Category Archives: Teaching

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

Since around 2013 and then increasingly since 2018, states have been adopting new or revised reading legislation often prompted by or identified as the “science of reading” (SOR).

As a result districts, schools, and teachers are experiencing major changes to reading programs and materials. Some states and districts have banned and removed materials that teachers have been using for decades, and many reading teachers are required to attend new PD as well as training in new reading programs.

This upheaval is not only common in K-12 education, but also highly disruptive to teaching as well as learning by students.

At a fundamental level, this cycle of crisis and reform has never worked, and only serves to de-professionalize educators and, once again, fails to address the individual literacy needs of all students.

In this policy brief, I offer an overview of the current SOR movement and recommend a different approach to reading policy and practices, including:

On a more local level, school- and district-level policymakers should do the following:

• Develop teacher-informed reading programs based on the population of students served and the expertise of faculty serving those students, avoiding lockstep implementation of commercial reading programs and ensuring that instructional materials support—rather than dictate—teacher practice.

• Provide students struggling to read and other at-risk students with certified, experienced teachers and low student-teacher ratios to support individualized and differentiated instruction.

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

In order to achieve my recommendations, local districts and schools must have access to high-quality research and resources in order to support well informed teachers who can then be tasked with developing the sort of reading programs that match the unique and individual needs of the student populations they serve.

Therefore, below I am providing a resource collection by topic that matches the current media, parent, and political pressure that educators, schools, and districts are facing.

Links to resources are being provided for PD and educational purposes only and anyone accessing these resources are asked to respect fair use of scholarship.

Resources by Topic

Access a PowerPoint of these topics HERE.

Brain Research [access materials HERE]

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly55(S1), S119-S130. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119-S129. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

Dyslexia [access materials HERE]

Johnston, P., & Scanlon, D. (2021). An examination of dyslexia research and instruction with policy implications. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice70(1), 107. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/23813377211024625

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-dyslexia-research-advisory.pdf

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

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children87(4), 397–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402921993406

Hall, C., et al. (2022, September 13). Forty years of reading intervention research for elementary students with or at risk for dyslexia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.477

LETRS [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

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

Mississippi

Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 15 February 2022]

Multiple Cueing Approaches [access materials HERE]

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Simple View of Reading (SVR) and Structured Literacy [access materials HERE]

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Barber, A.T., Cartwright, K.B., Hancock, G.R., & Klauda, S.L. (2021). Beyond the simple view of reading: The role of executive functions in emergent bilinguals’ and English monolinguals’ reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly56(S1), S45-S64. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.385

Cervetti, G.N., Pearson, P.D., Palincsar, A.S., Afflerbach, P., Kendeou, P., Biancarosa, G., Higgs, J., Fitzgerald, M.S., & Berman, A.I. (2020). How the reading for understanding initiative’s research complicates the simple view of reading invoked in the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S161-S172. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.343

Systematic Phonics [access materials HERE]

Bowers, J.S. (2020).Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

Testing the impact of a systematic and rigorous phonics programme on early readers and also those that have fallen behind at the end of Key Stage 2. (2022, October). Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/read-write-inc-and-fresh-start

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper, G. Coles (2019) New Politics


As a career educator for about 40 years, including almost two decades in K-12 teaching, I am advocating for teacher autonomy and professionalism to serve the individual needs of students.

Therefore, I think curriculum and instruction must be driven by classroom teachers—not media narratives, parental advocacy, or political mandate.

Regretfully, media, parental, and political pressure for policy and practice are too often oversimplified and misleading, but honored over teacher experience and expertise.


Please feel free to reach out for additional resources or revising as needed (paul.thomas@furman.edu).

I am available for PD or possible professional reading groups, etc.

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

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

Looking Back to Understand “Science of Reading” and Censorship: Lou LaBrant 1936-1949 [Updated]

One of the most important aspects of understanding any issue or field of knowledge, I think, is to have nuanced historical perspective. That is vividly true about education and especially reading.

The current reading crisis, often referred to as the “science of reading” movement, and the incredibly chilling impact of curriculum bans, book censorship, and attacks on teaching and learning are not, I regret to emphasize, all that new (except the degree of the bans are in many ways unprecedented).

I am currently working on completing my online annotated bibliography of Lou LaBrant, and offer below some historical perspective on teaching reading and why censorship is always wrong for education and democracy.

