

The only things not to be addressed, of course, are the actual needs of students, teachers, and universal public education.

[1] See Gerald Bracey, Gerald Holton, and David Berliner and Bruce Biddle (who coined “manufactured myth”).

The “Big Lie,” American as Apple Pie

As one of my sabbatical projects I have been completing my online annotated bibliography of English educator Lou LaBrant.

My doctoral dissertation was an educational biography of LaBrant, but since the late 1990s, I have returned often to her work in my teaching, my scholarship, and my public advocacy and writing.

This fall, I was struck by her “English at the Mid-Century” published in 1951, specifically this:

LaBrant’s recognition of the power and dangers of the “big lie” in the wake of WWII reads incredibly prescient in 2022 in the wake of Trump and the garbled rise of “fake news” in post-truth America.

However, LaBrant’s idealism about America now feels inexcusably naive—for her America and ours.

The “big lie” is not just a feature of politics; in fact, the “big lie” has become mainstream media’s primary approach to a wide range of topics. And the “big lie” is a recurring way the media, the public, and politicians batter universal public education—one of the essential elements of a free people committed to democracy.

Those without historical context may think “fake news” and the “big lie” concerning education either doesn’t exist or is a very recent phenomenon.

In the nineteenth century, in fact, the Catholic church established an assault on public education that sounds eerily similar to today:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, (pp. 257-258)

This initial assault on public education was grounded in the “big lie,” and to be blunt, it was about market share: the Catholic Church feared the allure of universal public education drawing students from their schools.

Here is a fact of history few people acknowledge: There hasn’t been a day since then that anyone has been satisfied with student achievement in the U.S.

The media, the public, and political leaders love few things more than lamenting students’ scores on our sacred standardized tests—the SAT/ACT since early twentieth century, ITBS, and then the onslaught of state accountability tests and NAEP since the 1980s and 1990s.

And here is another fact: Throughout a century-plus of characterizing public education as failing, classroom instruction, student demographics, teacher demographics, school compositions, state standards and assessments, etc., have all changed dozens and dozens of times.

However, at any point of education crisis, there is ample room to blame singular causes for failure, and that, of course, is the “big lie.”

The “big lie” approach to criticizing education is currently driving two powerful and harmful movements—the anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement.

Are teachers (well over 75% white women) indoctrinating students with anti-whiteness by hiding CRT in the curriculum? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers and librarians grooming students to become LGBTQ+ by assigning books that portray alternatives to so-called traditional families and sexuality? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers failing to implement reading science in their reading instruction (because teacher educators either willfully ignore or don’t know reading science) and therefore allowing students to fail to acquire reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are major reading programs dependent on three-cueing and lacking systematic phonics cheating students out of acquiring reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

However, all of these are examples of not only the “big lie,” but also how effective the “big lie” can be.

Let’s consider reading proficiency for a moment to unpack the “big lie” behind the “science of reading” movement.

Here are NAEP reading scores for grade 4 since 1992:

Notice that national data hover within a few points of 220 for thirty years—what in many ways can fairly be called a flat longitudinal data line.

Most people associate the “science of reading” movement starting at the earliest around 2013 and specifically around 2018.

Yet, those recent scores are little different than the two decades before (and we must acknowledge that the “science of reading” is not resistant to powerful social forces such as the pandemic).

Also, across thirty years, students and teachers have been held accountable for several different sets of standards, many different reading programs have been adopted and implemented, and the demographics of students have shifted in significant ways (public schools are increasingly populated by higher poverty students, and minoritized students constitute over 50% of students).

Nothing is consistent except student achievement.

It is nonsensical to ascribe blame (or credit) to any one instructional approach, any one adopted program, any one set of standards, etc.

So if we address one of the elements of the “big lie” in the “science of reading” movement—that Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study is a primary way we fail students learning to read—this seems preposterous in the grand scheme of educational crisis rhetoric, but also, that program is only the third most used.

