Category Archives: Education

Teaching Reading and the Goldilocks’ Dilemma: A Case for Purposeful Literacy

Everyone teaching reading is confronted with the Goldilocks’ dilemma.

Using terms offered by Stephen Krashen, I see teaching children to read falling on a spectrum.

Intensive phonics (often called systematic phonics) is serving porridge that is too hot. Zero phonics is serving porridge that is too cold. But basic phonics is serving porridge that is just right.

The current reading war, the “science of reading” (SOR) movement, is little different than any of the proceeding reading wars; once again, the war is being framed as one between intensive/systemic phonics and zero phonics.

And once again, the “just right” option, basic phonics, is being left out of the rhetorical equation.

Let me be very clear. What I am doing is not a call for compromise or for a middle approach. I find the pendulum analogy to be one of the problems with the recurring reading war, in fact.

My proposal is more akin to the conclusions draw in England that showed systematic phonics has not achieved what was promised and that students would be better served with “balance.”

Of course, the word “balance” often triggers the caricature of “balanced literacy” (BL) offered in the SOR movement, a misrepresentation that erases the philosophical and theoretical framing intended in BL (teacher autonomy grounded in serving the individual needs of students).

Where people get lost, I think, and what I am proposing is that the balance isn’t about reading theories (such as balancing phonics and comprehension in instruction), but about how any teacher serves the individual needs of any student.

The balance is about balancing student needs with instructional goals, and then, making sure the teacher and student are provided the appropriate teaching and learning conditions for students to learn to read.

This sort of balance de-centers reading programs and standards, and centers students. As a result most any program or set of standards can be effective or not depending on the teacher’s ability to serve the student’s needs.

Another aspect of this dilemma, I think, is that intensive/systematic phonics will always prove to be too hot because it over-emphasizes the role of the letter-sound system. Nonsense words and decodable texts mislead students about the complexity of decoding and making meaning from text.

Students may be compelled to see phonics as a simple plug-and-play until they encounter “wind” or “dove,” two words that have differing pronunciations in different contexts.

Also consider the maze of problems when exploring the letter “C”:

Cease

Crease 

Cause

Cello

Checker 

Climb

Slime

Coach

Cat

Space

Cough

Coffee 

“C” shares sounds with “S” and “K,” but this series of words presents some satisfying patterns as well as some baffling exceptions that students could better navigate with some background in etymology and with greater experience reading (and thus building their toolbox for making meaning).

The question (which still hasn’t been fully answered by research) has never been if students need phonics, but how much, when, and how that is acquired (upfront v. by extensive reading).

Intensive/systematic phonics is too hot and misleading, I think, for the same reason that worksheet approaches to context clues are ultimately harmful. The “rules” for using context clues tend to work only in sentences designed to prove context clues strategies work.

As I have noted before, this is the training wheels versus balance bicycle dilemma.

The SOR reading war is fundamentally no different than any other reading war; see McQuillan’s debunking of the whole language reading war from the 1990s and note the similar patterns found in the current SOR movement.

Currently, the media misinformation and the misguided political response have made yet another claim that reading instruction has failed to provide systematic phonics (porridge too cold), and now state reading policy and reading program adoption are scrambling to implement structured literacy (scripted curriculum, porridge too hot).

In the US, we have never stepped back from the same old reading war rhetoric that centers all the adults and their (often petty) ideological biases.

Too often, everyone is caught up in selling their thing by demonizing other people’s things.

It is a tremendous failure of logic to shout that current popular reading programs have failed students because publishers and program creators are grabbing the cash, and therefore, we need to change to a different set of programs (with publishers and program creators who are also grabbing cash).

Again, we must stop centering adult ideologies and market interests, and start centering the students themselves and also providing teachers the resources and conditions to serve student needs.

