Category Archives: grade retention

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.


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” [1], 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.


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

[1] See

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.

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

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

August 2022

Rev. June 2023

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]

[See Press Release for more information]

‘Bottom line, it’s a policy that doesn’t work,’ OEA wants lawmakers to drop reading test requirement ( – WHIO via Yahoo

Teachers call for end to mandatory retention policy | News, Sports, Jobs – Tribune Chronicle (

Calls Intensify to End Ohios High Stakes 3rd Grade Reading Standard – Public News Service

Educators asking state to rescind holding 3rd graders back |

Ohio’s third grade reading retention law faces opposition from broad coalition | The Statehouse News Bureau ( – Statehouse News Bureau

Calls getting louder for end to retention due to 3rd grade reading struggles – Sunny 95

Debate Heats Up Over Effectiveness of Reading Guarantee Retention – Gongwer

OEA calls for end of mandatory retention under Third Grade Reading Guarantee – The Highland County Press

Ohio house bill would eliminate third-grade reading test mandate  Springfield News-Sun

State Reading Policy: An Overview

In the 2000s, the National Reading Panel (NPR) report and the reports from its subgroups[1] were adopted into George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, mandating scientifically based instruction[2] and establishing a framework for how reading should be taught in the U.S.—what is often identified as the Five Pillars of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.[3]

However, only two decades later, the U.S. is facing another reading “crisis” along with an increase in state-level reading legislation and policy being revised or introduced.[4] The current movement is often the result of advocacy by parents concerned about dyslexia (Decoding Dyslexia[5]) and media coverage of the “science of reading.”[6] That advocacy and media messaging have been incredibly effective in terms of driving legislation and policy; however, many literacy scholars and researchers have noted the media-based movement exaggerates and oversimplifies claims about reading, science, and research; depends on anecdotes and misleading think-tank claims about successful implementation of reading research; and creates a hostile social media climate around reading debates.[7]

A summer 2022 analysis by Education Week shows that at least 30 states have passed revised or new reading legislation in the past decade and 2/3rd of those states includes grade retention policies.[8] Over that decade, state-level reading policies and practices include the following:

  • Legislation focusing on reading proficiency by 3rd grade, often including grade retention policies linked to high-stakes testing.[9]
  • Commercial reading programs being banned at the state level and re-evaluated at the district and school levels.
  • Reading policy and practices targeting dyslexia, including universal screening and mandates for systematic phonics instruction (often Orton-Gillingham[10]).
  • Policies have mandated systematic phonics instruction for all students.
  • A renewed emphasis on phonics in teacher professional development (such as requiring training in LETRS) and teacher education.[11]

Two aspects of this reading “crisis” and subsequent legislation and policy are important for all policy makers in states across the U.S.: (1) Continuing to follow the same in-school only policy approaches to education and reading[12] are destined to fail again,[13] and (2) several elements of the “science of reading” movement are contradictory and even harmful for students.[14]

Below, this examination focuses on grade retention as reading policy, highlighting the complicated impact of grade retention on reading achievement (specifically standardized test scores) as well as the disproportionate negative impact of retention on vulnerable populations of students (racial minorities, multilingual learners, students identified as at-risk, high poverty, below reading proficiency, etc.)

Grade Retention as Reading Policy

As noted earlier, grade retention as reading policy is relatively common and expanding across the U.S.:

The “science of reading” movement has increased state policies mandating grade retention based on high stakes testing, copycat versions of the post-NCLB “Florida model,” despite evidence suggesting that retention remains harmful.[15] Media have presented increased standardized test scores in Mississippi (see an examination of Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores below) as proof of the effectiveness of reading science reforms,[16] although it is likely, as Todd Collins for Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains, that Mississippi’s high retention rate[17] and not classroom instruction reform is the primary source of the score increases. Evidence since the mid-2000s confirms grade retention can increase test scores short-term, but the long-term impact is negative, since grade retention remains associated with students dropping out of high school.[18]

Because of short-term reading score increases, grade retention policy remains politically compelling for policy makers because high-profile research is covered in the media and used by advocates to impact policy change based on standardized reading scores.[19] Yet, policy makers must be cautious because research has not yet clarified if those increases are caused by retention or other policies impacting retained students: “This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services”; reviews of short-term gains continue to show that they fade over time and that negative consequences of grade retention (like eventually dropping out of school) remain.[20]

Ultimately, grade retention increasing 3rd and 4th grade standardized test scores is likely a statistical mirage (notably since evidence shows those gain disappear by middle school). That mirage is likely the result of how grade retention changes the population of students being tested by

(1) removing students likely to score low from the testing pool (students retained in 3rd grade would not be in their peer testing pool in 4th grade) and

(2) creating a population of students to be tested when at least one year biologically older than the pool being testing (once those retained in 3rd grade are promoted to 4th grade).

