Category Archives: Science of Reading

The Long and Tired History of Media-Driven Reading Wars

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

First from Emmett A. Betts:

Next, from William S. Gray:

And then, from Lou LaBrant:

Finally, Paul Witty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Betts, E., Dolch, E., Gates, A., Gray, W., Horn, E., LaBrant, L., . . . Witty, P. (1942). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 225-256. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636 [access HERE]

The Return of Missionary Zeal in Education Reform: “Science of Reading” Edition

Increasingly, I am contacted by email or spoken to in person by teachers with a similar and disturbing series of experiences.

These teachers ask to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because they have already been reprimanded or dismissed for simply asking questions about their school/district’s implementing the “science of reading.”

One recent communication I received represents well that pattern (I am paraphrasing and reducing specifics to protect anyone trying to identify the specific teacher, and this is representative of dozens and dozens of similar communications).

The teacher has been a literacy educator well over a decade and also has earned a doctorate. A few years ago, this teacher had a first experience with LETRS training being required for university faculty where they were on one-year contracts.

After asking about why LETRS was being required and noting that the research base doesn’t support that training as effective, the teacher was shunned by their administrator and then their contract wasn’t renewed.

Before leaving that school, they noticed some faculty had simply stopped attending the training, but the administrator sought other faculty to log in to complete that training. The teacher grew concerned that there seemed to be some incentive for simply having many faculty trained.

At a new school, that teacher was immediately required to go through LETRS training. They described the training as a “cult” experience in which professional educators were handed pipe cleaners and asked to make models of the “simple view” of reading (Scarborough’s rope).

While I have repeatedly documented (along with several other scholars; access materials HERE) that the “science of reading” movement is primarily over-simplified narratives and misinformation, I want here to address that the central flaw in the movement is one we have seen in recent history regarding education reform: missionary zeal.

It is important to emphasize that I am aware of no one who rejects that a body of reading science/research exists and that should be a significant part of what drives classroom practice.

However, the media-driven SOR movement and the political consequences of that advocacy that has resulted in SOR-labeled policy are oversimplified and misguided versions of that research base.

And that new policy is often unscientific and harmful such as the pervasive implementation of grade retention.

Further the SOR movement fails to ground the narrative in the history of the field of reading and education reform.

For example, during the “miracle” school/teacher era spanning from George W. Bush through Barack Obama, missionary zeal drove Teach For America, charter schools, “miracle” school claims, and value-added methods for evaluating teachers.

At the core of these connected elements of education reform is a missionary zeal that ultimately failed to produce what was guaranteed, primarily because the reformers misidentified the problems and offered misguided solutions. In the case of the SOR movement, the same mistake is being made by claiming that reading science is simple and settled.

Currently, the “science of reading” movement has fallen into the missionary zeal trap as represented by The Reading League:

The similarities in these two recent movements are important and damning:

The criticisms I have raised are directly targeting the missionary zeal and misinformation found in the media story [1] and the political reaction [2] to that false narrative.

Reading proficiency in the US is about the same now as well before anyone implemented balanced literacy or current popular (and demonized) reading programs. And persistently over the last 80 years, scholars have lamented the “considerable gap” between research and practice in all aspects of K-12 education.

Throughout those 80-plus years, no one has ever been satisfied with student reading achievement regardless of the reading theory being implemented or the reading programs being adopted.

And teacher preparation has been significantly hampered for the past 40 years by top-down accountability mandates that have reduced most teacher certification to more bureaucracy than preparation. A dirty little secret that SOR advocates ignore is that how teachers are prepared to teach reading matters little because most teachers are bound to reading programs and reading standards once they enter the classroom. A huge gap exists between how teachers are prepared and how they are allowed to teach.

But manufacturing a crisis, perpetuating melodramatic stories, and casting simplistic blame are doing the same things we have done in education reform for decades without ever truly supporting teachers or better serving all students.

