Category Archives: NEPC

The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction (NEPC Policy Brief)

Please access this policy brief on the “science of reading” movement from NEPC:

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

Find Documents:

Publication Announcement: announcement/2022/09/science-of-reading

NEPC Publication:

The policy brief emphasizes the need to avoid one-size-fits-all reading policy and practice. For context, please see:

We should acknowledge that one-size-fits-all metrics do not fairly measure what matters most in many schools. Right now, what matters most is finding ways to address and improve students’ mental health so they can get back on track with learning. We should reward schools for innovation, for creating programs that will take time to evaluate.

Simple numbers promote simple solutions and can prevent promising programs with long-term positive implications from taking root. Before we head into another school year, let’s look at dismantling the ranking systems that are burdening our administrators with busywork and preventing authentic improvement.

Why one-size-fits-all metrics for evaluating schools must go

See Also

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction (NCTE)

Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice in the Science of Reading (Reading Recovery Community)

A warning on political strategies to boost reading (WFAE)

MY TURN: Different direction needed on state reading policy (Statehouse Report, Charleston, SC)

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)

How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED]

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Beware The Reading League

The Fatal Flaws of the SoR Movement: SVR and Phonics First

Don’t Buy SoR Propaganda APM Reports Is Selling

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educators, I was a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina, my hometown in fact. I never imagined doing anything else, but I did attain my doctorate in 1998, still planning to be Dr. Thomas, high school teacher, for my entire career.

It is 2022, and I just completed 20 years in higher education, where I am a full professor in education and (fortunately) also teach first-year and upper-level writing. This fall I am taking my first ever sabbatical.

However, if anything, my scholarly schedule is more packed than at any time in my career. If you are interested in my work, I invite you to join me at the following presentations/keynotes and/or look for my upcoming publications.

Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule


How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)(2nd Edition) – IAP – [first edition]

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

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

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

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

September 15, 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]


Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022


Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)

Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm


Unpacking Reading Science to Inform a Different Path to Literacy 

The “Science of Reading” movement that began in 2018 has gained momentum and has had outsized influence on state reading policy and classroom practice. However, the SoR movement presents two negative impacts on long-term literacy education—a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and mandates for phonics-first instruction for all beginning readers. In this webinar, Paul Thomas, Ed.D. (Professor of Education, Furman University, and author of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students) places the SoR movement in the context of the robust but complex current state of reading science. Come join us on October 20, 2022, at 4 p.m. as we explore what’s next in literacy education.

Ohio Education Association

Education Matters podcast; grade retention


University of Arkansas

October 24 at 6:30

The Jones Center for Families

Serving the Literacy Needs of All Students: While Resisting Another Reading War

30th annual Reading Recovery Council of Michigan Institute, Thursday, November 17, 2022, Somerset Inn, Troy, Michigan


The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means. I detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream media during 2018. “Science of reading” as discourse, as marketing, and as a research base.

Break-out Session

How to Navigate Social Media (and RL) Debates about the “Science of Reading”

Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” advocates on social media. However, if you enter into a social media or real-life debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read or hear that debate, and be prepared with credible and compelling evidence.

NCTE 2022, November 17 – 20, 2022, Anaheim, CA 

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title: Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC

Role: Roundtable Leader

Event Title: The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 2:00 PM PST – 3:15 PM PST

Location: 204-B

Role: Roundtable Leader

2023 Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference, Chicago, IL, January 18-20, 2023 


Teaching Literacy in a Time of Science of Reading and Censorship

The key elements of the science of reading (SOR) movement as well as the current move the ban books and censor curriculum are outlined against historical and research-based contexts. The unique challenges facing literacy educators iden/fied with considera/on of how literacy teachers can maintain professional autonomy in the classroom and prac/ce ac/vism in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of “science” and research as well as in support of academic freedom.

90-minute breakout sessions

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free: Teachers as Activists

The US is experiencing one of the most significant waves of book bans and educational gag orders impacting academic freedom, access to diverse voices and history, and the safety of teachers and students. Teachers are historically required to be apolitical and avoid advocacy in and out of the classroom. This session examines the politics of calling for no politics among educators, and explore with participants both the need to advocate for their professional autonomy and academic freedom as well as for academic freedom.