But further, since I taught in public schools for 18 years, I can attest that students in two different classes taught by different teachers are not receiving the same instruction regardless of the official curriculum or programs.

The “big lie,” then, is always grounded in oversimplification and relies on crisis rhetoric to stir emotional responses.

Once we add context such as acknowledging that Jeanne Chall made the same exact arguments about the failures of reading instruction and achievement from the late 1960s into the 1990s and then the National Reading Panel made the same exact claims and offered the same exact solution (scientifically based instruction) just twenty years ago, the “big lie” is exposed as a house of cards.

Why, then, does the “big lie” repeat itself so often in education discussions and why is it so effective?

First, educational effectiveness is mostly driven by out-of-school factors (60%-80% of measurable student achievement) and not teacher instruction, curriculum, standards, or adopted programs. However, Americans resist systemic explanations and ideologically are attracted to blaming individual behavior.

Therefore, blaming Lucy Calkins is more compelling to American ideology than acknowledging poverty and inequity as the causal reasons behind student learning.

Second, we as a society have a dysfunctional relationship with statistics.

On one hand, Americans trust or believe in the bell-shaped curve, which predicts that human behaviors (including learning) will fall on a continuum that includes a few failing, many achieving “normally,” and a few excelling.

And then on the other hand, Americans expect all student to be above average (which is what proficiency is on NAEP).

A perfect example of that dysfunction is that George W. Bush’s crowning legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), included the self-defeating requirement that all student be proficient by 2014.

One reason that NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that politicians eventually realized such a requirement cannot be mandated by caveat, legislation, and such an expectation defies human behavior.

Wanting and trying to foster proficient readers so that all students achieve the literacy they deserve (what we absolutely must do) is far different than requiring and expecting that all students meet that lofty goal—especially since we do not have the political will to address the out-of-school factors that would have the greatest impact on that achievement.

As LaBrant noted, the “big lie” is an ugly reality in politics, but it also is an ugly and effective way to make sure our schools continue to fail to meet the needs of all students.

The anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement are selling the “big lie” and, ironically, lots of people are cashing in (the really nasty hypocrisy coloring all of this).

We can and should do better for our students, especially those who need us the most (those trapped in the lower end of that bell-shaped curve).

But the “big lie” serves the political and financial interests of those dedicated to those lies.

Keep in mind when people point an accusatory finger, three more are pointing back.

Those screaming that someone else is selling a story, well, are selling a different story, the “big lie.”

The High Cost of Marketing Educational Crisis [UPDATED]

My foundations of American education course serves as an introduction to public education and our education majors, but the course also fulfills a general education requirement.

The class comprises mostly first- and second-year students, and those considering education as a major or career can be most of the class or very few. None the less, virtually all of them are a bit disoriented when we begin the course reading philosophers—Foucault, Deleuze, and Freire specifically.

I invite them to read some relatively brief passages from all three, warn them that reading philosophy is challenging, and then reassure them that we are simply using these ideas to begin our semester-long interrogation of how we have public schools and why.

When 2022 NAEP data were released, I immediately thought about a few things.

First, with the dramatic coverage of math scores dropping (see HERE and HERE), I told a few friends to brace themselves for the inevitable next step. And it took only about one day for my prediction to happen with an ad popping up on Facebook:

In the U.S., notably since the release of A Nation at Risk (see HERE and HERE) in the early 1980s, the easiest thing to predict is that the education market place is going to profit from educational crisis.

This fits into my second thought, which is the current and ongoing “science of reading” crisis that was prompted in 2018 by Emily Hanford, but was significantly boosted by the cries of “reading crisis” after the release of the 2019 NAEP data (see HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Now, I regret to note, math will be the next over-reaction, as the ad above shows now that edu-businesses scramble to add math to their offering for reading—solutions need a problem, and high-stakes testing is a problem machine. [1]

And the big picture thing I thought about was Deleuze, from the reading I have students consider:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

Deleuze builds to a powerful and prescient warning:

For the school system (emphasis in original): continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling. (p. 7)

“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze

As a key example, many (if not most) teachers of reading in the U.S. now are being told that their university training was useless, and that they need new training in the “science of reading.” And education corporations are lining up to sell schools that training, a story sold with the “science of reading” label (see about LETRS).