Access my blog post on each work by clicking the hyperlink in the essay titles; many of her publications can also be accessed through JSTOR (links at end of bibliographies when available). I am including memes of key passages from LaBrant with the recommended works below.


Witty, P.A., & LaBrant, L.L. (1936, June). Aims and methods in reading instructionEducational Trends, 5-9, 18.

LaBrant, L. (1939). The relations of language and speech acquisitions to personality development. In P.A. Witty & C.E. Skinner (Eds.), Mental hygiene in modern education (pp. 324-352). Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), 289-291. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20330759

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

LaBrant, L. (1943, March). Our changing program in languageJournal of Educational Method, 21(6), 268-272.

Witty, P., & LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching the people’s language. Hinds, Hayden, & Eldredge, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

LaBrant, L. (1949, January). A little list. English Journal, 38(1), 37–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/808110

Misreading Innocence in Teaching and Learning

Back to school 2022 looks different than any of my many years as a student and even more as a teacher. “Back to school” now means curriculum bans for teachers and censorship for students.

It’s the Upside Down of the American Dream and academic freedom.

One recurring (and misleading) justification by Republicans banning curriculum and censoring books is a manufactured crisis around “age-appropriate” content; however, several Republicans have also directly begun including in their claims that the role of school and teachers is to protect childhood innocence:

As a parent, grandparent, and almost 40-years a teacher, I want to emphasize that the role any adult plays in mentoring, parenting, or teaching children is not to protect their innocence (more on why later), but to provide support and guidance as children mature and come to know the full, complicated, and often disturbing real world.

To keep a child or teen innocent is to deny them their full humanity and autonomy.

As a reader and teacher of literature, I am aware of the power and allure of idealizing innocence.

Setting aside for a moment the tremendous problems with author J.D. Salinger, his career was built on a nearly fawning adoration of his central motif, the “catcher in the rye” imagery of Holden Caulfield’s quest to protect his sister’s (and all children’s) innocence because he clearly has been traumatized by his entry into the adult world.

Author Eudora Welty praised Salinger as a writer in her review of Nine Stories in 1953:

The stories concern children a good deal of the time, but they are God’s children. Mr. Salinger’s work deals with innocence, and starts with innocence: from there it can penetrate a full range of relationships, follow the spirit’s private adventure, inquire into grave problems gravely–into life and death and human vulnerability and into the occasional mystical experience where age does not, after a point, any longer apply. Mr. Salinger’s world urban, suburban, family, mostly of the Eastern seaboard is never a clue to the way he will treat it: he seems to write without preconception of shackling things.

Threads of Innocence

Like Salinger (and nearly as problematic as a human), e.e. cummings idealized childhood and seemed to lament adulthood: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.” Like many writers and artists throughout history, cummings portrayed childhood innocence as being closer to God (or the Universe); adulthood is a forgetting.

Both of these authors were attractive to me as a young writer, teacher, and even scholar, but the most compelling work about innocence was always William Blake, who complicated the innocence/experience dynamic. Blake’s work shows the necessary duality of life without idealizing innocence—even as he detailed the darkness of experience.

What is innocence?

It is a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge, the absence of living life that is idealized not only in literature but in Christianity—the fall from grace, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, being cast out of the idyllic innocence of the Garden of Eden.

But innocence is extremely dangerous, and the innocent are easily manipulated, easily controlled.

And here is the truth about curriculum bans and book censorship: Republicans, conservatives, and Christian fundamentalists are primarily concerned about control—especially controlling women and children.

There is no crisis in our schools concerning exposing children and teens to content and books that are not age appropriate. If anything, traditional schooling still coddles children and teens—and especially young adults.

Protecting the innocence of children is not a valid goal for teachers or schooling; protecting the innocence of children is cruel and dehumanizing, in fact.

But that is not what Republicans are concerned about.

This is pure and simple a power grab, a way to control minds and impose a worldview on others.

Welcome to the Upside Down of the American Dream.


Recommended

Experimentalism and its relation to a new psychology (1935), Witty and LaBrant

Resignation

NOTE: Below is a real letter of resignation, specific details redacted in order to protect the teacher. The teacher was early career, and this represents the state of the field of teaching in SC and across the US.


[Principal],

Please accept this document as notification of my resignation, effective June 6, 2022.

