Category Archives: education reform

The Science of Scarcity and Sleep that Education Reformers (Want to) Ignore

In the middle of the Obama years of education reform, I discovered and cited often Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir use the term “scarcity” for the conditions associated with living in poverty and “slack” for what most people would call “privilege.”

This book is an overview of the scientific research base around the consequence of being poor. This point has always struck me as incredibly important:

And to focus on the kernel point related to bandwidth: “Being poor…reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep.”

Imagine, if you will, that this is likely magnified for children—and when they are younger, even more so.

Now let’s place that science on scarcity into a recent student on sleep and students:

Although numerous survey studies have reported connections between sleep and cognitive function, there remains a lack of quantitative data using objective measures to directly assess the association between sleep and academic performance. In this study, wearable activity trackers were distributed to 100 students in an introductory college chemistry class (88 of whom completed the study), allowing for multiple sleep measures to be correlated with in-class performance on quizzes and midterm examinations. Overall, better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep correlated with better grades. However, there was no relation between sleep measures on the single night before a test and test performance; instead, sleep duration and quality for the month and the week before a test correlated with better grades. Sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance. These findings provide quantitative, objective evidence that better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep are strongly associated with better academic performance in college. Gender differences are discussed.

[abstract] Okano, K., Kaczmarzyk, J.R., Dave, N. et al. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 16 (2019).

Also focus on this: “Sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance.”

Next imagine that children living in poverty are likely to be under the weight of poverty (similar to sleep deprivation) and to experience actually sleep deprivation.

And if we add some other recent data, that children accidentally born in a month earlier than their peers also contributes to variances in test scores (the most common proxy for learning), and data created under the value-added methods era (teaching impact on measurable student learning is about 1% to 14%), then we are being confronted again with the problems associated with test-based accountability and in-school-only education reform.

Poor children don’t need to be “fixed” (give them growth mindset and grit) and their teachers don’t need to have higher expectations, or higher quality, or the “science of reading”; poor children need their living conditions changed so that the negative consequences of scarcity (such as indirect and direct sleep deprivation) allow them the opportunities to learn and excel.

Almost all traditional education reform remains laser focused on blaming children, teachers, and schools in order to justify yet another round of in-school education reform.

We must not ignore the full and complicated science of learning just because it is inconvenient and fails to support the false stories we have almost always embraced.


Even More Problems with Grade-Level Proficiency

I have explained often about the essential flaw with grade-level proficiency, notably the third-grade reading myth.

Grade level in reading is a calculation that serves textbook companies and testing, but fulfills almost no genuine purpose in the real world; it is a technocratic cog in the efficiency machine.

Now that we are squarely in the newest reading war, the “science of reading,” two other aspects of grade-level proficiency have been central to that movement—the hyper-focus on third-grade reading proficiency that includes high-stakes elements such as grade retention and the misinformation rhetoric that claims 65% of students are not reading at grade-level (the NAEP proficiency myth).

These alone are enough to set aside or at least be skeptical about rhetoric, practice, and policy grounded in grade-level proficiency, but there is even more to consider.

A Twitter thread examines grade-level achievement aggregated by month of birth:

The thread builds off a blog post: Age-Related Expectations? by James Pembroke.

The most fascinating aspect of this analysis thread is the series of charts provided:

As the analysis shows, student achievement is strongly correlated with birth month, which calls into question how well standardized testing serves high-stakes practices and how often standardized testing reflects something other than actual learning.

Being older in your assigned grade level is not an aspect of merit, and being older in your assigned grade seems to have measured achievement benefits that aren’t essentially unfair to younger members of a grade.

Further, this sort of analysis helps contribute to concerns raised about grade retention, which necessarily removes students most likely to score low on testing and reintroduces those students as older than their peers in the assigned grade, which would seem to insure their test data corrupts both sets of measurements.

This data above are from the UK, but a similar analysis by month/year of birth applied to retained students and their younger peers would be a powerful contribution to understanding how grade retention likely inflates test data while continuing to be harmful to the students retained (and not actually raising achievement).

There appears to be even more problems with grade-level proficiency than noted previously, and now, even more reason not to continue to use the rhetoric or the metric.

