Category Archives: racism

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

[NOTE: See part 1 HERE]

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

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

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

What better represents America is this from James Baldwin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

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

Wealth and Want

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

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

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a false dichotomy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


See Also

South Carolina’s Education Problem: Crisis, Faddism, and Boondoggles

One of my first scholarly publications, “A new honesty in education—Positivist measures in a postmodern world,” included the 1998 governor’s race in South Carolina between David Beasley (incumbent Republican) and Jim Hodges (Democrat) in a solidly Republican state.

While the governorship that election shifted to Hodges, mostly because of the wedge issue of gambling in SC, I noted that both candidates and political parties ran on a dishonest but effective platform—SC education was at the bottom in the U.S. In fact, both candidates had billboards lambasting the state’s education ranking that were virtually indistinguishable except for the candidate information.

In 2022, it is important to highlight that SC was popularly and politically identified in crisis and need of reform after two decades of crisis (A Nation at Risk under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s) and a series of standards and high-stakes testing reform.

I entered education in 1984, right after then-Governor Richard Riley had pushed SC as one of the first adopters into the accountability movement.

As a high school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I watched and listened as SC political leaders called for modeling SC education policy, standards, and testing on Florida and Virginia; despite its bombastic libertarian proclamations, SC is copy-cat state when it comes to education policy.

And therein lies the problem.

SC remains trapped in a cycle of education crisis, education faddism, and education boondoggles.

After those two decades following A Nation at Risk, SC once again doubled down on reform and accountability during the No Child Behind Era (NCLB) under George W. Bush, and then, stumbled into the Obama era reforms—value-added methods for teacher evaluation, charter schools, and (yes) Common Core.

That Obama/Common Core era is a perfect example of educational dysfunction in SC.

SC rushed to adopt Common Core and the related testing (fadism), purchased teaching and learning materials labeled as Common Core aligned (boondoggle), and then while teachers were being trained and the entire educational system was transitioning to the new standards, SC dropped Common Core (because conservatives falsely labeled the movement as Obama’s although the standards came form the National Governor’s Association and were strongly bipartisan).

This wasteful nonsense was almost entirely partisan politics and had little to do with teaching and learning.

So as we watch 2022 slip into 2023, SC remains trapped in the crisis > fadism > boondoggle cycle that has been demonstrated to fail education since the early 1980s.

The accountability movement phase 1 (mostly a state-level movement) after A Nation at Risk was declared a failure and lead to the accountability movement phase 2 that pivoted on NCLB (and included federal policy mandating “scientifically based” teaching and materials).

About another 20 years after phase 2, we are once again screaming crisis, including a(nother) reading crisis and the really ugly anti-CRT/book banning movements (see how all of these are related historically).

SC has been quick to pass copy-cat reading legislation (see HERE and HERE) for about a decade, and the current budget includes millions and millions of dollars for “science of reading” policy, training, and materials (sound familiar to those who watched the Common Core disaster?).

As one specific example, SC like many other states is simultaneously (again) calling for limiting everything in education to “scientific” while investing huge amounts of tax dollars to non-scientific boondoggles (see here about LETRS).

Education is an incredibly profitable market in the U.S., and the only people who have benefitted from 40 years of constant crisis > reform are those who repeatedly rebrand educational materials to match the fad-du-jour.

The current reading crisis and curriculum crisis in SC and across the U.S. are marketing and political scams—all faddism and boondoggles.

SC does not have a reading crisis, and does not have a CRT crisis.

The real educational problems in SC (and throughout the U.S.) are once again being ignored—poverty, racism, and inequity in both the lives of children and citizens as well as in our schools.

Affluent children continue to have the best access to learning while marginalized and vulnerable children are neglected, ignored, or pushed into the most limited and limiting educational contexts (such as test-prep).

SC is not experiencing a new or unique educational crisis, but we are suffering from a historical and current reality that is reflected in our educational system—a lack of political will.

Crisis, fadism, and boondoggles are the playground of political leaders and education marketers who reap the rewards of misinformation, misdirection, and finding ourselves in a hole while continuing to dig.

Whose Rights Matter?: On Censorship, Parents, and Children

Having been an educator in South Carolina across five decades, starting in the early 1980s, I have witnessed dozens of challenges by parents concerning assigned books, topics discussed, and controversial ideas raised in class discussions.

In the first years of teaching, I had assigned John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of sorts of the Old English classic Beowulf narrative, to my advanced tenth grade American Literature class (knowing they would read Beowulf the next year and also as preparation for advanced students going to college in just a few years).