Just to be clear, this is not about the failure of teacher certification or about teaching teachers to teach or students to read; this is about profit through perpetual crisis and (re)training.

And here is the disconnect.

While I carefully help students over the course of a semester examine the claimed democratic foundations of public education (well documented in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and key figures in American education such as John Dewey), we quickly uncover that those democratic ideals are often secondary—or even erased—by market commitments.

So here we are in 2022 still riding the wave of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing that began with A Nation at Risk and built to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As early as the 1990s, however, many education scholars warned that this education crisis was manufactured—essentially a political lie that was bolstered by a media frenzy and a market grab.

The education crisis/education market place dynamic has been in full swing for over forty years now, and the ugly truth is that all of the crisis rhetoric used to justify incessant accountability layered onto a constant process of new standards and new tests is, as Berliner and Biddle documented, manufactured, a lie.

As compelling as it is, we simply do not now have a reading crisis; we have never had a reading crisis.

And NAEP 2022 data do not expose a math crisis.

“Crisis” suggests something new, immediate, and pressing to address.

Student learning has been about the same for nearly a century. Some students thrive (mostly correlated with affluence and being white), many students learn in spite of the system, and too many students are neglected or mis-served (correlated strongly with poverty, minoritized race, multi-language learning, and special needs).

Just to swing back to reading, there is no decade (or even year) over the last 80 years that public, media, and political opinions expressed satisfaction in reading achievement; student reading proficiency has always been characterized as failing, and a crisis.


As we creep toward an election, we need to admit a few things.

First, the market and commercialism matter more in the U.S. than democracy or even freedom.

We not only want schools to produce (compliant) workers, but also have turned public education into a crisis-based education market place.

Take a little journey to Education Week‘s web site and note that flurry of ads for the “science of reading,” for example:

[Update] Or see what pops up “promoted” on Twitter:

And monitor over the coming weeks; you’ll see more and more addressing math.

Since 2018, media has generated millions of clicks with coverage of the “science of reading,” journalists are winning cash awards and receiving huge speaking fees to discuss the “science of reading,” and education corporations are pulling in millions for software, programs, and training labeled the “science of reading.”

Please take just a brief historical overview since the 1980s. Not a single reform has worked, not a single crisis/reform cycle has been deemed a success.

As Deleuze explains, the point of crisis/reform is to remain always in crisis/reform because that cycle creates a market, and for some people, that market generates profit.

But that crisis/reform cycle has a high cost for students, teachers, and society.

The “science of reading” crisis ironically follows just about two decades after the reading crisis identified by the National Reading Panel and at the center of NCLB—which mandated that teachers had to implement only scientifically-based practices (notably in reading).

That failed (apparently) and the current response is to shout (once again) “crisis!” and demand that mandates restrict teaching to the “science of reading.”

Four decades-plus into a crisis/reform hole and we continue to dig.

Part of me feels sorry for what is about to happen to math, and part of me feels really bad that I hope the coming math nonsense will relieve a little pressure from reading.

But mostly, I hate the lies, political, media, and commercial interests that are eager to shout “crisis!” because in the spirit of the good ol’ U.S. of A., there is money to made in all that bullshit.

[1] UPDATE: See The Science of Math, and note the use of NAEP 2022 as you scroll down HERE.


Did we need NAEP to tell us students aren’t doing well? (The Answer Sheet)

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

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.

Chicken Little Journalism Fails Education (Again and Again): Up Next, the Science of Science?

Often education journalism is disturbing in its “deja vu all over again“: Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up).

Criticizing U.S. public education through international comparisons is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. media, reaching back at least into the mid-twentieth century.