Unpacking the “Science” in the Science of Reading for a Different Approach to Policy and Practice

The science of reading (SOR) movement and the use of the “science of reading” in marketing literacy programs have had a significant impact on reading policy and practice across the US since 2018. Policy and practice related to dyslexia, adopting reading programs, teaching reading (and the role of phonics instruction), however, have too often been guided by a misleading and overly simplistic version of SOR portrayed in the media and advocated by parents and politicians. This session examines the contradictions between claims made by SOR advocates and the current research base.

LitCon 2023, January 28 – 31, Columbus, OH

Rethinking Reading Policy in the Science of Reading Era

Since 2018, states have been revising or adopting new reading legislation prompted by the science of reading movement. Placed in the context of several reading crises over the last 100 years, however, this movement is deja vu all over again, destined to fail and be replaced by another reading crisis in the near future. This session explains why and offers a new approach to reading policy at the state, district, and school levels.

WSRA 2023 Conference, Milwaukee, WI, February 9-11, 2023 

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S. Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, in this session, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018. The session will cover the research base around the SoR movement for context. Participants will be invited to discuss their experiences with these three versions as well.

Banning Books Is Un-American

The U.S. is experiencing a wave of book censorship and educational gag orders. This session examines the historical context of censorship as it impacts the teaching of literacy and literature by focusing on writer Kurt Vonnegut’s response to censors. The session will include powerful policy and position statements supporting the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn, including The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE), Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE), and Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE). Participants will have an opportunity to discuss and explore how and why educators must and can seek ways to defend academic freedom and thew right to teach and learn.

PSLA Conference 2023, February 23-25, 2023

Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Friday, February 24, 2023, 8:00 – 9:00

Invited Speaker: Rethinking Reading Science: Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Paul Thomas

Focusing on reading science published since 2018 addressing reading, dyslexia, and phonics, this session details a complex but robust state of reading science. Media and think-tank messaging parents, political leaders, and the public are receiving about the “science of reading” are oversimplified, cherry-picked, and contradictory to that current state of reading science. Classroom teachers deserve the autonomy to interrogate reading science, understand the individual needs of all their students, and then the teaching and learning conditions to serve those students with evidence-based practice.

Saturday, February 25, 2023, 10:15 -11:15 

Panel: Carving a Path Forward: Equity, Neuroscience, Policy Mandates and Literacy Education 

The Politics of Teaching Reading, Paul Thomas

Critical Race Theory: The Facts and Irony (for White People)

As nearly daily reporting highlights, the manufactured anger over Critical Race Theory (CRT) continues to influence directly and indirectly both public discourse as well as teaching and learning in U.S. schools.

Books are being banned, and state legislation is restricting curriculum and teaching (see here), often in response to outcries against the non-existent influence of CRT on education.

The anti-CRT movement is mostly a political event grounded in misinformation. The essential misinformation includes how CRT is defined and the misunderstanding that CRT is taught in K-12 curriculum.

Let me offer an analogy for understanding what CRT is and why “teaching CRT” is mostly a misrepresentation of the scholarly theory.

For scientists, particularly in the field of medicine, seeking ways to understand disease, an initial challenge was not being able to see microscopic viruses and bacteria. Those scientist had come to the conclusion that the illness being confronted could not be explained by the visible and assumed causes of that disease and its transmission.

In other words, they needed a different way to see the disease. Enter the microscope, a tool for seeing differently in order to understand a complex phenomenon (a disease and its transmission).

CRT is the microscope; in short, CRT is a theoretical lens that scholars use to focus on race and racism as a tool for better understanding a phenomenon that traditional explanations have not adequately explained.

To clarify, then, CRT is a scholarly tool (a set of claims about race and racism) that helps examine phenomena, typically related to institutional dynamics (U.S. legal system, policing, public education). CRT has its origin in legal studies, and at its core, CRT examines phenomenon under the assumption that racial inequities cannot often be understood by simplistic explanations such as individual racism.

As Adrienne Dixon explains for NEPC, CRT does influence some elements of legal and educational scholarship:

CRT is a theoretical framework that originated in legal scholarship in the late 1980s. The founding CRT scholars were dissatisfied with anti-discrimination laws and the legal scholarship that informed it because they felt it didn’t adequately address the role of race and racism and relied too heavily on incremental change. CRT was introduced to education in the 1990s to address similar dissatisfaction with research in education that scholars believed did not fully account for race and racism. Moreover, scholars felt that multicultural education had become co-opted and no longer had the potential to adequately address inequities in education writ large.