Grendel was a highly regarded novel, experimental and challenging but also often humorous and deeply thought provoking. Gardner was also one of favorite authors, and his work fit well into preparing students for the Advanced Placement program.

However, this novel became my first book challenge experience as a teacher. I learned a few things.

First, it didn’t take long—my students informed me—to discover that a few parents had conspired to challenge the book primarily as a way to challenge me.

Next, I found out quickly that a few parents did have the power for making decisions for everyone—since the book was pulled from required reading for all students as those two parents requested (although it remained on my classroom shelves and in our library).

While Gardner’s novel does include what some people would consider crude language and one very brief graphic scene, this parent challenge was entirely about ideology, not literary quality or even offensive material.

More broadly, I learned that what I taught would always be about the politics of whose rights matter, including the rights of everyone in a free democracy, parents, teachers, and of course (although this is too often ignored), students.

A few other moments stand out from my two decades teaching high school English.

Once, I had a heated debate with the school librarian about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. By then, I was English Department chair and teaching AP Literature and Composition. Walker’s celebrated novel was included in that AP course (which is supposed to reflect college-level content and instruction).

The librarian had children who would be in that course, and she was adamant that The Color Purple was pornography, not literature. I calmly referenced several critical books on the shelves of the library, literary criticism on Walker and the novel.

Again, this was not really about the novel; this was about fundamentalist religious beliefs and racism.

Which brings me to maybe the most powerful censorship moment of my career.

I cannot stress this enough, but book bans and censorship are almost never about a book. Book bans and censorship are about some people imposing their ideologies on all people.

I was fortunate to have as a colleague the only Black teacher in our English Department, Ethel Chamblee. She was a powerful advocate for students and one of the kindest supporters of me as a teacher I have ever experienced.

While I was chair, Ethel and I worked to diversify our required reading lists for high school students in our English courses. Before we did so, the required works were all by white authors, and almost entire while men.

This process of revising the reading list was laborious because one reason the so-called canon remains white and male is that older works are often absent any potentially offensive language and all the sex is cloaked in metaphor (my students routinely failed to recognize what Daisy blossoming for Gatsby implied).

However, we eventually chose and approved adding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s novel had been out of print until being fairly recently resurrected, notably as a recommended novel in AP programs.

The novel has some modest sexual content, but certainly isn’t as graphic as The Color Purple or even many of the classics we had required for decades.

During the first semester the book was taught, in Ethel’s classes, a parent complained. By then, I had established a process for parent complaints based on NCTE’s guidelines, including that anyone raising a concern had to complete a form and identify if they had or not read the book.

We had a committee of high school and middle school teachers who reviewed the complaints and issued a ruling.

Since the form demonstrated the parent had not read the book and since the parent boldly admitted they did not want their child reading a work by a Black author (a student sitting in a classroom taught by a Black woman, by the way), we quickly rejected the complaint and noted the student could be issued a different novel instead, but the class assignment remained with the novel on our required reading list.

Now the important part: The parent complaining was a leader in the local KKK.

Once again, I cannot stress this enough, but book bans and censorship are almost never about a book. Book bans and censorship are about some people imposing their ideologies on all people.

Should the bigoted ideology of the KKK determine what books teachers can teach and what books students can read for an entire public school?

Although there is an even harder question—should the bigoted ideology of the KKK be a prison for a child that just happens to be born into that family?

In 2022, book challenges are occurring across the U.S., repeating my own experiences above. These are attacks on freedom in the name of using public schools and public libraries to impose some people’s ideologies onto everyone.

One parent having a book removed from a school library makes decisions for all other parents and students. So who determines whose rights matter?

Academic freedom isn’t free as long as we allow the rights of a few to determine the rights of everyone.


Recommended

Grendel Introduced Me to Allegory, Allusion, Symbolism, and Generally Blew My Mind

Conservatives are Wrong about Parental Rights

Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

Banning Books Is Un-American

Rank: Having a foul or offensive smell

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.

Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.

The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

Once again, our schools are ranked 46th out of the 51 public school systems, according to the website WalletHub.

Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.

Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Where is the accountability for student learning?

Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.

W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.

The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.

If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?

Do they not see failing as a bad thing?

The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.

To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.

In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.

I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.

JAMES DANIELS

Lake City

Why does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?

There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.

The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.

The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”

But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.

Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:

At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:

Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.

Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.

There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).

But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.