Lessons Never Learned: From VAM to SOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NAEP proficiency myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

[3] See:

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

Research Roundup: LETRS (PDF in link above also)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

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

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

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

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

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”).

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

From late November of 2022 through late February 2023, I have (or will have) presented at 6 major literacy conferences, both national and state level.

Two dominant literary issues have been curriculum/book bans and the “science of reading” (SOR) movement. A few important patterns occurred with the latter.

Many teachers are overwhelmed and discouraged about the heavily negative messaging around SOR, but I also interacted with teachers not fully aware of the magnitude of this movement and remain puzzled about the controversy.

Further, the media, public, and political story around reading and teaching reading is the primary message reaching both educators and the public. The robust scholarly criticism of SOR [1] is often welcomed by teachers and administrators, but unless they are attending conferences, these critique goes unnoticed.

Scholars and educators have been backed into a corner since the SOR story is grounded in a great deal of blame, hyperbole, misinformation, and melodrama.

The media SOR story is simple to the point of being false, but simple in a way that is very compelling for people outside the field of literacy.

Here, I want to put some pieces together, and offer a place to hold the SOR movement/story to the same standards demanded by advocates of SOR (specifically The Reading League).

First, let’s start with the core of the scholarly critiques of mainstream media’s story:

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

While scholarly critiques (see note 1) are far more nuanced and substantive that this central point, this is a manageable way to interrogate whether or not the SOR story is valid based on the standards the movement itself established.

The debate, then, is well represented by conflicting evaluations of SOR and SOR criticism on social media: a literacy scholar and co-author of an SOR reading program called the scholarly criticism “stupid,” and a policy scholar not in literacy noted that the media story is “facile.”

To determine which is valid—the SOR story or the scholarly criticism—that story must be checked against the standards for science established by the movement itself, here from The Reading League:

Finally, the components of the SOR story must be identified in order to check the science behind the claims and the anecdotes; consider Aukerman’s overview:

And my overview in my policy brief:

Below, I outline the SOR story and identify current scientific research, or lack thereof, limiting the evidence to TRL’s guidelines (experimental/ quasi-experimental, published in peer-reviewed journals).


First, for the rest of the SOR story to hold up to scientific scrutiny, we must establish whether or not there is a unique reading crisis in the last 10-20 years in which students are failing to learn to read at acceptable rates; this must be true for the blame aspects of the SOR movement to be true.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? There is no current scientific research to support this claim; most scholars have identified that NAEP [2] (and other measures of reading achievement) have remained flat and achievement gaps have remained steady as well for many decades predating the key elements blamed for reading failures.

Note that the age 9 longitudinal data including actual scores appears mostly flat with some fluctuation. (Source)
NAEP age 9 reading appears mostly flat after A Nation at Risk, mostly flat with some trending upward during the 1990s BL era, increasing after the federal pressure of NCLB in 2001, and then flat since the rise of SOR legislation around 2013.

Notably the long-term NAEP data during the recent SOR era for 9 and 13 year olds is relatively flat or unchanged except for lowest performing students:


Next, the SOR story claims teachers are not well prepared to teach reading and teacher educators either fail to teach evidence-based methods or willfully ignore the science.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? There is no current scientific research to support this claim [3] although scholars have demonstrated that credible research is available on teacher knowledge of reading and teacher education:

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


The media story claims the current settled reading science is the “simple view” of reading.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? Scientific research refutes this claim:

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


Burns, M. K., Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2023). Evaluating components of the active view of reading as intervention targets: Implications for social justice. School Psychology, 38(1), 30–41.


The SOR story centers a claim that systematic phonics instruction is superior to all other approaches to teaching beginning readers and thus necessary for all students.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? Current scientific research refutes this claims, showing that systematic phonics is no more effective than other approaches (balanced literacy, whole language) and confirming that systematic phonics can increase early pronunciation advantages but without any gains in comprehension and with that advantage disappearing over time:

Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705.

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.

Testing the impact of a systematic and rigorous phonics programme on early readers and also those that have fallen behind at the end of Key Stage 2. (2022, October). Education Endowment Foundation.