While I have appreciated my tenure as a teacher in [district], I feel it’s in my best interests and also my moral responsibility to reject any further offers of employment from [district]. I have been disappointed by several of my interactions with administration, both in [school] and at the district office. I pride myself in advocating for the teaching profession and for the needs of teachers, because I understand the essential democratic importance of education. It has been difficult to feel alone in that work of advocacy, and worse to have to justify myself, and I feel compelled to move into a profession that is better positioned to hear the concerns of its professionals and react meaningfully.

I was especially and painfully disappointed by [district]’s reaction to the fearmongering of South Carolina’s governor over the presence of Black and queer narratives in our libraries and curricula. [District]’s response, to call the texts “pornography” and then to remove them from all choice spaces, was wrong. Not only was it a breach of trust between the district and already vulnerable teachers, and not only did it add a significant amount to the (already impossible) teacher workload, but it will effectively end reading all but canonized texts, as those are the only texts that it is likely three teachers would have read and can approve per the new district guidelines for selection of texts. The district’s choices will serve primarily to keep students from reading and certainly to keep students from reading texts that they would enjoy; the policies the district has created are antithetical to our supposed goals of creating life-long, enthusiastic readers.

I also know that much of the concern over texts driving the changes in [district] is cloaked in a veneer of concern about “obscenities.” I think it’s important to challenge that concern and call it out for what it is: bigotry. No one is concerned about the suggestive material in Shakespeare, or Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck. We seem to be deeply concerned, however, when the authors are a part of or are speaking to a marginalized community. Providing texts that acknowledge the realities of our students along all axes of identity is best practice, but we are only allowed, effectively, to provide best practice opportunities for students whose identities fit an Evangelical agenda. Where is this concern when we force Black students to read racial slurs in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Great Gatsby? We do not censor these books because we recognize that while they contain sensitive and disturbing material, they have something of value to offer our students. We seem incapable of seeing that same value in works who empathize with marginalized people, and insistent on reading that empathy as an attack on traditional values.

[District]’s selective censorship is a failure to support significant portions of our community who already experience systemic inequities; we compound the damage already done to our marginalized students by not allowing them to see themselves in books, which then further erodes the trust that our communities place in us to make every child in our care feel seen and understood. I would ask anyone in the district who is in a position to advocate for teachers at the state level to read the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) position on censorship of texts. NCTE has multiple position statements affirming students’ right to read, and have expressly condemned the very types of censorship policies [district] is now implementing, as has every other national professional organization for teachers.

When teachers challenged this censorship and the removal of a district-approved book list in a faculty meeting and pointed out that most of the works students read in class contain “obscenities,” the response, that “Shakespeare was okay because most students don’t understand the language” deeply disturbed me, because my job, of course, is to help students understand the language. Our job as teachers and English teachers specifically is to clarify; to give students the ability to see more clearly and critically the world around them. When a minority of the community screams loudly enough that they do not want students to see, do not want students to learn, do not want students to have access to reality, entertaining their concerns and appeasing them is not harmless; it does violence to students whose humanity is now being denied, to teachers and staff members whose identities are among the disparaged, and to every student who loses an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Even worse, we are not just removing these texts from the spaces where students can engage and receive support from a professional in critical conversation (the classroom) but we are removing them from all spaces, even choice spaces such as the library. Students deserve to see themselves in the texts around them, and to have their identities treated with care and seriousness, not as problems to be ignored or wished away.

As a final note on [districts]’s political censorship: many of the texts that have been challenged are taught in courses that are meant to replace college level courses, such as Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses. Teachers have an obligation to provide the same level of complexity and rigor in their classrooms that those students would receive if they were in college, as the course is for college credit. The idea that students from our district will receive expurgated versions of collegiate education to appease a small subset of parents and community members should anger everyone, because all of us have to live in and with the ramifications of a community where the citizens are losing access to quality education.