Since grade retention as reading policy is unlikely to produce valid increases in reading proficiency among students and since grade retention remains strongly associated with negative outcomes for students (dropping out of high school, for example), policy makers are strongly encouraged to eliminate grade retention mandates based on standardized test scores in grade 3 as identified by a Resolution from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.[21]

What about Mississippi?

While a high-profile article in the New York Times suggested a Mississippi reading “miracle” based on 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores,[22] that conclusion was greatly misleading and incomplete. However, a closer and more nuanced look at Mississippi provides a valuable understanding for current policy makers concerned about reading legislation and policy.

First, as noted above by Collins, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP scores are significantly impacted by grade retention, and policy makers must acknowledge that grade retention disproportionately impacts vulnerable student populations (see NCTE Resolution), for example:

[SOURCE: Civil Rights Data Collection, USDOE]

Table 1 shows that, specifically for example, Black students are disproportionately impacted by grade retention. Numbers of students retained and that disproportion are strong indicators of the harm and punitive impact of grade retention.

Further, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP reading scores for grade 4 were outliers compared to the rest of the U.S, that outlier status suggests that Mississippi may not be a valid source of scaling up reform for other states. Nonetheless, Mississippi’s longitudinal data, since 1998,[23] suggests improved test data over time and well before many of the recent policies:

Although Mississippi’s policies, standards, and assessments have varied since 1998, the state has shown gradual but persistent improvement in grade 4 reading scores on NAEP. The 2019 large increase used by the “science of reading” movement to claim “miracle,” however, is not unique; see the significant increase from 2002 to 2009, occurring well before any use of the term “science of reading.”

Important to understand is that improvement in education is likely complicated to cause and difficult to link to any single practice; therefore, policy makers must be diligent about “first, do no harm” by avoiding policies that may have politically expedient outcomes at the expense of the best interest of students and teachers. The relative increase and success by Mississippi in 2019 when compared to the rest of the U.S. is strongly tempered by a fuller analysis also:

[Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here]

Many policy makers have been seeking ways to close these gaps for decades, and Mississippi shows us that even when there is gradual and persistent improvement, problems of inequity remain.[24] Therefore, Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP data are not a “miracle,” but they are an important red flag about the insufficiency of school-only policy and of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.[25]

Grade retention distorts test data, disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students, and creates a distraction from reading reform’s ultimate goal of increased student reading proficiency.

Third-Grade Proficiency and the “Word Gap”

Along with grade retention, policy makers must reconsider two other aspects of reading that often influences policy and practice—third grade reading proficiency and the “word gap.”

Policy makers and educators tend to focus on third grade reading proficiency because it (like grade retention) is correlated with negative outcomes for students, such as dropping out and prison.[26] However, while these concerns are valid, grade-level reading must be recognized as a measurement primarily created and used by the textbook industry; identifying “third grade reading level” is not as accurate or useful as many people think. More importantly, research suggests a correlation between third grade proficiency and negative outcomes, which does not warrant creating high-stakes policy around a single grade or a single measurement.[27]

Based on a popularize and often cited study by Hart and Risley from 1995,[28] it has become “common knowledge” to associate literacy with social class, specifically that high-poverty students have low literacy (fewer words) and that middle-class and affluent students have high literacy (more words). A number of scholars, however, have discredited the study as well as called into question associating literacy with simple word counts.[29] Curt Dudley-Marling notes that the Hart and Risley study is marred by poor methodology (should not be used to generalize about all students) and is grounded in class and race stereotypes; in short, the “word gap” is little more than a misguided assumption about students, reading, and literacy.[30]

Alternative Policy: A Recommendation

States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.