What I propose is purposeful literacy, which has the following framing:

  • The teaching of reading begins with individual student artifacts of reading (strengths, needs, etc.)—not programs, standards, or mandates.
  • Centering the individual needs of students requires that we address the equity in their lives outside of school as well as in school.
  • The effective teaching of reading requires teacher autonomy and teaching and learning conditions that allow teachers to serve individual student needs.
  • Reading materials, programs, and standards must be tools that serve teacher instruction and not goals and frameworks for teacher accountability. The current “problem” with reading programs is not the quality of any program but that programs become the goal of teaching (fidelity, “is the teacher implementing the program” v. “is the student being served”).
  • Purposeful literacy places reading skills (such as phonics) in both the context of comprehension and critical literacy (moving beyond mere understanding to interrogating text).
  • The goal of purposeful literacy is students who are eager, independent, and critical readers.

The reading war approach to education reform is not a fairy tale; it is a horror story, and almost no one survives.

We must set aside the quest for THE program and the THE theory of reading.

Instead of centering all the adults and the concurrent pettiness, we must center the individual needs of students, which includes honoring the autonomy of teachers and providing both teachers and students the teaching and learning conditions that make a “just right” approach possible.

“Sell What We Do”: The Manufactured Crisis to Hide the Story Being Sold

The Origin Story for the “science of reading” movement is popularly associated with a story published by Emily Hanford from 2018. And that movement has gained even more momentum by Hanford’s repackaging that initial (and deeply misleading) story as a podcast, Sold a Story.

The dirty little secret is that this story is not about the ugly underbelly of teaching reading or about creating a new and better way to teach reading. This story is cover for the selling of a different story to feast on the profitable education marketplace.

The single-minded blame-game in Sold a Story that creates reading Super Villains in the form of reading theory (balanced literacy) and reading leaders (Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell) is a tired and very old media and political strategy.

However the real Monster in the larger story is the marketplace itself, and the conveniently ignored backstory is several years before 2018.

The “science of reading” misleading and oversimplified story [1] about the teaching of reading spoke into a context that was fertile ground for misinformation to not only sprout but thrive—the dyslexia movement, specifically the Decoding Dyslexia structure [2] that was already in place in all 50 states.

Here is an interesting and revealing artifact from 2014:

At its July 1st meeting, the IDA Board of Directors made a landmark decision designed to help market our approach to reading instruction.  The board chose a name that would encompass all approaches to reading instruction that conform to IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards. That name is “Structured Literacy.”…

If we want school districts to adopt our approach, we need a name that brings together our successes. We need one name that refers to the many programs that teach reading in the same way. A name is the first and essential step to building a brand….

The term “Structured Literacy” is not designed to replace Orton Gillingham, Multi-Sensory, or other terms in common use. It is an umbrella term designed to describe all of the programs that teach reading in essentially the same way. In our marketing, this term will help us simplify our message and connect our successes. “Structured Literacy” will help us sell what we do so well.

Structured Literacy: A New Term to Unify Us and Sell What We Do

“If we want school districts to adopt our approach,” well, we need to clear space in the reading program marketplace, and that is exactly what the “science of reading” movement is doing with the help of media and complicit parents and political leaders.

Again, the goal announced in 2014: “‘Structured Literacy’ will help us sell what we do so well.”

The many recurring Reading Wars have been driven by people who are sincere and people with ulterior motives—and this “science of reading” movement is no different.

For those with good intentions, that simply is not enough if we are unwilling to confront all the stories being sold as well as the costs of these market wars to effective teaching and the most important outcome of all—students who are eager and critical readers.

Sold a Story is a cover for another story being sold and packaged, literally, and the attacks are designed to clear market space, not support teachers or address individual student needs.


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

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145-S155. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

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

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

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

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

[2] The Hidden Push for Phonics Legislation, Richard L. Allington, University of Tennessee

Recommended

Education Week Finds Corporate Pals to Spread a Message, Susan Ohanian

Connecting Big Business with The Science of Reading: Replacing Teachers and Public Schools with Tech, Nancy Bailey

Mythologies of Control

“Hell is real.”

“Jesus is real.”

As I drove from Upstate South Carolina to Chicago, I watched as billboards offered a refrain about “real” and aspects of religious faith that are not real, or at best cannot be proven real.

I always imagine the same sort of signage about Harry Potter novels: “Harry Potter is real.” “Hogwarts is real.”

There is very little real difference among all sorts of fantasy writing along with the mythologies and stories throughout the Bible; yes, fictional narratives can be powerful in terms of themes and motifs that add meaning to our human condition, but the compulsion to render them (falsely) as “real” actually erodes that power.