The current climate of teaching in [district] is a microcosm of the state of our profession in South Carolina, and it has made my job, especially over the last two years, infinitely more challenging and stressful. The work of teaching is vital, and I sincerely hope that the administration of [district] is willing to do better in the work of advocating to protect the professional integrity of their employees than they have shown themselves willing to do previously. In particular, the wave of bills and policies currently under review at the state level, such as the affirmation of our existing no promo homo laws and the new parental trigger laws, will succeed only in creating a climate of fear and censorship in the classroom and in moving the authority of education out of the hands of educators and into the hands of parents. These bills are an existential threat to public education. Because the viability of our democracy is contingent upon having informed and educated citizens, it is not hyperbole to say that these bills are an existential threat to democracy. Students have a right to receive a quality education regardless of, and often in spite of, their parent’s beliefs. Our students deserve better than what [district] and the State of South Carolina are currently willing to provide for them. Teachers also deserve better. Teachers, however, have the choice to leave the profession. A critical examination of the expectations we place on and the miracles we expect of teachers is in order. I will continue to watch this examination with hope and idealism, but I can no longer do it from anywhere but the gallery seats.

Sincerely,

[Teacher]


See Also

Lehre Ist Tot

Resisting Efficiency in Literacy Instruction

“Third grade reading proficiency matters—enormously,” declares Mike Schmoker in How to Make Reading Instruction Much, Much More Efficient for Education Week.

When I saw this piece from 2019 pop up on my social media feed this week, I immediately noticed the subheading: “Scaling back small-group instruction would have dramatic improvements in literacy.”

Since Schmoker’s article fell solidly in the current “science of reading” crisis rhetoric and misguided reading policy being passed across the U.S., it certainly was poised to create even more harmful classroom level decisions for students and teachers.

Two aspects of this argument are compelling and misguided—the standard but false appeal to “third grade reading proficiency” and the prioritizing of “efficiency” for making instructional decisions.

Of course there are well documented correlations between third grade reading achievement and later negative educational outcomes for students (low reading achievement correlated with dropping out and low overall academic achievement, for example), but the traditional response to those correlations has resulted in over-reactions that do far more harm than good.

One of the worst over-reactions has been states adopting grade retention based on third grade reading assessments—despite grade retention having a causal relationship with students dropping out.

Doubling down on practices that increase students dropping out to address misunderstanding the research on third grade reading achievement is a profound failure in logic.

Some of the motivation for making these policy mistakes is that U.S. cultural norms are too often grounded in punishment. Many affluent and privileged people embrace the concept of grade retention as a way to insure that children are taught lessons about achievement and effort, but they also embrace punitive measures because they suspect grade retention, for example, will only impact “other people’s children.”

There is more than a little bit of racism and classism in the urge to embrace punitive schools and aggressive policing and legal systems.

But another source of making terrible policy decisions, especially about reading, is the core of Schmoker’s argument—determining instructional practices by prioritizing efficiency.

Although an enduring Urban Legend criticizes U.S. public education as essentially progressive (which it isn’t, and has never been), scholar Herb Kliebard detailed that by the early twentieth century U.S. public education had become driven by efficiency.*

One powerful example of that commitment is the use of standardized testing, primarily multiple choice tests that can be quickly scored, such as the SAT and most state-level accountability testing.

Despite decades of research showing that standardized testing is often a weak measure of learning, is most strongly correlated with status (socioeconomic, racial, gender), and creates inequity, standardized testing has persisted in the U.S. because it is more efficient than what we tend to call authentic assessment—essays, performances, projects, etc.

In fact, our blind commitment to efficiency is so strong that when we do use authentic assessment we now demand highly structured rubrics to insure that the grading is efficient (which erases the authentic nature of the assignment).

Formal education in the U.S. has structures that, of course, create the need for “efficiency”—grade levels around biological age and courses provided through a format that requires one teacher to serve the largest number of students possible (in K-12, typically 1 to 25-35, but university-level ratios can be 1 to hundreds of students).

Although universal education is a public good, we are bound by market forces when providing education for all children.

I do recognize that efficiency must be one concern for instructional practices, but I have witnessed across five decades of teaching since the 1980s that we overemphasize efficiency, especially in literacy instruction.

For 18 years as a high school English teacher, I struggled within a system demanding efficiency while attempting to teach writing authentically—a workshop method requiring students to write multiple drafts that I provided ample feedback on throughout the process.

This experience was physically and mentally exhausting; I left K-12 education with my right wrist in a brace from writing on about 4000+ essays per year for almost two decades.

Could I have implemented something identified as writing instruction more efficiently (and less taxing for me)? Of course.

But that would have been a lie (many efficient approaches, such as direct grammar instruction, is simply not writing instruction) and would have cheated my students.