This is one of many crisis approaches to covering education—Chicken Little journalism—that makes false and misleading claims about the quality of U.S. education (always framed as a failure) and that because of the low status of the U.S. in international comparisons of education, the country is doomed, economically and politically.

Oddly enough, as international rankings of education have fluctuated over 70-plus years, some countries have risen and fallen in economic and political status (even inversely proportional to their education ranking) while the U.S. has remained in most ways the or one of the most dominant countries—even as we perpetually wallow in educational mediocrity.

Yet, this isn’t even remotely surprising as Gerald Bracey (and many others) detailed repeatedly that international comparisons of educational quality are essentially hokum—the research is often flawed (apples to oranges comparisons) and the conclusions drawn are based on false assumptions (that education quality directly causes economic quality).

Media coverage, however, will not (cannot?) reach for a different playbook; U.S. public education is always in crisis and the sky is falling because schools (and teachers) are failing.

Next up? I am betting on the “science of science.”

Why? You guessed it: The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools. As Sarah D. Sparks reports:

Fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors and a little more than a third of 4th and 8th graders performed proficiently in science in 2019, according to national test results out this week.

The results are the latest from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. Since the assessment, known as “the nation’s report card,” was last given in science in 2015, 4th graders’ performance has declined overall, while average scores have been flat for students in grades 8 and 12.

“The 4th grade scores were concerning,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “Whether we’re looking at the average scores or the performance by percentiles, it is clear that many students were struggling with science.”

The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools

And it seems low tests scores mean that schools once again are failing to teach those all-important standards:

Carr said the test generally aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, on which 40 states and the District of Columbia have based their own science teaching standards. Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are developing new science assessments under a federal pilot program.

But it is even worse than we thought: “These widening gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students, particularly in grade 4, mirror similar trends seen in national and global reading, math, and social studies assessments.”

Yep, U.S. students suck across all the core disciplines compared to the rest of the world!

And what makes this really upsetting, it seems, is we know how to teach science (you know, the “science of science”) because there is research: Effective Science Learning Means Observing and Explaining. There’s a Curriculum for That. Not only is there research, but also there are other countries doing it better and there are, again, those standards:

Organizing instruction around phenomena is a key feature of many reforms aimed at meeting the Next Generation Science Standards, an ambitious set of standards adopted or adapted by 44 states in 2013. Phenomena are also an organizing feature of instructional reforms in countries outside the United States, like high-performing Finland. But what is phenomenon-based learning, and what evidence is there that it works?…

Our study found that students exposed to the phenomenon-based curriculum learned more based on a test aligned with the Next Generation standards than did students using the textbook. Importantly, the results were similar across students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

William R. Penuel

Up next, of course, is the media trying to understand why science scores are so abysmal (like reading and math), assigning blame (schools, teachers, teacher education), and proposing Education Reform. What should we expect?

Well, since fourth-grade scores are in the dumpster, we need high-stakes science testing of all third-grade students and to impose grade retention on all those students who do not show proficiency in that pivotal third-grade year.

We also should start universal screening of 4K students for basic science knowledge (or maybe use “science” to screen fetuses in utero).

Simultaneously, states must adopt legislation mandating that all science curricula are based on research, the “science of science.”

Of course, teachers need to be retrained in the “science of science” because, you know, all teacher education programs have failed to teach the “science of science” [insert NCTQ report not yet released].

And while we are at it, are we sure Next Generation Science Standards are cutting it? Maybe we need Post-Next Generation Science Standards just to be safe?

Finally, we must give all this a ride, wait 6-7 or even 10 years, and then start the whole process over again.

The magical thing about Chicken Little journalism is that since the sky never falls, we can always point to the heavens and shout, “The sky is falling!”

The “Science of Reading”: A Movement Anchored in the Past

One of the defining moments of my first-year writing seminar is my reading aloud the first few paragraphs from A Report from Occupied Territory by James Baldwin.

This essay in The Nation from July 11, 1966, offers students dozens of powerful examples of compelling and purposeful writing, Baldwin at his best. But the circumstances of the essay are what first strike my students.