But this compulsion that these myths and stories must be factual, real, literal (when, again, they either are not real or simply cannot be proven real) is something rarely challenged or interrogated because belief is so pervasive in how humans function.

This claim of “real” ultimately is a veneer designed to give the myths more weight, more power, because the real intent of these myths is control.

Gilles Deleuze examined the shift from societies of discipline to societies of control, targeting specifically “prison, hospital, factory, school, family” as structures under perpetual reform.

The narrative driving this should be familiar to everyone: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.” Somehow this is a compelling narrative even though it falls apart under its own weight since the perpetual cycles never fully demonstrate the source of the failure and then any set of reforms always lead to yet another round of crisis: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.”

As a educator in the US for the forty-plus year accountability era, I have witnessed that the perpetual state of reform is not about reform at all, but about control (both political and market interests being served).

If schools are always failing (and by direct and indirect implication) then teachers are always failing, students are always failing; therefore, top-down authoritarian mandates are needed to right the ship, to “fix” schools, teachers, and students.

Deleuze’s examination is a subset, I think, of an even larger force in US culture, mythologies of control.

From Christian myths to rugged individualism, boot strapping, and the American Dream, these mythologies of control serve authoritarian structures by maintaining a culture of failure and fear among most people who feel compelled to conform to these unrealistic mythologies.

The consequences of failing to acknowledge and reject mythologies of control are watching as the US morphs from the Trump era into the era of DeSantis, who has embraced the logical next steps after Trump’s jumbled attack on the 1619 Project: Political control of education is one of the ultimate goals of authoritarianism.

Dismantling schools/universities and gutting libraries have been made possible by decades of education bashing begun under Reagan and then almost gleefully embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders.

The failing schools myth, the incompetent teachers myth, and the failing students myth are little different than the false but pervasive high-crime myth that political leaders and the media repeat endlessly, despite evidence to the contrary.

Americans embrace our disproportionate police state and prison culture because a mythology of control about crime maintains irrational public fear and promotes a willingness to sacrifice Other People (disproportionately Black and brown).

It is extremely important, however, to recognize that these myths are made more powerful and compelling because of foundational myths such as Original Sin, “hell is real,” and the relentless myths of rugged individualism and boot strapping.

Florida has reduced their education system to these myth by directly rejecting even discussing systemic forces such as racism.

Anyone who doubts that reform and religious narratives are about control must unpack why authority always resorts to banning books, censoring ideas, and taking full control of education.

Mythologies of control are dehumanizing, and there are far more compelling narratives. Kurt Vonnegut explains:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country

And yet, you will not see humanists purchasing billboards announcing “Billy Pilgrim is real.” “Tralfamadore is real.”

The call to behave decently, well, it is enough and fabricating ways to coerce that behavior simply destroys the very thing that makes being human being human.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, to abdicate our mind is to abdicate our full humanity:

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

“Self-Reliance”

Postscript on the Societies of Control, Gilles Deleuze, October, 59(Winter 1992), pp. 3-7

Who Do I Work For?

On balance, I have been fortunate with engaging on social media, specifically Twitter and my blog. However, over the past few years, my work on the “science of reading” (SOR) has attracted more and more angry and confrontational responses.

As a result, I muted a large number of accounts in 2022, usually because the person either responded with attacks or misrepresentations and were unwilling to reconsider their antagonism or my clear refuting with evidence that they had in fact misrepresented me and my work.

None the less, I occasionally have other people alert me of even more and extreme misrepresentations from those muted accounts. One in particular seems popular among SOR zealots—the swipe that people should not listen to me because I work for Reading Recovery (I don’t and never have).

So let’s set the record straight about who I work for, and what that means.

I have a 39-year professional life as an educator across five decades. I have worked on payroll as a public school teacher in South Carolina (18 years), as an adjunct at several universities and colleges, and as a professor at Furman University since 2002 (now as a tenured full professor).

Simply stated, that is who I have and currently work for. The most important aspect of that disclosure is that as a university-based scholar, I am an independent scholar in that no one pays or directs me to do any particular scholarship or public work, and certainly, absolutely no one tells me what to express in that scholarship and public work.