Just like the TFA and charter/”miracle” school era immediately behind us, the SOR movement is anti-teacher and anti-schools. The public and political leaders have been well primed since the 1980s to believe that schools are horrible and that teachers are incompetent. Regardless of what SOR advocates intend, that is what most people hear.

SOR advocates have falsely attacked teacher expertise, both that of K-12 teachers and that of teacher educators (many of whom had long careers as K-12 teachers); these attacks are often grounded in agendas and reports that are not themselves scientific (such as reports from NCTQ), and solutions offered (LETRS) lack scientific grounding as well.

Just as there is a robust and deep body of reading science, there are sincere educators who are engaged with that research base but also recognize that the SOR movement and SOR policy are not aligned with the complex and still developing reading science.

The SOR movement and much of SOR implementation are corrupted by missionary zeal that creates a veneer for the essentially anti-teacher elements—scripted curriculum (structured literacy), mandated retraining (LETRS), and caricatures of teacher educators, teacher education, balanced literacy, three cueing, and reading programs

An authentic embracing of reading science would acknowledge that current research is complex and evolving, that the causes of students struggling to read are also complex and include influences beyond and in the classroom (not just teacher practice but teaching/learning conditions such as class size and funding), that professionals engaging with research should raise questions and challenge conventional wisdom and traditional assumptions in order to serve the individual needs of students, that one-size-fits-all solutions for students and teachers don’t exist, and that educational practices should be grounded in teacher expertise—not journalists, parents, and politicians.

Missionary zeal is problematic in the same way as people who claim to know the mind of god (I unpack that in the newest arc of Daredevil), creating tunnel vision and arrogance while casting blame and judgment toward anyone or anything that dare raise a valid question or concern.

Just as TFA lured thousands into the program and thousands more to champion the idealistic (and unrealistic) blame-game as well as promises of miracles only to collapse under the weight of its own propaganda, SOR is following the same guaranteed-to-fail strategy.

And, yes, many good people jump on bandwagons with good intentions (I have several people I greatly admire who came through TFA), but eventually, we must all come to terms with the deeply flawed elements of this SOR movement. We must remain committed to individual student needs and teacher autonomy—not movements, slogans, and market boondoggles.

The reasons students have struggled for decades to acquire reading as well or as soon as we’d like are multi-faceted and mostly grounded outside of schools; therefore, the solutions are also complex and quite large.

From the TFA/”miracle” school era to today’s SOR movement, these false narratives are compelling because they are simple (simplistic), but they are destined to cause far more harm than good to students, teachers, and schools.

Beware missionary zeal—especially when dealing with why our schools and students struggle and what solutions advocates offer with passionate certainty.


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

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

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

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

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

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

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

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

Who Do I Work For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recommended

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

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

What Reading Program Should Schools Adopt?

The TL;DR answer is “none.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


See Also

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

The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

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

Does Instruction Matter?

For me, the pandemic era (and semi-post-pandemic era) of teaching has included some of the longest periods in my 39-year career as an educator when I have not been teaching.

The first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years included also teaching adjunct at local colleges during the academic year along with always teaching summer courses (even while in my doctoral program).

Currently in my twenty-first year as a college professor, in addition to my required teaching load, I have always taught overloads during the main academic year, our optional MayX session, and (again) summer courses.

Teaching has been a major part of who I am as a professional and person since my first day at Woodruff High (South Carolina) in August of 1984.

However, during pandemic teaching, I have experienced several different disruptions to that teaching routine—shifting to remote, courses being canceled or not making (especially in MayX and summer), and then coincidentally, my first ever sabbatical during this fall of 2022 (in year 21 at my university).

One aspect of sabbatical often includes the opportunity to reset yourself as a scholar and of course as a teacher. As I was preparing my Moodle courses for Spring 2023, I certainly felt an unusually heightened awareness around rethinking my courses—an introductory education course, a first-year writing seminar, and our department upper-level writing and research course.

Here is an important caveat: I always rethink my courses both during the course and before starting new courses. Yes, the extended time and space afforded by sabbatical makes that reflection deeper, I think, but rethinking what and how I teach is simply an integral part of what it means for me to be a teacher.