Recommended

Brief: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educator, 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

Publications

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 http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


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]


Presentations/Keynotes, Podcasts, Webinars

UPDATE (Supplement for Presentations below)

Update: Science of Reading Movement (PP) 2 February 2023

2022

Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022

Webinar

Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)


Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Webinar (view online)

PowerPoint HERE

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

November 10, 2022


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

Keynote

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse (click for PP)

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” (click for PP)

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 (click for PP)

Cowards, Censorship, and Collateral Damage: The Other Reading War (click for PP)

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC


Consulting: Charleston County School District

Reading programs, “science of reading,” and potential PD for faculty and administrators

November 21, 2022


Schoolutions podcast

December 20, 2022


2023

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

Keynote – 8:00 – 9:00 CT January 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 – 9:15 – 10:45 CT January 20, 2023

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 – 11:30 – 1:00 CT January 20, 2023

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET

Monday, January 30, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm ET

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.

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

Monday, January 30, from 8:00 – 8:30 am


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

PROGRAM

Thursday, February 9, 11:15-12:30 B01

Creating Worlds of Possibility: Closing Our Opportunity Gaps Through Recognizing the Sciences of Literacy and Learning

Expert Panel Discussion with Dr. Annalee Good, Dr. Lara Handsfield, Dr. Carol Lee, Dr. Paul Thomas, Dr. Don Vu

Thursday, February 9, 2:00-3:15 C08

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.

Friday, February 10, 9:45-11:00 A10

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.


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

My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?


Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.


Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?


Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?


Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

IndoctriNation: Can We Avoid Our Dystopian Republican Future?

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes,” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner) muses in Airplane 2: The Sequel.

I immediately thought of this iconic Shatner scene from the Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker film when I saw a brilliant and urgently serious post on Facebook from a former student of mine currently advocating for all that is Good and Right in her crumbling state of Virginia:

While Stephanie hits succinctly right at the heart of the irony surrounding the current push by Republicans to mandate educational gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a wide range of censorship for not only school and colleges but also throughout society, I want to highlight how the irony is a veneer for the Republican long game.

Many people have now exposed that the Republican use of “Critical Race Theory” is an orchestrated lie for larger political goals since their definitions of CRT are distortions and misinformation.

But what exactly is that end game?

First, let’s unpack the monumental irony in the “Education Not Indoctrination” claims of Republicans.

A related element of the anti-CRT movement is linking CRT to “Marxism” (itself a distortion bordering on a lie), but the more telling aspect of that connection is that Marxist and critical educators forefront a genuine and resolute rejection of indoctrination. As Joe Kincheloe details, seeking out and exposing those who indoctrinate is a “central tenet” of being critical:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive….

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy.

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (pp. 2, 11)

JOE KINCHELOE, CRITICAL PEDAGOGY PRIMER

Therefore, if an educator is leftist, Marxist, or critical, they are dedicated to not only seeking out and contesting anyone who indoctrinates, but also working continuously to avoid allowing their own teaching to devolve into indoctrination.

To indoctrinate is to be authoritarian (see Paulo Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” in the context of critical pedagogy).

Along with the foundational strategy of using lies and mischaracterized terms to advance a political agenda, Republicans also are guilty of projection: Almost everything Republicans attribute to the “Left” is what they actually do (Republicans decry a false specter of “cancel culture” while actually passing legislation that censors, cancels, and bans materials and ideas) or what they would do given the opportunity and the power.

And that leads to the end game.

To understand the Republican end game, you must address that “Education Not Indoctrination” is yet another Orwellian misdirection. Republicans are not anti-indoctrination; in fact, Republicans are actually seeking a world in which they completely control the indoctrinating.

In short, Kincheloe’s “who’s indoctrinating whom” can be addressed simply by acknowledging that given the opportunity and power (see legislation in Republican-led states) the “who” will always be Republicans and the “whom” will be the rest of us.

Republicans are organizing and enacting a broad campaign to create their dystopia, IndoctriNation.

They are counting on a common flaw in the U.S.: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Bully Politics and Political Theater in an Era of Racial Shift

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently bullied students about wearing masks as he prepared to give a press conference. DeSantis called wearing masks “Covid theater,” but it seems more likely his petulant behavior is his own political theater since DeSantis immediately turned the embarrassing behavior into a fundraising gimmick.

That a sitting governor publicly and brazenly chastised students—behavior that no student would be allowed toward other students or adults while in school—is a snapshot of the broader attack on K-16 education in the U.S., also driven entirely by Republicans.

Curriculum gag orders, anti-CRT legislation, and book bans all seek to censor any mentioning of race or racism as well as topics related to gender or sexuality (the latter repeatedly identified by Republicans as “pornography”).

Copy-cat legislation across Republican-led states is far less about teaching and learning than about the tremendous racial shift occurring in the U.S.—and the immediate tension in K-12 public education because of that shift.