My scholarly and activist agendas are entirely my choice and my responsibility (which I take very seriously).

Over my five decades in teaching, I have presented at dozens of conferences sponsored by dozens of organizations. Conservatively, I have done so for free or at costs to me in about 90% or more of those.

I have participated in dozens and dozens of interviews, podcasts, and webinars—virtually all of them for free.

My extensive publishing record has also been almost entirely either for free or at a cost to me—with a few projects done for a stipend or honorarium (although even then, my work is entirely my choice and my responsibility).

I have never and will never do work for hire to endorse or promote any organization or person. Period.

Since last November, I have presented (or will present) at 6 major conferences for different professional organizations. Presenting at a conference or for an organization is not working for or endorsing that organization. Again, I have never and will never present as a spokesperson for any organization or anyone (except myself).

When invited and/or paid, I accept based on interest in my work or my reputation as a thorough scholar on a topic, but I do not respond to requests for what I will present or for any sort of endorsement.

For about a year now, I have monetized my blog, but that is a very small amount of money that basically pays for having a website with WordPress; and I maintain a blog in order to make my work accessible to anyone without cost to them because I see my work primarily as activism.

I have a book on the “science of reading,” in a second edition. To date I have received $0 in royalties for that work (academic publishing is rarely profitable).

The purpose of my extended commitment to challenging the SOR movement is to correct a false story and to challenge misinformation, baseless blaming, and unfounded personal attacks.

And broadly, my SOR work is targeted at identifying misguided reading policy and practice driven by a false story.

I don’t endorse reading programs (I repeatedly have called for an end to purchasing and implementing reading programs), and although I belong to a few professional organizations, I very carefully do not endorse or associate my scholarship with ideological agendas or profiteering.

My experience is those who attack and misrepresent are either projecting (Sold a Story is selling a story, and education products), unable to engage with the evidence, or both.

The great irony of those attacking me to discredit me by association is that if they would simply read my blog or talk to people who actually know me, I have a really solid reputation as being my own person; I simply do not carry water for anyone or any organization.

That a faction of the SOR movement persists in attacks, misrepresentations, and outright lies says far more about them and their lack of credibility than it does about me.

Recognizing there are problems beneath the surface of his works and many of his aphorisms, I remain compelled by Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

In terms of my scholarship and public work, I work for me. Anyone posting otherwise is, frankly, lying and should not be considered credible.

America Dishonors MLK By Refusing to Act on Call for Direct Action (pt. 2)

[NOTE: See part 1 HERE]

The USA is a country built on cultural mythology—rugged individualism, boot strapping, just to name a couple.

But the American Dream works both as a touch stone for Americans and a veneer covering over the realities that represent us as people and country.

In most ways, the American Dream is a lie in practice, but a beautiful idea that could be.

What better represents America is this from James Baldwin:

Included in that “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” is an insidious pattern of creating mythologies that conform to our foundational myths even when those manufactured myths prove to be distortions, or even lies.

That is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. who Americans begrudgingly allowed into the pantheon of Great Americans but only as a reductive caricature as a passive radical.

The Right and conservatives in the US have repeatedly shaped MLK into a soundbite endorsing color blindness, a false representation of MLK and the ideal in terms of how race should matter among humans.

MLK was clear that racism was the plague on the US, but he didn’t call for not seeing race; he urged humans to see race and not impose hatred and bigotry onto race, not allow privilege/oppression for some based on race.

But one of the single most important aspects of MLK’s ignored legacy is his call for direct action, which conservatives refuse to see and even cloak by stressing “passive” action (again, an important misrepresentation of “non-violent” since MLK himself stated he never urged people to be passive about anything).

Here is the King many in the US want to ignore: King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

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. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

It is here that I have grounded my work in education addressing education policy, practice, and reform.

The reason political leaders focus on education is that it is the perfect mechanism for keeping the public focused on indirect action.

The US is committed to capitalism, not democracy, and capitalism depends on poverty and therefore will never eradicate it.

To perpetually address the consequences of inequity projects the veneer of action without actually committing to action, direct action, that would eradicate what causes the harm to begin with.