Critical Race Theory: What It Is. And What It Is Not. A Q&A With Adrienne Dixson

To clarify about the widespread misinformation about CRT, here are some key facts:

  • CRT is a theoretical lens used by scholars to understand phenomenon impacted by race; CRT is not taught in K-12 education (or undergraduate education), and may or may not have influenced any text or curriculum that addresses systemic racism.
  • CRT centers race in the spectrum of theories that fall under the label “CRT,” and thus, since Marxism centers social class (and often takes a color-blind stance), CRT and Marxist theoretical lenses are in tension. In short, calling CRT “Marxist” is misleading at best, and simply false as worst. [1]
  • Very few students, even graduate students, are assigned readings and lessons that examine what CRT is and how to use it in research. Most students will only ever experience CRT examined formally in graduate courses (law school, graduate education), and even then, CRT remains mostly in elective courses. [2]

Now, let me explore why the attacks on CRT by white conservatives is ironic.

Let’s start with Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose writing is at the center of one of the most dramatic consequences of anti-CRT legislation—a teacher in Tennessee being fired for teaching an essay by Coates.

Coates gained much of his fame as a contemporary writer on race while working at The Atlantic; one of his most powerful pieces examined the Donald Sterling controversy, an NBA owner who lost his ownership because of documented racist behavior.

Sterling represents, according to Coates, oafish racists, individuals who express and act on explicit racism (think David Duke). The oafish racist, the individual racist, as Coates explains, is likely far less common in the U.S., but also far easier to identify and address.

As a CRT scholar would acknowledge, oafish racists pose no problem to scholars; however, racism and racial inequity persist in ways that cannot be linked to individual racist behavior (more below). CRT, then, would be a useful framework for trying to explain what Coates labels as “elegant racism”:

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here are a few examples of just exactly how CRT is useful and even necessary for understanding situations exposing racial inequity.

First, consider the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was identified by a police officer as a “‘Black male, maybe 20, black revolver, black handgun by him.'” Rice was shot and killed in just seconds by that officer.

The shooting and killing of Rice fits into a large body of research showing that Black people are shot and killed at much higher rates than other races (for example, Black people shot 2.5 x more often than White people):

For legal scholars who have concluded that this racial rate inequity cannot be explained by simply identifying individual police officers as racists, CRT provides a process for understanding how and why the police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Rice.

Part of that explanation is systemic racism that influences everyone (regardless of race); Black children are viewed as older than their biological ages:

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.

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children

So here is our first example of irony: While anti-CRT advocates attack CRT as itself racist and argue CRT labels all White people as racist, CRT actually poses that the killing of Rice is not dependent on a racist police offer, but unexamined and unaddressed systemic biases against Black children.

Again, ironically, training for police officers informed by CRT is the most effective mechanism for helping police officers recognize unconscious bias (viewing Black children as adults) and then change their behavior (resulting in fewer lives taken).

Finally, consider a couple more phenomenon and the need for CRT as a tool to understand and address these inequities.

Consider this report from Brookings that identifies racial inequities between education and income (a racial gap identified in a large body of research):

Perry, Barr, and Romer, then, confront a problem that cannot be explained simply by the impact of individual racists on income:

Our research reveals that the median earnings for Black workers in the manufacturing industry are a staggering $25,629 less than the median for non-Black workers. This racial earnings gap is so large that it is even more pronounced than the earnings gap between workers with degrees versus without. And education does not make up for the racial income gap [emphasis added]; our analysis shows that the median Black worker with a college or trade school degree in the manufacturing industry still makes $875 less than the median white worker with no degree.

Three lessons for boosting postsecondary education and wages in Black-majority cities

Next, consider racial inequity in terms of education, detailed in a report from The Education Trust:

Black students are more likely to attend schools that have high percentages of novice teachers in almost every state across the country. For example:

• In Mississippi, about 25% of Black students attend schools with high percentages of novice teachers, compared to 7% of non-Black students.

• In Maryland, nearly 40% of Black students attend schools with high percentages of novice teachers, compared to about 20% of non-Black students.

• And in eight states (Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas), 30% or more of Black students attend schools with high percentages (greater than 20%) of novice teachers.

Not only do Black students have more novice teachers, but they also have more first-year teachers. On nationwide average, schools serving the highest percentages of Black students have 8% first-year teachers; whereas, schools serving the lowest percentages of Black students have 5% first-year teachers. In 25% of states, schools serving the greatest percentages of Black students have at least twice the percentage of first-year teachers as schools serving the fewest.

• In Louisiana and Mississippi, for example, schools serving the greatest percentages of Black students have almost three times the percentage of first-year teachers as schools serving the fewest.