Teaching first-year writing at the college level has further cemented my awareness that efficiency is extremely harmful for writing instruction effectiveness.

For example, teaching 100-125 students at a time (more efficient and the reality of high school English teaching) is far less effective than my current obligation to classes as small as 5 students and semester loads including no more than 3 or 4 dozen students (less efficient, more effective).

So this brings me back to the misguided “scaling back small-group instruction.”

As long as we are committed to current teacher/student ratios (one-on-one tutoring/mentoring is, of course, the ideal teaching/learning context), the best instructional approach to managing effectiveness and efficiency is balancing the whole-class, small-group, and individual instructional practices.

If anything, most K-12 teachers need to reduce whole-class instruction and increase small-group and individual instruction.

Why? Whole-class instruction is often the least effective of the three, particularly with writing instruction. For example, my first-year writing students continue to struggle with whole-class assignments and instruction but thrive in our face-to-face conferencing (even in comparison to the individualized instruction they receive from my comments on their essays).

But also, small-group and individualized instruction can often be, ironically, more efficient because that instruction is targeting identified need and allows student choice (instead of the teacher making all decisions for students).

Even the best whole-class instruction is addressing only some students’ needs. And another irony of whole-class instruction is that it tends to more effective after students have submitted authentic artifacts of learning that they are then required to revise (as opposed to giving great deal of instruction up front before students perform).

The ugly truth about prioritizing efficiency is that we are valuing coverage of prescribed instruction over student need or student learning.

Finally, we must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Current teacher/student ratios of 1/25-35 are cheating teachers and students. Yes, we should address those teaching/learning conditions.

But until that political commitment occurs, we must support teachers managing well the tension between effective and efficient. The trick, despite Schmoker’s claim, is maintaining our commitments to small-group and individualized instruction that targets identified student needs.

In fact, we we pull aside the curtain of efficiency, we discover that whole-class instruction as effective is a mirage.


Recommended

Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Was There Really a Social Efficiency Doctrine? The Uses and Abuses of an Idea in Educational History, Thomas Fallace and Victoria Fantozzi (2013) (H/T Jennifer Binis)

*NOTE: From Fallace and Fantozzi: “For Callahan (1962) and Kliebard (1995), social efficiency educators diverted progressive education away from the democratic ideas of John Dewey and Harold Rugg” (p. 145). As a critical scholar of the history of education (curriculum and instruction), I think we must make distinctions between the scholarly world (philosophy and theory) and the “real world” of day-to-day education. While I agree with the claim above, I also understand that nuanced and complex philosophy/theory often finds its way into practice in reductive and distorted ways (consider “behaviorism,” “whole language,” “progressivism,” etc.). My argument here is not about the actual social efficiency movement, but that some of the elements of that movement have manifested themselves in powerful and enduring ways (consciously and unconsciously) in how we “do” education in the U.S., one of which is prioritizing “efficiency” in harmful ways. My best example, again, is standardized, multiple-choice testing.

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free

My poem The 451 App (22 August 2022) is a science fiction/dystopian musing about the possibility of technology providing a comforting veneer to the creeping rise of totalitarianism—a simple App appearing on everyone’s smartphone before erasing all our books.

The point of the poem is less about technology and a dystopian future (alluding of course to Fahrenheit 451) and more about another work of literature: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

For me, this unmasking of the human condition has always been haunting; it also has become disturbingly relevant in the Trump/post-Trump present in which we live.

Real life is always far more mundane than speculative fiction—and far more shocking.

The “worst,” “full of passionate intensity,” launched an assault on academic freedom in the final months of the Trump administration. The initial wave seemed poised at The 1619 Project and a manufactured Critical Race Theory scare.

By January of 2022, a report found that educational gag orders passed in states across the U.S. were having a significant and chilling effect:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

The Conflict Campaign (January 2022)

As bills have increased since this report, the number of teachers and students impacted are certainly higher.

Concurrent with educational gag order legislation, book banning has increased dramatically, as reported by PEN America:

• In total, for the nine-month period represented, the Index lists 1,586 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,145 unique book titles. This encompasses different types of bans, including removals of books from school libraries, prohibitions in classrooms, or both, as well as books banned from circulation during investigations resulting from challenges from parents, educators, administrators, board members, or responses to laws passed by legislatures. These numbers represent a count of cases either reported directly to PEN America and/or covered in the media; there may be other cases of bans that have not been reported and are thus not included in this count.