While a broad range of new approaches are needed for state policy and classroom practice,[31] immediately states must repeal retention policy linked to high stakes testing in 3rd grade. Grade retention creates a test-score increase that is a mirage, harms students in the long run, and distracts from more effective and supportive reading policy.

Instead of punitive policies such as grade retention, state policy makers should consider the following:

  • Eliminate high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd – 5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input, etc.).
  • Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.

See Also

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. Retrieved [date] from


An analysis of achievement as measured by NAEP scores shows many states have significant decreases between grades 4 and 8, notably Florida. Since the “Florida model” of grade retention has been used in many states, this decrease reflects that grade 4 scores are often mirages. See:

What is the cost to the individual children and overall system performance?

Essentially all data shows that ripping kids away from their age cohort because of testing leads to significant human harm and increased drop out rates over time.

Is that affecting Florida’s learning rate for older kids and the eighth grade NAEP collapse? A 2017 study of a cohort of southwest Florida students showed that seven years after retention, 94% of the retained group remained below reading proficiency. It also showed that third and sixth graders find retention as stressful as losing a parent.

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming


The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University

[Update March 2023]

Following the Letter of the Law: 2020-21 Retention Outcomes Under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law

[Update June 2023]

Another Mississippi “miracle” article in the NYT highlights grade retention positively, again citing only a new study by Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus A. Winters.

First, this is a working paper supported by Mississippi Department of Education and the acknowledgements add: “This project was made possible by a grant from ExcelinEd.”

Here are some key additional caveats beyond how biased this report likely is in terms of meeting the ideological aims of ExcelinEd:

  • The policy brief concedes: “That said, though the results are distinctly positive for the policy treatment overall, the analysis cannot entirely disentangle the extent to which the observed benefits in ELA are due to the additional year of instruction or to other specific features of the approach Mississippi took to providing literacy-focused supports and interventions to students.”
  • In the full working paper, section “2.1 Within-Age vs Within-Grade Comparisons” details a common failure of analyzing grade retention: “Comparing the later outcomes of students retained at a point in time to students in their cohort who were promoted is complicated by the fact that the two groups are enrolled in different grade levels during later years.” The findings of this working paper must be tempered by this fact of the study: “Unfortunately, within-age comparisons of student test scores are not possible in Mississippi because scores on the state’s standardized tests are comparable within grades over time but not across grades.” In other words, as noted above, higher test scores may be the result of students simply being older in a tested grade level, and not because grade retention or any of the services/instructional practices were effective. Again, these “gains” are likely mirages.


Disaster Reform and Shadow Reading Legislation: The Politics of Reading Crisis pt. 2 [UPDATED]

Even More Problems with Grade-Level Proficiency

Understanding and Reforming the Reading Proficiency Trap

Age-Related Expectations?


[1] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

[2] Wilde, J. (2004, January). Definitions for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Scientifically-based research. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from

[3] Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

Reports of the subgroups. (2000, April). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

[4] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

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. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from

[5] See

[6] Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APM Reports. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from

Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from

[7] Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading): Moving beyond skills and strategies to reader-focused instruction. The Guilford Press.

Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from 

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.

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

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. doi:10.1002/rrq.384

Thomas, P.L. (2022, February 15). Mississippi miracle, mirage, or political lie?: 2019 NAEP reading scores prompt questions, not answers [Web log]. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from

[8] Schwartz, S. (2022, July 20). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What’s in them? Education Week. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from

[9] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from

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. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from

[10] International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia.


[11] 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.

[12] Duran, L., & Hikida, M. (2022, May 2). Making sense of reading’s forever war. Kappan, 103(8), 14 – 19. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from

[13] Cummings, A. (2021). Making early literacy policy work in Kentucky: Three considerations for policy makers on the “Read to Succeed” act. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

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. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from

Collet, V.S., Penaflorida, J., French, S., Allred, J., Greiner, A., & Chen, J. (2021). Red flags, red herrings, and common ground: An expert study in response to state reading policy. Educational Considerations, 47(1).

[14] Thomas, P.L. (2022). How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students:

A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (2nd ed.). Information Age Publishing.

National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

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. Retrieved from

[15] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved May 18, 2023, from

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18).

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from

[16] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from

[17] Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022,

[18] Briggs, D. (2006). Review of “Getting Farther Ahead By Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to end Social Promotion.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from

Collins, T. (2019, December 4). Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2022,

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. school. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18).

Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., Kim, H., & Bauer, S. S. (2018). Effect of early grade retention on school completion: A prospective study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(7), 974–991.

Jasper, K., Carter, C., Triscari, R., & Valesky, T. (2017, January 9). The effects of the mandated third grade retention on standard diploma acquisition and student outcome over time: A policy analysis of Florida’s A+ Plan. Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from

National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from

Access grade retention data from the USDOE/Office of Civil Rights here

[19] Perrault, P., & Winters, M.A. (2020, July 28). Test-based promotion and student performance in Florida and Arizona. Manhattan Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from

[20] Robinson-Cimpian, J.P. (2015, December). Review of The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from

[21] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from

[22] Hanford, E. (2019, December 5). There is a right way to teach reading, and Mississippi knows it. The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2023, from

[23] Access NAEP 2019 Reading data here

[24] Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

[25] National Education Policy Center & Education Deans for Justice and Equity (2020). Policy statement on the “science of reading.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[26] Hernandez, D.J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school Ggraduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from

[27] National Council of Teachers of English. (2015). Resolution on mandatory grade retention and high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 19, 2023, from

[28] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Brookes.

[29] See an overview of that research here:

[30] Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1), Article 5. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from

[31] Thomas, P.L. (in press). The “science of reading”: The never-ending reading war and the need for a different approach to literacy instruction (policy brief). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Understanding Critical Race Theory: A Reader for Educators

[Note: Access a PP of this material and more HERE]

Update 22 February 2022: What is critical race theory?

UPDATE: Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory (NEPC)

While Republicans continue to claim the U.S. “is not a racist country” and passing legislation directly and indirectly banning critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 project, the recent comments by former VP Mike Pence capture the real message behind these events:

For Republicans and conservatives who reject systemic racism as a “left-wing myth,” there remains a significant challenge: How can we explain the tremendous racial gaps (see below) that exist in the U.S. between Black and white Americans?

These attacks are directly effecting K-12 and higher education; therefore, educators must be well informed about these issues. Here are valuable resources for understanding CRT, the 1619 Project, and systemic racism:

Critical Race Theory

Why Critical Race Theory (CRT) is Controversial

A Lesson on Critical Race Theory

Perspective | Trump calls critical race theory ‘un-American.’ Let’s review.

Critical Race Theory

74 Interview: Researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings on Culturally Relevant Teaching, the Role of Teachers in Trump’s America & Lessons From Her Two Decades in Education Research

But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Gloria Ladson-Billings

Academic Who Brought Critical Race Theory To Education Says Bills Are Misguided

Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline

OPINION: Using critical race theory to understand the backlash against it

The Conspicuous Absence of Derrick Bell—Rethinking the CRT Debate, Part 1

What’s Really Behind the 1619 Backlash? An Interview With Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Watch “Critical Race Theory & Culturally Responsive Teaching: An Open Conversation About What the Right Gets Wrong” on #Vimeo

What Critical Race Theory Is, and What It Means for Teachers

Critical Race Theory: A Brief History

Critical Race Theory: What It Is. And What It Is Not. A Q&A with Adrienne Dixson (NEPC)

Busting Anti-Racist Education Myths, Rick Wormeli

The 1619 Project

1619 Project

What History Professors Really Think About ‘The 1619 Project’

Systemic Racism

7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real

Rate of fatal police shootings in the United States from 2015 to May 2021, by ethnicity

Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children

The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526 –545

Characteristics of Public School Teachers

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by race/ethnicity: School years 1999–2000 and 2017–18

The Civil Rights Project: School Discipline

Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

When the Best isn’t Good Enough: The Racial Representation Gap in Education

Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs

Students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs relative to White students, but the reasons for this underrepresentation are poorly understood. We investigate the predictors of gifted assignment using nationally representative, longitudinal data on elementary students. We document that even among students with high standardized test scores, Black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools. We then investigate the role of teacher discretion, leveraging research from political science suggesting that clients of government services from traditionally underrepresented groups benefit from diversity in the providers of those services, including teachers. Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.