See Getting Black students Better Access to Non-Novice Teachers

The Education Trust finds a similar disparity for Latino students.

In all three phenomena above—racial inequities in police shootings, income, and access to non-novice teachers—CRT allows a tool for examining and addressing these problems that begins with the claim they are not the result from individual racism, but from systemic (and complicated) dynamics that everyone participates in.

For White people, then, CRT informed research on racial inequity that can unpack and identify the dynamics creating systemic racism can then be translated into policy and practices that eradicate those inequities—all without blaming individuals as racists.

Understanding and incorporating CRT as a tool for research and policy, then, is not a process for condemning all White people as racist, but a pathway to racial harmony.

Being White is not a self-condemning status, then; however, refusing to acknowledge systemic racism and the need to find policies that create equity is a choice, one that perpetuates racism regardless of anyone’s beliefs about race.

The ultimate and ugly irony is that White refusal to understand and embrace CRT is self-defeating, harmful to everyone regardless of race.

[1] See “Claim 2” HERE.

[2] As a critical scholar who identifies with Marxist educational theory, I must emphasize that although I have completed every level of formal education through a doctorate, I have never once been assigned any CRT text or lesson. Further, my understanding and study of Marxism have primarily been on my own, beginning with Marx’s non-economic writings (which I read by choice as an undergraduate after finding the book at a used book sale).

Resources from NEPC

Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory: What It Is. And What It Is Not. A Q&A With Adrienne Dixson

NEPC Review: How to Regulate Critical Race Theory in Schools: A Primer and Model Legislation (Manhattan Institute, August 2021)

Recommended: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment (TCP)

School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment

School’s Choice 9780807765814

Wagma Mommandi, a former public-school teacher, is a PhD candidate in education policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. 

Kevin Welner is a professor and the director of the National Education Policy Center, which is housed at the CU Boulder School of Education.

Access issues are pivotal to almost all charter school tensions and debates. How well are these schools performing? Are they segregating and stratifying? Are they public and democratic? Are they fairly funded? Can apparent successes be scaled up? Answers to all these core questions hinge on how access to charter schools is shaped. This book describes the incentives and pressures on charter schools to restrict access and examines how charters navigate those pressures, explaining access-restricting practices in relation to the ecosystem within which charter schools are created. It also explains how charters have sometimes responded by resisting the pressures and sometimes by surrendering to them. The text presents analyses of 13 different types of practices around access, each of which shapes the school’s enrollment. The authors conclude by offering recommendations for how states and authorizers can address access-related inequities that arise in the charter sector. School’s Choice provides timely information on critical academic and policy issues that will come into play as charter school policy continues to evolve.

Book Features:

  • Examines how charter schools control who gains and retains access.
  • Explores policies and practices that undermine equitable admission and encourage opportunity hoarding.
  • Offers a set of policy recommendations at the state and federal level to address access-related issues.

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.

Understanding the “Science of Reading” Movement and Its Consequences: A Reader

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, TBD.


In this article, we contend that in media stories on the science or reading, journalists have relied on strategic metaphorical framing to present reading education as a public crisis with a narrow and settled solution. Drawing on data from a critical metaphor analysis of 37 media stories, we demonstrate how frames used in recent media reporting have intensified the reading wars, promoting conflict and hampering conversation among stakeholders and across research paradigms and methodologies. The media have asserted a direct connection between basic research and instructional practice that, without sufficient translational research that attends to a variety of instructional contexts and student populations, may perpetuate inequities. We end with an example of collaboration and a challenge to reframe reading education in ways that center collaboration and conversation rather than conflict.

Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2021, January 22). The science of reading provides little or no support for the widespread claim that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction: A response to Buckingham.


It is widely claimed that the science of reading supports the conclusion that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction. Bowers (2020) challenged this conclusion after reviewing all the main evidence, and Buckingham (2020a) provided a detailed response where she argues that the evidence does indeed support systematic phonics and criticizes an alternative form of instruction called “Structured Word Inquiry” or (SWI). Here we show that every substantive criticism Buckingham makes is factually incorrect or reflects a fundamental mischaracterization. There is nothing in her article that challenges the conclusions that Bowers (2020) draws regarding systematic phonics, and nothing that challenges the claims we have made in the past regarding SWI. This should not be used to support whole language or balanced literacy, but it should motivate researchers to consider alternative methods that are well motivated on theoretical grounds, such as SWI.