“There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys,” Baldwin writes. “They were running from the police.”

We note that Baldwin uses “police[men]” five times in the first paragraph, which focuses on people in the Harlem “in terror of the police” because “two of the policemen were beating up a kid.”

Students immediately noted that Baldwin was addressing exactly the same racism grounded in policing that has been the source of social unrest in the U.S. throughout 2020.

In other words, racism in policing in the U.S. is not a recent crisis, but a historically systemic fact of policing.

The more things change, we noted, the more they stay the same.

The history of education in the U.S. is often fascinating and surprising, but it also is like being Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day—especially when it comes to bandwagons and political and public cries of “crisis.”

Fews aspects of education represent this pattern more than reading, suffering the “science of reading” (SoR) movement since early 2018.

The SoR movement is nothing new, a movement anchored in the past.

But as David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko and George G. Hruby note at The Answer Sheet (The Washington Post), “More worrisome, a majority of states have enacted, or are considering, new laws mandating how reading must be taught and setting narrow criteria for labeling students as reading disabled.”

Reading was declared a crisis in the 1940s because of literacy tests of WWII recruits, throughout the 1950s and 1960s because of Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, in the 1990s because of handwringing over NAEP scores, during the George W. Bush presidency with the National Reading Panel and No Child Left Behind, and, as noted above, over the last couple years because of the SoR movement prompted by the journalism of Emily Hanford.

As my students came to recognize about racism and policing in the U.S., anyone who examines the history and current bandwagon of reading will see that schools, teachers, and students have, like Phil, lived the same day over and over—reading is in crisis and here is the silver-bullet for all students to read.

One must wonder why we never pause to confront that this formula has never resulted in anything other than the same crisis.

And one must acknowledge that something cannot be a movement if it is anchored in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Take for example The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement.

The Coalition Members include a strong connection to The Reading League, formed in 2016.

Both the website and the League represent the very worst of missionary zeal and good intentions; and they both fail the fact check necessary for claims about a reading crisis and the bandwagon of SoR.

First, The Reading League grounds their concerns in a misguided and false red flag about whole language, as reported on “Murray is referring to the large base of research and knowledge that proves scientifically-grounded methodology in teaching reading is more effective than the ‘whole language’ approach most curriculum takes.”

This argument has two significant flaws. First, whole language has been replaced by balanced literacy for decades. And second, the 1990s revealed a discredited assault on whole language and an ignored analysis of by Darling-Hammond that showed a positive correlation between higher NAEP scores and students being in whole language classrooms.

The website, The Science of Reading: A Defining Movement, is complicated to fact check because there seems to be a purposeful effort to appear to be different than the SoR bandwagon by rejecting the term as a “buzzword” and demanding “We must preserve the integrity of reading science.”

Further, in the Preamble to their The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide, one sentence stands out: “We know that our children can be taught to read properly the first time.”

“The first time”?

Literacy and reading are lifelong learning experiences, and this claim raises a genuine red flag about this movement.

But the biggest reveal about the so-called SoR movement is in the definition, where there is a narrow parameter set for “scientifically-based”: experimental/quasi-experimental study design, replication or refinement of findings, and peer-reviewed journal publication.

If that sounds familiar, you have simply awakened to the same day some twenty years ago when the National Reading Panel made the exact same claim—and proved to be a deeply flawed report while the policy implications not only did not improve reading but also became mired in funding corruption with Reading First.

The SoR movement is a bandwagon with its wheels mired in the same muddle arguments that have never been true and silver-bullet solutions that have never worked.

Like Phil, we find ourselves waking up to the same day in reading.

This is no crisis, but it certainly is a tired, old story that needs to be left behind through some other vehicle than a bandwagon.

See Also

Greenville News (SC): SC should not “jump on bandwagon” of “science of reading” movement

Open Letter to SC House and Senate Concerning Bill 3613 [UPDATED]

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students