What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

Grade Retention and Expulsions/Suspensions: Black students disproportionately retained (grades 3 and 4) and expelled (USDOE/Office of Civil Rights) – Data 2017-2018

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias

There are substantial gaps in educational outcomes between black and white students in the United States. Recently, increased attention has focused on differences in the rates at which black and white students are disciplined, finding that black students are more likely to be seen as problematic and more likely to be punished than white students are for the same offense. Although these disparities suggest that racial biases are a contributor, no previous research has shown associations with psychological measurements of bias and disciplinary outcomes. We show that county-level estimates of racial bias, as measured using data from approximately 1.6 million visitors to the Project Implicit website, are associated with racial disciplinary disparities across approximately 96,000 schools in the United States, covering around 32 million white and black students. These associations do not extend to sexuality biases, showing the specificity of the effect. These findings suggest that acknowledging that racial biases and racial disparities in education go hand-in-hand may be an important step in resolving both of these social ills.

Re-Imagining School Discipline: A Plea To Education Leaders

How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II

The Crumbling Facade of “No Excuses” and Educational Racism

Sarah Karp offers a long overdue and somewhat surprising opening lede for WBEZ Chicago, home to a number of charter school chains:

Chicago’s largest charter school network sent a letter to alumni this week admitting that its past discipline and promotion policies were racist and apologizing for them. The apology is notable not just as an acknowledgment of misguided policies, but as a repudiation of the “no-excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools during the 2000s.

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

“No excuses” ideologies and practices have been a foundational staple of charter schools disproportionately serving Black students, Hispanic students, and poor students well back into the 1990s but blossoming in the 2000s since both political parties jumped on the charter school bandwagon. By the late 2000s, mainstream media and the Obama administration were all-in on charter schools as “miracles.”

There were always two problems with the charter school mania and propaganda—data never supported the “miracle” claims (see my “Miracle School Myth” chapter), and worse of all, “no excuses” ideology has always been racist, shifting the blame and gaze onto students and teachers in order to ignore systemic inequity and racism.

“No excuses” schools always began with the assumption that Black, Hispanic, and poor students are fundamentally “broken” and must be “fixed”—an ugly and racist version of deficit thinking.

Almost a decade ago, I spoke at the University of Arkansas after the publication of my book on poverty and education; in that work and talk, I directly challenged “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains as harmful and, yes, racist.

In the wake of that talk, I was discounted and mis-characterized in Education Next, along with an equally unfair swipe at another KIPP critic, Jim Horn: “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart.”

Neither Horn nor I hold those views, and our criticisms were firmly and clearly grounded in arguing that “no excuses” is essentially racist and classist.

As I have documented, when I contacted the article authors about the false narrative they created around Horn and me, Maranto both admitted the framing was unfair and claimed the article would be updated; it never was.

The Noble charter chain mea culpa is likely too little, too late, but it is a serious crack in the facade perpetuated by “no excuses” advocates over the last two decades, included so-called “scholars” at the Department of Educational Reform (University of Arkansas) where Maranto works.

Many years ago, in fact, after dozens of blog posts and talks, I co-edited a volume refuting “no excuses” and proposing social context reform instead.

Jim Horn has an excellent volume confronting and dismantling the many problems with KIPP charter schools, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching.

Our work, along with many other scholars and educators committed to equity and anti-racism, has been ignored and often directly attacked, primarily because we dare to name racism as “racism.”

While I am not suggesting that Noble’s confession trumps our scholarship and work that has spanned multiple decades, I do want anyone concerned about education, education reform, and educational equity to step away from assumptions and see clearly how harmful “no excuses” ideologies and practices have been for students and their teachers.

“No excuses” ultimately fails for many reasons—being trapped in “blame the victim” approaches that normalize an unspoken white and affluent standard against which marginalized populations of students are judged, and harmed.

“No excuses” has been compelling because in the U.S. we are prone to seeing all problems as individual and not systemic. But it has also been compelling because education reform has always been tragically drawn to silver-bullet solutions and the shiny mirages seen as “miracles.”

Let me stress here that currently “no excuses” has quite a number of equally racist and flawed practices entrenched all across K-12 schooling: “grit,” growth mindset, word gap, Teach for America, grade retention, and the poverty workshops of Ruby Payne.

K-12 education in the U.S. is mostly a reflection of the communities schools serve; our schools tend to house and perpetuate our social inequities, but schools do very little to overcome racism, sexism, classism, etc.