The 2020 Census has revealed, as reported in USA Today: “The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.”

In short, the white racial majority in the U.S. is shrinking quickly, and the future of racial balance in the U.S. is now reflected in K-12 education, where white students constitute less than half of students:

However, K-12 education remains a very white space except for that student population.

Almost 80% of teachers are white, and despite the false claims made in curriculum gag orders and anti-CRT legislation, K-12 curriculum and texts remain disproportionately white:

Research on U.S. history textbooks indicate White, European Americans are featured in over half of pictorials and illustrations. In some cases, it is more than 80 percent. Representation of people from BIPOC backgrounds are rarely featured, with some ethnic groups featured as low as 1 percent.

These racial and ethnic representations do not reflect demographics given in the 2020 U.S. Census, where 61.6 percent of the population is identified as White, 18.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 12.4 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 1.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 8.4 percent some other racial population, and 10.2 percent multiracial….

In sum, studies on books and other materials reveal that White characters are more prominent than BIPOC characters. The data suggest that it is likely that students who identify as White will see mirrors of themselves more often than students from BIPOC communities.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong

DeSantis, then, personifies the resulting bully politics of Republicans as a response to the racial shift occurring in the U.S.

An examination of bullying in academia offers an important frame for understanding the larger phenomenon of bully politics:

What makes bullying an unethical, yet effective, means to rise through the ranks? An emerging body of research suggests that mediocre academics in particular resort to bullying, to remove their competition. Experimental research has shown that when male hierarchies are disrupted by women, this incites hostile behaviour specifically from poorly performing men, because they stand to lose the most.

Members of underrepresented groups report they are the targets of bullying with the intent to sabotage their careers. Some anecdotes suggest that bullies spring into action when their targets become too successful for their liking — and thus viable competition.

How bullying becomes a career tool, Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi

This unpacking of bullying in academia fits well into understanding the bully politics of Republicans, often mediocre white men, like DeSantis, who feel threatened and cultivate political capital by stoking racial animosity through misinformation.

As I have noted before, K-12 public education is quite conservative and, as shown above, very white. While curriculum gag orders have characterized teachers and schools as hostile to white students (legislating bans on making students uncomfortable)—without evidence—and rampant with CRT—which isn’t occurring in K-12 schools—few people are directly exposing why bully politics is on the rise—the significant racial shift in society and schools in tension with the static whiteness of teachers and curriculum.

Unlike the ways in which Republicans have characterized U.S. schooling, Ranita Ray has witnessed a much different reality for students:

What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.

It Never Seems to Be a Good Time to Talk About Teachers’ Racism

The irony of the racial shift spurring bully politics lies in ground zero, the backlash against the 1619 Project, which represents not a rewriting of history but a confronting of what history is—stories of the past shaped by who ever has power.

The facts of history do not necessarily change but the power behind what facts are told and why does shift. The 1619 Project changes what is centered in the telling of U.S. history (moving it away from the idealized founding and toward the grim reality of the institution of slavery)—in a similar way to the shifting racial centering of the U.S. in the 2020s.

Republicans are scrambling not to protect history or Truth, but to further entrench a mythology, an aspirational white-washed version of the country.

The impetus behind the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is well expressed in Adrienne Rich’s poem:

I came to explore the wreck.

…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“Diving into the Wreck”

The facts of history and even the present—and not the myths—are disturbing, uncomfortable (“the drowned face always staring”).

Some of us, like the speaker in Rich’s poem, accept the discomfort as motivation to work toward a better world for everyone.

Others are petulant, bullies, carelessly grabbing all their toys and threatening to go home.

DeSantis and the other mediocre Republicans are playing political theater but their bully politics is all too real and has devastating consequences for academic freedom and democracy.

Histrionics characterizing masks as “Covid theater” are masking white fear that has reduced the Republican Party to bully politics in the service of a misguided whiteness—and to the exclusion of democracy and basic human dignity.

Gag Orders, Loyalty Oaths, and the New McCarthyism

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

An avalanche of gag order bills are being proposed in South Carolina—H.4325H.4343H.4392H.4605, and H.4799. While my home state of SC often likes to brag about being the first state to secede in order to maintain slavery (an uncomfortable fact many of these laws would ban from being taught), these bills represent the sort of crass copy-cat legislation that is also sweeping across other Republican-led states.

Not only is there nothing original in these bills (or even evidence-based or logical), but also there is a profoundly disturbing repetition of one of the lowest points in U.S. history—the New McCarthyism.