Bowers, J.S. Yes Children Need to Learn Their GPCs but There Really Is Little or No Evidence that Systematic or Explicit Phonics Is Effective: a response to Fletcher, Savage, and Sharon (2020). Educ Psychol Rev 33, 1965–1979 (2021).

Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? David Reinking, George G. Hruby, and Victoria J. Risko


Mississippi has been heralded in the SOR story as a key example of the success of SOR reading policy, based on MS 2019 grade 4 reading scores.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? There is no current scientific research to support this claim, and the SOR story omits that MS has had steady grade 4 reading improvement since the early 1990s (well before SOR) and that MS grade 8 have remained low, suggesting the grade 4 gains are inflated (see also other states with the grade 4 to 8 drop).


The source of low reading proficiency, the SOR story claims, is the dominance of balanced literacy and a core of popular reading programs.

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? There is no current scientific research to support this claim. In fact, some of the most criticized programs are only adopted in about 1 in 4 schools suggesting that the variety of programs and practices make these claims overly simplistic at best. Journalists also often misidentify reading programs as balanced literacy that explicitly do not claim that label.


Often the SOR story includes a focus on dyslexia, claiming that multi-sensory approaches (such as Orton Gillingham) are necessary for all students identified as dyslexic (and often that all students would benefit from that approach).

What is the status of scientific research supporting this claim? Current scientific research refutes this claims:

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia

Socioeconomic dissociations in the neural and cognitive bases of reading disorders, Rachel R. Romeo, Tyler K. Perrachione, Halie A. Olson, Kelly K. Halverson, John D. E. Gabrieli, and Joanna A. Christodoulou

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children87(4), 397–417.

Hall, C., et al. (2022, September 13). Forty years of reading intervention research for elementary students with or at risk for dyslexia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from

As of this post, the claims made in the SOR story are not supported by scientific research, and the criticisms offered by scholars appear valid.

The media story is overstated and oversimplified even though nearly all literacy educators and scholars agree that too many marginalized students (minoritized students, special needs students, impoverished students, MLLs) are being underserved (which is a regrettably historical fact of US education).

The SOR movement has created a predicament for the media story in that the standards being required for teachers and reading policy is an incredibly high and narrow threshold that (as I have shown above) the movement itself has not reached.

Again, scholarly criticism of the SOR story is nuanced and substantive, but at its core, that criticism is best represented by demonstrating that SOR advocates, especially the media, cannot meet the standard they propose for the field of teaching reading.

Simply put, US reading achievement is not uniquely worse now than at nearly any point in the last 80 years, and therefore, blaming balanced literacy as well as popular reading programs proves to be a straw man fallacy.

Reading instruction and achievement, of course, can and should be better. But the current SOR story is mostly anecdote, oversimplified and unsupported claims, and fodder for the education marketplace.

Media is failing students far more so than educators by perpetuating a simplistic blame-game that fuels the education market place.

[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

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

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

[Aukerman three posts as PDF]

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

[2] Note that NAEP is not grade level, however:

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

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

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

The NAEP proficiency myth

[3] Media tend to cite reports from NCTQ that do not meet the standard for “scientific” established by TRL:

NEPC Review: 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management (National Council on Teacher Quality, October 2020)

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

NEPC Review: Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know (National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ])

Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers (The Post and Courier)

Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers

While the Editorial Staff of the Post and Courier rightfully raises cautions about newly elected Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver, who has a history of extremely conservative positions on public education, that caution should also extend to Weaver’s plans for merit pay to address teacher needs in South Carolina.

I am in my fifth decade as an educator in SC, beginning as a high school English teacher in Upstate SC in 1984. Over that career I have witnessed one frustrating pattern: A constant state of education reform that recycles the exact same crisis rhetoric followed by the same education reforms.

Over and over again.

In fact, in very recent history, SC and the nation have experienced a high intensity focus on teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher merit pay models under the Obama administration.

And just like in the so-called real world of business, merit pay models for teachers have failed.

Under Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state policy helped implement teacher evaluation and pay schemes modeled on Bill Gates’s use of stack ranking. Notably this value-added model of teacher evaluation and pay was famously heralded by the media when Michelle Rhee was chancellor of DC schools.

However, over time, Rhee’s tenure was unmasked as mostly a fraud but also as extremely harmful for teachers and students.