Bowers and Bowers (2021)

Caught in the Crosshairs: Emerging Bilinguals and the Reading Wars (NEPC)

After a relatively quiet phase, the “reading wars” reignited in 2018 in the wake of a flurry of news media coverage sparked by a public radio documentary that argued that students across America were receiving inadequate phonics instruction. More than a dozen states—including Florida, Texas and North Carolina—rushed to react, passing laws requiring pre-service and current teachers to place a greater emphasis on phonics.

Now researchers who study Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students are raising questions about the potential impact of these efforts on such students, including emerging bilinguals. …

Continue reading HERE

See Also

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading” (NEPC)

The Critical Story of the “Science of Reading” and Why Its Narrow Plotline Is Putting Our Children and Schools at Risk

Perspective | Is there really a ‘science of reading’ that tells us exactly how to teach kids to read?

If You’re Going to Write About Science of Reading, Get Your Reading Right

The release of the joint statement (National Education Policy Center and Education Deans for Justice and Equity) on the “science of reading” version of the current Reading War held, I hoped, great promise for at least slowing a very harmful process. I also briefly crossed my fingers that the statement could ease some of the discord and help key figures in the debate find that there is more common ground than disagreement.

However, social media has provided evidence that neither of these outcomes is likely. The advocates of the “science of reading” doubled down on their condescension and general nastiness (a feature of Twitter), and there is this blog post from Daniel Willingham: If You’re Going to Write About Science of Reading, Get Your Science Right.

I commented several times on the post and even offered a discussion by email. Willingham did respond to my comments and the exchange was civil, but alas, fruitless.

The crux of Willingham’s concerns about the statement seems to be:

I think the statement is pretty confused, as it conflates issues that ought to be considered separately. This statement is meant to be about the science of reading, so much of the confusion arises from a failure to understand or appreciate the nature of science, how basic science applies to applied science, and the scientific literature on reading.

This is a misreading of the policy; I think that misreading is in part prompted by Diane Ravitch’s framing of the statement with “There is no Science of Reading,” which Willingham references in his first paragraph.

To clarify, Ravitch’s framing is misleading, and Willingham has failed to grasp the purpose of the statement, directly identified by NEPC:

All students deserve equitable access to high-quality literacy and reading instruction and opportunities in their schools. This will only be accomplished when policymakers pay heed to an overall body of high-quality research evidence and then make available the resources necessary for schools to provide our children with the needed supports and opportunities to learn. This joint statement from NEPC and the Education Deans for Justice and Equity provides guiding principles for what any federal or state legislation directly or indirectly impacting reading should and should not do.

This statement is a policy statement that raises a long-overdue red flag about a complicated process: Mainstream media have created a narrative that teachers have failed to use the “science of reading” because teacher education has failed to teach that, preferring balanced literacy instead. This narrative also claims the “science of reading” is settled and that the research base justifies systematic intensive phonics instruction for all students, a claim being used to endorse and implement misguided reading legislation across the U.S. [1]

Willingham has missed that nuanced and complex focus of the statement and spends the blog post mostly challenging issues that simply do not exist in the statement itself, primarily complaining that the statement has a fundamental misunderstanding of “science” (“The distinction between basic and applied science ought to be fundamental to any discussion of the science of reading”).

Since a key element of the statement raises that exact issue, this extended complaint is itself, to use Willingham’s language, “confused.”

A couple of important points lie beneath the unfortunate consequence of the topic of teaching reading continuing to be a fruitless debate (what the statement is explicitly seeking to end).

First, the teaching of reading as a subset of the field of education has historically and now currently been over-run with epistemic trespassing; psychology, economics, and political science routinely encroach on education as if the discipline itself has no scholarship or scholars.

Some of this trespassing has to do with disciplinary hierarchies linked to distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research (often veneers for academic sexism), but some of the trespassing is simply disciplinary bullying.

While I completely agree with Willingham that anyone making claims about the “science of reading” should understand “science,” he has failed to acknowledge an equally important requirement—understanding reading and literacy.

As Nathan Ballantyne examines carefully, having robust and critical skills in one field, psychology, does not necessarily equip a scholar for transferring those skills to another field, especially (as Willingham notes himself) into a field grounded in real-world practice such as education, teaching children to read.

Willingham and Mark Seidenberg, both psychologists, are two of the main scientists cited in the “science of reading” narrative in mainstream media, and two of its defenders (although as scholars, they both tend to offer far more caveats and nuance than advocates who are journalists).