For two decades now, I have simultaneously been both a teacher and teacher educator; in that latter role, I have been dedicated to practicing what I preach to teacher candidates.

I am adamant that teacher practice must always reflect the philosophies and theories that the teacher espouses, but I am often dismayed that instructional practices in education courses contradict the lessons being taught on best practice in instruction.

Not the first day, but a moment from my teaching career at WHS.

In both my K-12 and higher education positions, for example, I have practiced de-grading and de-testing the classroom because I teach pre-service teachers about the inherent counter-educational problems with traditional grades and tests.

Now, here is the paradox: As both a teacher and teacher educator my answer to “Does instruction matter?” is complicated because I genuinely believe (1) teacher instructional practices are not reflected in measures of student achievement as strongly (or singularly) as people believe and therefore, (2) yes and no.

The two dominant education reform movements over the past five decades I have experienced are the accountability movement (standards and high-stakes testing) and the current “science of reading” movement.

The essential fatal flaw of both movements has been a hyper-focus on in-school education reform only, primarily addressing what is being taught (curriculum and standards) and how (instruction).

I was nudged once again to the question about instruction because of this Tweet:

I am deeply skeptical of “The research is clear: PBL works” because it is a clear example of hyper-focusing on instructional practices and, more importantly, it is easily misinterpreted by lay people (media, parents, and politicians) to mean that PBL is universally effective (which is not true of any instructional practice).

Project-based learning (PBL) is a perfect example of the problem with hyper-focusing on instruction; see for example Lou LaBrant confronting that in 1931:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant and I both are deeply influenced by John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of teaching (noted as the source for PBL), but we are also both concerned with how the complexities of progressivism are often reduced to simplistic templates and framed as silver-bullet solutions to enormous and complex problems.

As LaBrant notes, the problem with PBL is not the concept of teaching through projects (which I do endorse as one major instructional approach), but failing to align the project in authentic ways with instructional goals. You see, reading a text or writing an essay is itself a project that can be authentic and then can be very effective for instruction.

My classrooms are driven, for example, by two instructional approaches—class discussions and workshop formats.

However, I practice dozens of instructional approaches, many planned but also many spontaneously implemented when the class session warrants (see Dewey’s often ignored concept of “warranted assertion”).

This is why Deweyan progressivism is considered “scientific”—not because we must use settled science to mandate scripted instructional practices but because teaching is an ongoing experiment in terms of monitoring the evidence (student artifacts of learning) and implementing instruction that is warranted to address that situation and those students.

So this leads to a very odd conclusion about whether or not instruction matters.

There are unlikely any instructional practices that are universally “good” or universally “bad” (note that I as a critical educator have explained the value of direct instruction even as I ground my teaching in workshop formats).

The accountability era wandered through several different cycles of blame and proposed solutions, eventually putting all its marbles in teacher quality and practice (the value-added methods era under Obama). This eventually crashed and burned because as I have noted here, measurable impact of teaching practice in student achievement data is very small—only about 10-15% with out-of-school factors contributing about 60-80+%.

The “science of reading” movement is making the exact same mistake—damning “balanced literacy” (BL) as an instructional failure by misrepresenting BL and demonizing “three cueing” (see the second consequence HERE, bias error 3 HERE, and error 2 HERE).

Here is a point of logic and history to understand why blaming poor reading achievement on BL and three cueing: Over the past 80 years, reading achievement has never been sufficient despite dozens of different dominant instructional practices (and we must acknowledge also that at no period in history or today is instructional practice monolithic or that teachers in their classrooms are practicing what is officially designated as their practice).

In short, no instructional practice is the cause of low student achievement and no instructional practice is a silver-bullet solution.

Therefore, does instruction matter? No, if that means hyper-focusing on singular instructional templates for blame or solutions.