The history of education reform in the US since the 1980s has been on in-school only reform. Many key reformers and often cited scholars (such as John Hattie) beat an incessant drum that there is nothing we can do about systemic inequity—poverty, racism, etc.—so we must target school reform and then over time that will somehow eradicate inequity.

There are numerous problems with this, including that it fits into our rugged individualism myth by claiming that we must “fix” students and “fix” teachers.

But the essential problem with indirect action is well dramatized in the parable of the river:

Many Americans and most education reformers have decided that addressing directly root causes is too hard, or impossible, a fatalistic view of the world that Paulo Freire cautions against: “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing.”

Targeted in-school reform only, addressing inequity indirectly—these approaches “reduce the human person to nothing.”

Education reform is constantly scrambling to pull babies form the river but will not dedicate any resources to stop those babies form being thrown in that river.

For two decades now, every time I call for addressing inequity directly, I am characterized as calling for doing nothing about the consequences; those who have embraced fatalism project that onto me and my work.

This is a false dichotomy.

The in-school only reformers have made their decision to focus only on indirect action.

I have argued and detailed carefully that we are morally obligated to do both: Reform social inequity and reform education by focusing on equity not accountability.

It is no accident that the students we pretend to be reforming education to serve are the vulnerable and marginalized children and teens who are the victims of the very inequity we refuse to address, and increasingly refuse to even acknowledge.

Black students, poor students, special needs students, and multi-language learners are all viewed through deficit lenses that emphasize all that they lack while arguing that students who excel are hard working, gifted, and bright.

Disadvantage and privilege are ignored, and again, increasingly discounted.

The rich and complex MLK, his commitment to eradicating inequity by direct action, is both the answer America needs and the solution America refuses to see.

Occasionally we are acknowledging that we have broken people in our society and our schools; yet, we continue to dishonor MLK by refusing to see what forces are breaking these people and children in the first place.


See Also

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

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider for example two reading programs heavily marketed as “science of reading” endorsed: Wonders and HMH Into Reading [1].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recommended

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

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

[1] See A Private Equity Firm, The Makers of the MAP Test, and an Ed Tech Publisher Join Forces, Steven Singer

Test-Based Achievement Mirages: Florida Edition

One of the key flaws of education reform since the 1980s is that education policy tends to be more about political and popular fads resulting in copy-cat state education policy than about addressing provable educational need.

For example, as Cummings, Stunk, and De Voto show about state reading policy:

Florida, which passed it’s Just Read, Florida! retention-based third-grade literacy policy in 2002, is largely considered the trailblazer of such policies (CCSSO, 2019). Florida’s policy includes several provisions designed to improve students’ literacy in grades K-3, including early identification of students who need additional supports, ongoing monitoring and communication with families, a range of literacy interventions, and third-grade retention for students who do not meet a certain score on the state assessment. By 2021, 19 states had adopted retention-based third-grade literacy policies that contained several elements of Florida’s policy.

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. https:// link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10833-021-09438-y

However, with the release of the 2019 NAEP reading scores, Mississippi supplanted Florida as the miracle-du-jour.

These copy-cat urges have been grounded in almost exclusively grade 4 standardized test scores.

As I have documented about the over-reaction to Mississippi, the 2019 grade 4 scores were in line with decades of steady progress (thus no miracle), but most people failed to put the grade 4 scores in broader contexts that showed Mississippi grade 8 scores remained low and the racial gap remained steady even as Mississippi improved average scores.

Mississippi, in fact, was benefitting from the Florida model, mostly driven by grade retention.

New for 2023 is a moment of reckoning for Florida: “a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s ‘learning rate’ was the worst in the country — by a wide margin.”

This analysis is taking into account longitudinal test scores instead of focusing only on early grades:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math. Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

Therefore, political leaders have tried to keep the focus on grade 4: “Tellingly, DeSantis ignored the eighth grade results, which came out far worse than fourth grade — just as they have in every NAEP cycle since 2003.”

So here is the dirty little secret about education reform and education policy.

First, test data are weak reflections of learning, and how we measure learning significantly impacts those scores.

Next, at the earlier grades, testing tends to reflect reductive versions of skills. For example, many states test pronunciation of nonsense words (thus, there is no meaning or comprehension) and call that “reading.”