Let’s start with facts, which Republican legislation seeks to censor:

  • “Critical Race Theory” as it is mischaracterized by Republicans does not exist in K-12 schools.
  • CRT as properly defined (a scholarly theory created primarily by Black scholars for the the field of law and adapted in a few other fields such as education and sociology) does not exit in K-12 schools.
  • Systemic racism is a fact of the founding of the U.S. and a fact of the U.S. in 2022, supported by irrefutable evidence that defies simplistic explanations (such as individual racism).
  • Race is a social construct and not a matter of biology.
  • History is a living field for considering the facts of the past; there is no one true history.
  • Intellectual discomfort is often a necessary aspect of new learning when anyone must confront misconceptions or missing knowledge in order to better understand and navigate the world.

The gag orders such as those listed above in SC are blunt partisan politics driven by orchestrated lies that have nothing to do with protecting students or with teaching factual history or excellent literature/texts.

Curriculum and book censorship in 2022 is our New McCarthyism because the CRT veneer is being used to promote ideological agendas aimed at Black people and LGBTQ+ people.

The McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare, was confronted in The Crucible by Arthur Miller, who uses allegory to warn the U.S. at mid-twentieth century that McCarthy’s cries of “communism” were partisan lies similar to the Salem witch trials.

There were no witches.

There were no lists of communists.

There is no CRT poisoning U.S. schools.

Yet, in their extreme forms, some gag orders include requirements for loyalty oaths and mechanisms for withholding state funding for a decade. Even for private organizations.

The ultimate horror of these gag orders from Republicans is that by legislating censorship of what history and texts students are allowed to learn, we will be insuring the most damning of ideas about history itself—those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, often the very worst of it.

Yesterday I saw the following Tweet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine:

While I endorse the sentiment, I have been watching for over a year while most of the U.S. fails to resist censorship right here in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

Republicans are running roughshod over freedom, pushing the U.S. toward banning abortion (despite a majority of Americans supporting maintaining Roe v. Wade) and enacting curriculum and book bans (despite large majorities of Americans rejecting censorship):

CBS news poll

Ultimately, gag orders, loyalty oaths, and censorship are un-American and anti-democratic, as ALAN notes in their Intellectual Freedom Statement:

We know that intellectual freedom is foundational to an educated citizenry and essential to the preservation and practice of democracy. We are dedicated to protecting this natural human right, and therefore, we insist on open access to all school reading materials for all students.

Intellectual Freedom Statement

The New McCarthyism exposes the Republican Party as a party of oppression, the exact sort of fact that should make everyone of us uncomfortable.


Anti-CRT Gag Orders Lack Evidence, Logic

My home state of South Carolina, one of the solid red states in the U.S., is jumping on the anti-CRT gag order bandwagon, proposing copy-cat legislation that is repeated across Republican-led states.

As Dr. Susi Long carefully detailed, anti-CRT legislation lacks evidence since CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools and since the laundry list of what the legislation is supposed to prohibit in SC schools simply does not occur in our schools either.

That is part of the reason I have called anti-CRT gag orders a manufactured crisis.

But these partisan attacks on schools and teachers lack more than evidence; they lack a fundamental logic.

The racial make up of SC is 64% white (non-Hispanic), 27% Black, and 6% Hispanic.

However, the public school student population is 48% white, 32% Black, and 12% Hispanic. Like the rest of the U.S., SC public schools are now majority-minority schools.

Here is where anti-CRT gag orders make no sense; the teacher demographics in SC are 79% white, 13% Black, and 3% Hispanic.

SC public schools have a student population significantly unlike the racial demographics of the state, and then teacher demographics are dramatically unlike the state as well as the student population they serve.

Here is where logic falls apart. If we believe anti-CRT gag orders are needed, we must believe that teachers who are almost entirely white are making white students uncomfortable because they are spreading CRT propaganda.

These demographics not only challenge the logic of anti-CRT gag orders, they also expose what is really driving this legislation—white fright.

Demographics of U.S. public schools are a harbinger of the reality that white people will soon constitute less than 50% of the country, while likely remaining the largest racial group for some time.

Schools, curriculum, and teachers are not hostile to white students or white people, but white fright is targeting schools as one of many ways white Americans are clinging to their majority status, a majority status that has an ugly history and an ugly present that some white Americans want hidden.

One of the ugliest truths beneath this fear is that white Americans know exactly what many white people did with majority power—and now they fear what may happen when someone else has that power.

Despite the shifting demographics of students and false claims made by Republicans pushing anti-CRT gag orders, schools remain extremely white-centered and white friendly. And that is the real problem that should be addressed for the good of those students.