But of course, yes, if we mean what Dewey and LaBrant argued—which is an ongoing and complicated matrix of practices that have cumulative impact over long periods of time and in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

From PBL to three cueing—no instructional practice is inherently right or wrong; the key is whether or not teachers base instructional practices on demonstrated student need and whether or not teachers have the background, resources, teaching and learning conditions, and autonomy to make the right instructional decisions.

Finally, hyper-focusing on instruction also contributes to the corrosive impact of marketing in education, an unproductive cycle of fadism and boondoggles.

In the end, we are trapped in a reform paradigm that is never going to work because hyper-focusing on instruction while ignoring larger and more impactful elements in the teaching/learning dynamic (out-of-school factors, teaching and learning conditions, etc.) creates a situation in which all instruction will appear to be failing.

Reforming, banning, and mandating instruction, then, is fool’s gold unless we first address societal/community and school inequities.

A Call for a New (and Honest) Reading Story for 2023

The 2010s into the 2020s has been another decade of high-intensity concern for reading achievement by students, resulting in several rounds of reading policy reform.

Maren Aukerman (University of Calgary) has recently joined a growing number of literacy scholars [1] who are documenting how that high-intensity concern for reading is significantly misleading and misguided.

In her third and final post, Aukerman makes an important plea:

Kick the polarization monster to the curb whenever writers practice divisive reporting: refuse to accept flawed premises and call media outlets out on it, whether you are drawn more toward balanced literacy or more toward what gets called “the science of reading” – or if neither term adequately describes your approach.

My exhortation to education journalists is simpler still. Acknowledge that reading teaching and research are complex; follow best practices for journalism to avoid the aforementioned errors; read a range of high-quality research that takes different perspectives; don’t use the phrase “science of reading” unless you acknowledge it as multi-faceted, evolving, and the domain of all serious reading researchers; and remain curious and open-minded. And finally, stop feeding the polarization monster with what you write. Reading educators and other stakeholders all want children to read well, after all, and we need each other’s voices, perspectives, and research in conversation rather than in battle in order to best make that happen.

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

I strongly agree with Aukerman not only in the analysis of media coverage of the “science of reading,” but also for this plea.

What we need is a new (and honest) reading story for 2023.

The essential problem is that the current reading story is driven by oversimplification and sensationalistic anecdotes that are being leveraged to attack and blame singular causes for another reading “crisis.”

Let’s start the new story by admitting the following:

  • Reading achievement today is little different than at any point in the past century. Marginalized and vulnerable students today are and have always been underserved, mis-served, and ignored. In short, we have no “crisis,” but are still confronted with not teaching students to read as well as they deserve and with political negligence to address the complicated factors impacting negatively student achievement.
  • No one or two programs or teacher practices are solely (or dominantly) to blame for “failing to teach students to read.” This is an oversimplification that ignores the first point above.
  • Research for decades has shown that measurable student reading achievement is linked (causation) to out-of-school (OOS) factors, and the remaining causal links (in-school factors) show that teacher quality/practice is only about 10-15% of that measurable achievement. And thus, hyper-focusing on reading programs and classroom practices is doomed to failure since it is a distraction from larger causal factors in reading achievement.
  • Teacher education continues to need reform, but (again) over-emphasizing the role of teacher education in teacher practice and student achievement is another distraction from the complex story and the many factors impacting student achievement.

We need, then, a new (and honest) reading story that “[k]ick[s] the polarization monster to the curb,” calls for a different approach to reading policy reform, and includes the following:

Out-of-School Policy

  • Well paying, stable work = reading policy
  • Universal healthcare = reading policy
  • Stable housing = reading policy

In-School Policy

  • Address teaching/learning conditions—class size, teacher expertise/experience, and education funding.
  • Eliminate punitive reading policies (for example, grade retention) and inequitable reading policies (for example, tracking).
  • Stop adopting lock-step reading programs, and provide teachers all resources they identify as needed to serve the individual reading needs of all students.
  • Resist narrow definitions of “science” and evidence, and honor the day-to-day evidence used by classroom teachers.
  • End the blame game, “miracle” schools narrative, and high-stakes deficit practices (testing and remediation).
  • Separate education materials and programs from the free market; the profit urge of the market distorts reading practices and creates fadism and boondoggles that waste tax funds.