While merit pay remains a popular approach to recruiting and maintaining workers across many fields, research has consistently shown that merit pay does not work, and often has negative consequences, especially in education.

Research by Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn, for example, highlight the disconnect between what merit pay promises and how that plays out in the real world.

Gary Clabaugh challenged Obama’s merit pay polices, offering evidence that remains valid today and suggests not only caution about Weaver’s merit pay plan but also solid reasons not to try the same thing again.

Merit pay fails education, teachers, and students in the following ways:

  • Merit pay assumes workers need motivation to work harder; teachers are often overworked and their ability to be effective is not a result of how hard they are working, but the conditions under which they work.
  • Merit pay is often linked to standardized testing in education. As a result, merit pay incentivizes teaching to the tests and corrupts evaluation systems intended to measure learning.
  • Merit pay creates a culture of competition, instead of cooperation. Research also shows that competition is more harmful than cooperation, especially in the field of education where all educators should be invested in the success of all students.
  • Measurable student achievement, mostly through standardized testing, is more heavily linked to out-of-school factors (60-80%) than to in-school factors or teacher quality (10-15%). Therefore, merit pay overemphasizes direct and measurable teacher impact and often holds teachers and students accountable for factors beyond their control.

Policy makers in SC are faced with two facts: (1) Teacher pay is important to address and long overdue in the state; however, (2) merit pay is an ineffective and even harmful approach to addressing pay and teacher shortages.

Since SC has tried to use pay incentive to address teacher shortages in struggling districts already, we will better serve the needs of our students if we commit to new and different reforms.

The greatest need in SC is that elected officials directly address poverty across the state—access to healthcare, stable jobs with strong pay, and access to affordable housing.

But we can also do better with in-school reform.

If we want to bolster the teaching profession among our high-poverty districts, we must address teaching and learning conditions, which include the following:

  • Parent, community, and administrative support for teachers.
  • School facilities in good repair.
  • Fully funding teaching and learning technologies and materials.
  • Guaranteeing students who are struggling have access to experienced and certified teachers.
  • Recognizing that student success is linked to teacher quality, but that teacher quality is only one element in a complex network of forces that help children learn.

SC remains faced with a very old problem—high-poverty students struggle to achieve well enough or fast enough compared to their more affluent peers.

Those children deserve new solutions, and merit pay is a tired gimmick that has never worked and will fail children and teachers once again.

See Also

Edujournalism and Eduresearch Too Often Lack Merit

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”:













“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

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

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


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

The Long and Tired History of Media-Driven Reading Wars

Consider the following excerpts from a scholarly journal of literacy. The articles included are responses from literary scholars to a political and media claim of a reading crisis.

First from Emmett A. Betts:

Next, from William S. Gray:

And then, from Lou LaBrant:

Finally, Paul Witty:

These patterns may seem familiar in 2023 to anyone following the “science of reading” movement:

  • Public schools are failing to teach adequately children to read.
  • Reading teachers are ill-equipped to teach reading.
  • Reading and teaching strategies are not scientific.
  • Political leaders and the media drive the criticism.
  • And literacy scholars carefully debunk the entire narrative, to no avail.

These excerpts are from 1942 and collected in The Elementary English Review (The National Council of Teachers of English), which would become Language Arts [1].

The reading crisis was spurred by high illiteracy rates in WWII draftees and Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to action and media coverage of the reading crisis.

The blame game, like now, is misguided and ill informed. Progressive education was the scapegoat, but LaBrant and others noted these soldiers had attended mostly traditional schooling.

Scholar after scholar also note that high illiteracy rates were caused by high poverty levels.

In 2023, as we are trying to stay afloat during the “science of reading” tidal wave of misinformation, we must acknowledge that this current reading war does not differ in any significant way from several since the 1940s.

We must also acknowledge that at no point has the US found reading achievement adequate regardless of teacher training, reading theories, or reading programs and instructional practices.

Reading Wars, then, are reductive, misleading, and ultimately ineffective—over and over.

The “science of reading” movement is another round of misguided blame, misinformation, and yet more hollow calls for “reform” that isn’t anything new or valid.

The “science of reading” is tired and lazy journalism, politics, and ultimately education.

[1] Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. [access HERE]