Research for decades has shown that systematic phonics instruction can raise those scores, especially for young students, but that increase in pronunciation is not correlated with comprehension and that advantage disappears by middle school.

There is a similar pattern to how grade retention can raise test scores in the short term but those retained students fall behind again in a few years and are more likely to drop out.

In short, increased test scores in the early grades are often test-based achievement mirages, not increased learning.

As students and assessments become more sophisticated, these early increases are much harder to maintain for a number of reasons—some related to brain and overall development, and some related to teaching and learning conditions as well as instructional challenges.

This reckoning for Florida is a clarion call for all education reform across the U.S.

We must stop playing partisan politics with our schools, and we must resist copy-cat fadism when it comes to education reform.


Recommended Resources

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

The Empty Politics of Teacher Attrition: SC Edition

Former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, who would go on to be Secretary of Education, remains, for me, the gold standard of education governors.

Riley established education as a central agenda of a governor by launching SC’s commitment to the accountability movement linked to increasing teacher pay. My first year teaching in SC was the fall after Riley helped pass a significant teacher pay raise, in fact.

Over the next several decades, for example, George W. Bush parlayed education reform in Texas (the now discredited “Texas miracle”) into the White House and the historic No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era.

My entire career as a teacher has been in the hyper-accountability era of K-12 education grounded in accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing. I have offered critiques and advocated for finding a different way to do education because the accountability merry-go-round hasn’t served anyone well except politicians and the education market place.

Those good intentions and politically thoughtful strategies used by Riley in the early 1980s have, regretfully, devolved through W. Bush’s failed NCLB, Obama’s doubling down on accountability (focusing harsh accountability and bad science on teacher accountability and reform), and finally to today’s even more hostile environment toward teachers, who are routinely characterized as indoctrinators and groomers by Republican governors and other elected officials.

Only 14 years ago, this was the national antagonism toward teachers and teaching:

How to Fix America’s Schools, Time (8 December 2008)

The Bill Gates/Michelle Rhee era of stack ranking and value-added methods of evaluating teachers not only failed but also it further eroded the value of teaching and being a teacher.

While many of us in education felt that this had to be the low point of teacher bashing and education reform designed to dismantle education, we could not have envisioned the last few years, anchored in the final months of the Trump administration’s attack on the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in education.

Along with Covid, curriculum bans targeting (falsely) Critical Race Theory (CRT), book bans and attacks on libraries, and charging educators with being indoctrinators and groomers have now resulted in historic teacher shortages and likely one of the national low points for being a teacher in a country founded in part on a commitment to universal public education as a corner stone of being a vibrant democracy.

One of the more virulent anti-teacher and anti-education governors in the nation (likely just behind Gov. Abbott in Texas and the worst, Gov. DeSantis in Florida) is right here in my home state of SC, Governor Henry McMaster.

Yet, Gov. McMaster wants to have his cake and eat it to—but this will prove to be mere rhetoric and a disturbing example of how far the governorship has fallen since Riley:

Calling for a pay raise and a bonus to address the abysmal conditions of being a teacher in 2023 is yet another example of the empty politics of teacher attrition.

Should teachers be paid more?

Of course.

Is pay the root cause or even a major cause of teacher attrition?

No.

For many decades, research has shown that teachers value far above pay how they are treated professionally within the building and by parents and the public, the teaching and learning conditions within which they work, and a whole host of issues that speak to their professional autonomy and authority.

For the sake of the field of education and teaching as a profession, we must stop taking politicians seriously who are unserious about education and teaching.

McMaster followed Abbott’s playbook early on by calling for book bans and suggesting teachers and schools use literature to groom children

McMaster speaks into the ugly and false narrative that teachers are “woke” indoctrinators who have infiltrated K-12 schools with CRT.

Waving a few dollars in one hand while stabbing people in the back with the other isn’t political leadership, and it certainly is not a solution for teacher attrition.

Beleaguered Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy didn’t take even a few breaths before declaring that his Congress will end woke indoctrination in schools; McMaster and most Republicans have committed entirely to that playbook filled with lies and distortions.

I do hope teachers receive significant pay raises, but that will not save teaching or education.