A new (and honest) reading story is not as sexy as the tired reading war story that depends on crisis rhetoric and simplistic good v. bad characters.

A new (and honest) reading story also isn’t simple, and complexity as well as nuance can be frustrating and even counter-intuitive (see the OOS list above).

And a new (and honest) reading story is quite frankly hard to swallow: The reality is that human behavior (including student learning) will always fall along a spectrum at any identified point. We can never achieve “all third graders will be proficient readers.”

Yes, grade 3 is important, but we would all do better to acknowledge that grades 3 through 8 are key years over which we must be diligent about purposefully monitoring student progress and providing the instruction each student needs regardless of where that student falls on the spectrum of achievement.

We have a recent example of the inherent failure of 100% proficiency goals (NCLB), and students will be much better served if our new (and honest) reading story includes patience and realistic goals.

Frankly, I do not believe in compromise or taking a middle-of-the-road approach. I do believe that we need a community effort to address individual student needs that is grounded in honesty and accuracy, which is often messy and still in a state of becoming.

I strongly advocate for addressing OOS factors first or concurrently with establishing equity goals for in-school reform, but I also advocate for starting our reading reform with classroom teachers and literacy scholarsacknowledging that these key stakeholders will not universally agree.

“It is essential that translational research include, rather than blame and devalue, teachers and teacher educators,” as MacPhee, Handsfield, and Paugh conclude.

The current state of reading “science” and evidence is actually a powerful debate with strong elements of agreement and several key areas of evolving understanding rooted in disagreement.

Demanding lock-step adherence to “settled” science is a fatal flaw of the “science of reading” story.

A new (and honest) reading story admits that classroom practice is (and will always be) in a constant state of becoming, just as all science and research are.

Finally, we cannot persist in allowing mainstream media and social media to create the reading story that results in reading policy.

That’s an old and failed story.

We need and deserve instead a new (and honest) reading story in 2023.


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

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

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics

[UPDATE]

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

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

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

[Aukerman three posts as PDF]

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

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.

Blog Review: 2022

After about a decade blogging on other open sites and dabbling in social media as part of my public work, I committed to blogging at WordPress in 2013, and to date, had my highest traffic year in 2014.

Between my Twitter presence and blog, I always expected to have a greater reach at Twitter, but by 2022, I have just short of 8000 followers on Twitter and over 10,000 at this blog.

As part of my current fall sabbatical, I revised and redesigned this blog to make it more appealing and (I hope) to better present the work as professional (blogs continue to be discounted and marginalized despite the vast majority of my posts being heavily cited).

I am on track for 2022 to be the third or second best year:

And here are my top 10 posts of 2022 (eight original to this year):

Access these posts as follows:

While the “science of reading” dominated my work, I am quite proud of my comic book posts throughout 2022, notably my series on Black Widow and my frequent posts on my collecting Daredevil.

I also want to highlight two of my scholarly projects:

Why do I blog?

Primarily, I am a writer and writing is who I am so blogging is a wonderful way to write and draft, a way to think through important issues while also contributing to the public discourse that drives not only what people think but actual policy.

Also, blogs are accessible (essentially free to anyone who have internet access), and I feel far more valuable and effective than traditional scholarship that sits behind paywalls.

I have been an educator for almost 40 years, shouting the entire time that we mostly do this thing called education badly because we are thinking wrong or simply stuck in a rut of doing things only one way (for education, that way is “Crisis!> reform > Crisis! > reform, etc.).

Yet, I think we can do better, and I know we should.

Thank you for reading because that is the thing we writers are mostly seeking—those genuinely and sincerely engaged in the ideas we are drawn to interrogate and explore.

Let us hope for a better, more kind and peaceful 2023.