Education reform has for nearly four decades refused to acknowledge systemic inequity, choosing instead to punish students, teachers, and schools. The many policies and fads of education reform over those decades have been themselves racist and classist, ultimately doing more harm than good to students, teachers, and education.

Karp includes an important realization by Jennifer Reid Davis, chief equity officer for Noble:

“It’s important to own it,” she said. “I think you have to say it, I think you have to be honest. Part of what it truly means to be anti-racist is to be honest about the circumstances in which you are in and or created.”

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

The list is quite long still of those who need “to own it” and allow confronting racism to be the first step to ending racism in our schools and our society.

Letter to the Editor: Tennessee Poised to Fail Students

In response to Third grade retention law causing suburban superintendents angst, I submitted the following letter to the editor (published HERE):

While it is increasingly popular across the US to pass third-grade retention laws as part of larger reading policies, often under the guise of the “science of reading,” there are decades of research showing that grade retention is extremely harmful to children, especially minoritized students and students living in poverty.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the largest organization of English teachers in the US, “oppose[s] legislation mandating that children, in any grade level, who do not meet criteria in reading be retained” and “oppose[s] the use of high-stakes test performance in reading as the criterion for student retention.”

As well, the National Education Policy Center (Boulder, CO) has issued a policy brief warning that states “[s]hould not adopt ‘ends justify the means’ policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term that have longer-term harms (for example, third-grade retention policies).” Further, states “[s]hould not prescribe a narrow definition of ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ that elevates one part of the research base while ignoring contradictory high-quality research.”

Tennessee must not fall prey to trendy political gimmicks that harm children and do not address the needs of those children learning to read.

Thinking Beyond Bean Dad: A Reader

First, Bean Dad (as he would become known) posted a Twitter thread about teaching his daughter a lesson. The thread was flippant, snarky—and about a child not knowing how to use a can opener.

I was, frankly, surprised that Bean Dad took a beating on this because his approach to his child is essentially the foundational belief system in the U.S. about child rearing: The world is dangerous so I better pound on my kid before the world does so she/he is prepared for the Real World.

In far too much of the U.S., that pounding is literal—corporal punishment—but the pounding takes many forms such as grade retention and “no excuses” policies and practices in K-12 schooling.

Gradually, the clever thing to do about the Bean Dad trending on social media was to interrogate the phenomenon as an example of everything-that-is-wrong-with-Twitter. While a valid take, I think, it is also careless to set aside how this thread (whether it was hyperbole, as he claims, or not) is one small but ugly picture of how we mistreat children in the U.S., both in our families and in our institutions such as formal schools.

Let me offer an analogy.

One of the most important moments in the U.S. for the safety of children was recognizing the dangers of lead paint. This moment also is a powerful illustration of the need to target the external danger and not the child.

Instead of teaching children a lesson about lead paint—somehow toughening up those kids so that when they did consume lead paint, they would survive the experience—we used the power of public policy to remove lead from paint—to eradicate the danger, instead of pounding on the children.

Bean Dad quipped about his own compulsion to prepare his daughter for the apocalypse—some sort of version of The Road where the child is always alone?—but there seems never to be any consideration, as Maggie Smith concludes, for a better world: “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

A child is not an inherently flawed human that must be “fixed,” corrected, or improved. A child is a developing human that must be nurtured, and nurturing requires love, patience, and safe spaces.

If nothing else, we must all check our impulses to be Bean Dad so I offer here some reading to reconsider the many ways we fail that calling:

On Children and Childhood

Rethinking grade retention

Rethinking corporal punishment

Rethinking “grit”

Rethinking growth mindset

Resisting deficit ideologies

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.

[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Please Support #FixInjusticeNotKids

Paul Gorski, currently preparing a revised edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, has initiated #FixInjusticeNotKids on social media, a hashtag that captures perfectly the primary fracture between mainstream education reformers and social justice education reformers.

As some examples, here are Tweets of mine addressing this powerful message:

Many elements of mainstream reform embrace a deficit view of children and students, specifically black and brown students as well as students living in poverty. This ideology blames the victims of social inequity, racism, classism, and sexism; it creates a laser focus on the individual and blinds us to systemic injustice.

Support #FixInjusticeNotKids in word and action to seek ways to reject deficit ideology and to end inequity and injustice so that the potential of all children can be achieved among a people who genuinely believe all children matter,