Political assaults on curriculum, libraries and books, and teacher professionalism must stop immediately.

Political and public narratives accusing falsely teachers of being indoctrinators and groomers must stop immediately.

Teachers deserve first and foremost in 2023 a huge public apology by the Republican Party, and then, teachers deserve a commitment to teacher professionalism and autonomy as well as a different approach not grounded in accountability but in reforming teaching and learning conditions so teachers can teach better and students can learn more.

Political leaders must

  • address poverty and inequity in our children’s lives,
  • fully fund public education,
  • reject school choice and other schemes that divert from public schools,
  • address in-school inequities such as class size and access to courses and programs,
  • and start education reform with teachers, not political fads and boondoggles.

There is a bit more than irony to Republicans who have historically been politically negligent with the refrain “You can’t just throw money at it” but who can’t imagine anything past a meager pay raise and a bonus to address teaching and education—especially when they have been the key architects in their destruction.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

How we treat and support teachers is how we treat and support students; teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Maxine Greene has implored us in her Releasing the Imagination: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

Releasing the Imagination

Yes, teachers are the key to public education, which is the key to democracy and freedom. But Greene’s call now stands as the opposite of the education system being created by Republicans

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Releasing the Imagination

Republicans are unserious about teaching, teachers, and education. We cannot afford to continue to take them seriously.

What Reading Program Should Schools Adopt?

The TL;DR answer is “none.”

The conventional wisdom answer of the day is “one that is proven effective by independent scientific research.”

The reason the first answer is correct is that this is the wrong question, and wrong approach that has plagued the teaching of reading for most of modern education.

Yes, the conventional wisdom answer sounds compelling, but it is fool’s gold because there can never be a program “proven effective” since teaching and learning to read are quite complex and dependent on individual student strengths and challenges (as well as a whole host of contexts in any student’s home or school).

The reading program adoption merry-go-round is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Every reading program replaced was promised effective in the same ways as the one replacing it. (See also the constant changing of standards.)

Schools should take at least one long step backward and start with having teachers identify what is working, what isn’t working, and how typical populations of students being taught in that school present identifiable needs that teachers must address.

The source of decisions about teaching reading materials must begin with populations of students being served and teacher expertise on both reading and that unique population.

Reading material needs in the rural South are never going to be the same as reading material needs in the urban Midwest.

Keeping reading programs central to teaching reading creates several key flaws that are insurmountable:

  • Adopting reading programs results in focusing teaching accountability on how well the program is being implemented and not on student progress and struggles.
  • Reading programs feed a silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all mentality.
  • Reading programs shift the locus of authority to the program and not the teacher.
  • Reading programs are driven by market propaganda that distorts the evidence about effectiveness.

While I remain committed to the “none” answer, that genuinely is not a practical answer at the moment.

Schools will in all likelihood continue to adopt reading programs (or continue using the currently adopted program); therefore, here are some practical guidelines that merges my ideal (“none”) and the reality of day-to-day teaching:

  • As noted above, schools must do an assessment of their current student population, their current status of programs/materials, and their practical goals for improving student progress as readers.
  • That assessment must then guide analysis of the current program (how well and poorly it is meeting needs) or provide the framework for selecting a new program.
  • Schools must critically and even skeptically address that adopting new programs often always incurs excessive costs that may not be effective use of funding since teachers with autonomy may be able to make almost any program or set of materials work.
  • Reading program adoption must not be seen as all-inclusive of the school’s reading program, but as part of the entire reading materials package and as resources for teacher implementation.
  • Schools must resist scripted programs, period.

Ultimately, schools must shift their focus away from programs-based reading instruction and toward student-need-based reading instruction.

That shift would create space to maintain the teaching/learning of reading as the goal of accountability and move reading program fidelity out of the equation since programs and materials serve the expertise of the teacher guided by student needs.

As I have noted before, historically and currently, reading programs put reading last.

If we are genuinely dedicated to teaching all students to read better, we have to (finally) do things differently.

A good start would be recognizing that “What reading program should schools adopt?” is the wrong question and then stepping back to ask bigger and better questions grounded in the students being taught and the teachers charged with a better reading program.


See Also

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

The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”