They, however, lack a background in teaching literacy, and while their research is quite valuable, as the statement notes, narrow types of “scientific” are ultimately incomplete evidence for day-to-day teaching.

No one is arguing there is no “science of reading,” but the ham-fisted claims about “settled” science and the misuse of “science” to support flawed reading policy are inexcusable.

But here is a much more problematic part of this continued debate. Willingham represents not only epistemic trespassing, but also has explicitly discredited all educational researchers, suggesting journalists as more credible:

Believing something because someone else believes it rather than demanding and evaluating evidence makes you sound either lazy or gullible. But we yield to the authority of others all the time. When I see my doctor I don’t ask for evidence that the treatments he prescribes are effective, and when an architect designed a new deck for my house I didn’t ask for proof that it could support the weight of my grill and outdoor furniture. I believed what they told me because of their authority.

I think education researchers don’t speak with that kind of authority and (apparently unlike Sanden) I don’t think we deserve it. I can point to two key differences between a doctor (or architect, or accountant, or electrician, etc) and education researchers.

He adds later, “Anyone can take the title ‘education researcher.’”

As someone with an EdD and who straddles two different fields, education and English, I can assure you that this sort of disciplinary bullying is still common in the academy. Education is routinely dismissed as mere occupational preparation, and English is framed as one of the impractical fields in the impractical humanities.

This sort of disrespectful finger pointing, I think, must be unmasked since any time someone points a finger, several are pointing back as well.

“The replication of findings is one of the defining hallmarks of science,” note Diener and Biswas-Diener, adding:

In modern times, the science of psychology is facing a crisis. It turns out that many studies in psychology—including many highly cited studies—do not replicate. In an era where news is instantaneous, the failure to replicate research raises important questions about the scientific process in general and psychology specifically. People have the right to know if they can trust research evidence. For our part, psychologists also have a vested interest in ensuring that our methods and findings are as trustworthy as possible.

Psychology, then, like economics feels justified trespassing on other fields, possibly to deflect from the needed critical inspection of their own field. It seems one reason psychology has a crisis in the quality of their science is a pattern of defensiveness:

When findings do not replicate, the original scientists sometimes become indignant and defensive, offering reasons or excuses for non-replication of their findings—including, at times, attacking those attempting the replication. They sometimes claim that the scientists attempting the replication are unskilled or unsophisticated, or do not have sufficient experience to replicate the findings. This, of course, might be true, and it is one possible reason for non-replication.

I have been in the field of literacy for 36 years, and in academia for 18 years. I am quite certain there are no pure fields and no fields that can be discounted as cavalierly as Willingham does about “education scholars” and education research (I recommend Bracey on the problems with educational research and how it is interpreted, by the way).

I also have directly admitted that epistemic trespassing is always problematic, but many topics may in fact necessitate such trespassing. Understanding and teaching reading does in fact benefit from a wide range of disciplinary evidence (as the statement asserts).

But no topic benefits from academia’s most petty traditions, including disciplinary hierarchies and bullying.

If expertise in science deserves respect (and it certainly does), then expertise in literacy and teaching reading also deserve respect—and neither should be handed over to journalism as the arbiter of those fields or to politicians who have the power of policy.

Those of us in the academy who often are discounted for being in an Ivory Tower should have higher standards for our own behavior, but there is much work yet to be done to eradicate hierarchies and pettiness even among the so-called well educated.

Let’s keep in  mind that although getting the science right is certainly important, we are in this to get the reading right, and that is the focus of the statement that some are misreading.

[1] See the following to help construct the narrative:

Gewertz, C. (2020, February, 20). States to schools: Teach reading the right way. Education Week. Retrieved from

Loewus, L. (2019, December 3). Data: How reading is really being taught. Education Week. Retrieved from

Russo, A. (2018, November 14). Hard reporting: Why reading went under the radar for so long – and what one reporter is aiming to do about it. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from

Schwartz, S. (2019, December 3). The most popular reading programs aren’t backed by science. Education Week. Retrieved from

Stukey, M.R., & Fugnitto, G. (2020). The settled science of teaching reading—part I. Collaborative Circle Blog. Retrieved from

Will, M. (2020, January 22). Preservice teachers are getting mixed messages on how to teach reading. Education Week. Retrieved from

Will, M. (2018, October 24). Teachers criticize their colleges of ed. for not preparing them to teach reading. Education Week. Retrieved from

Will, M. (2019, December 3). Will the science of reading catch on in teacher prep? Education Week. Retrieved from

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.