• The Index lists bans on 1,145 titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.

• The Index lists book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.

Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights

Republicans and conservatives have steadily created an environment of fear around teaching and learning, which is being detailed now by teachers experiencing that fear (with many leaving the field):

Last year, I was quoted in an article in the School Library Journal about how I discussed toxic masculinity with my high school students when we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”togetherWithin days, far-right publications twisted my words to denounce “woke liberal indoctrination in schools.”

Strangers sent me messages on social media accusing me of indoctrinating students, of being unprofessional and unintelligent. I received a handwritten letter addressed to me at school. The letter accused me of being a “low-life, pseudo-intellectual, swallow-the-lib/woke/b—s— koolaid a — h—-.” [The hyphens were added to replace letters because of Washington Post style and not in the original].

‘Educators are afraid,’ says teacher attacked for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ unit, Sarah Mulhern Gross

This movement is driven by lies and fear mongering, but it depends on the missionary zeal of the liars and fear mongers as well as the passivity of “the best” among us.

My childhood and adolescence were profoundly shaped by books and movies—often the science fiction loved by my mother.

Along with The Andromeda Strain (film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), two films based on Ray Bradbury’s work remain with me today—The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451.

There is a profound darkness and fatalism in these works, but in Fahrenheit 451, I was struck by the optimism and power of the individuals who walked around repeating the books they had become.

These people, the best among us, seem to suggest Bradbury held on to some sliver of hope.

It seems overwhelming to consider that as sentient creatures we are doomed to not recognize that things matter until they have been taken from us—taken from us with almost no resistance, with almost no recognition of the book being gently slipped from our hands and then our minds.

Academic freedom isn’t free, but without free minds—freedom to teach, freedom to learn, freedom to read and consider—we are no longer fully human.


Recommended

National Days of Teaching Truth

My 31 texts for 31 days in May

Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE)

Banning Books Is Un-American

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

Censorship and Book Burning: A Reader [Updated]

Furman faculty pass resolution rejecting pending state legislation aimed at academic freedom

Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE)

Lehre Ist Tot

This past week an early career teacher, highly regarded in the classroom and very accomplished in the field of education, received a parental request that a student not be required to read The Great Gatsby. That parent, however, had signed a consent agreement with all texts, including that novel, identified as required reading at the beginning of the course.

The parent then reached out to the administration, who confirmed that the teacher had to assign a different work. This, of course, undermines the teacher and the process established, but it also creates more work for teachers already under incredible strain.

While parental oversight of assigned reading has been common in education for decades, this situation comes as states are increasingly passing parental trigger legislation, which moves the parental power from each parent’s own children to parents being able to ban works for all teachers or students to explore in classes.

That same teacher, frustrated and disillusioned, later that day read aloud their resignation letter to me in the context of telling me that much that they had taught in the first three years of teaching could no longer be taught in the last couple years—and increasingly will be directly banned in the coming year (as my home state is poised to pass its own educational gag order this spring).

The teacher cried while reading the letter aloud, and added that the resignation was depressing; this, you see, was a career they had been working toward since high school—and within 6 years, teaching is dead.

The current anti-teacher climate in the U.S. is incredibly harsh and driven by orchestrated false narratives:

Right-wing media are creating parental trigger structures even without the concurrent legislation:

While teacher and school bashing (notably as “liberal indoctrination”) has a long history in the U.S., reaching back to Catholic schools fighting for market space as public schooling increased in the 19th century, the current anti-teacher climate has its roots not in Republican politics but in the Obama administration’s education agenda.

Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education heralded an era of education reform that actually doubled-down on the worst aspects under George W. Bush, and that doubling down feed into a growing media attack on “bad teachers”:

Time was a repeat offender in terms of media bashing of teachers.

Instead of rejecting the standard approaches to education reform begun under Reagan and federalized under W. Bush, the Obama administration turned their blame to teachers and teacher quality. During the Obama years, the great experiment in value-added methods (VAM) devastated the teaching profession.

The perennial paradox of education has always been that teacher quality matters but it remains a very small part of measurable student achievement (only about 10-15%). Therefore, the Holy Grail of the VAM experiment—identifying “good” and “bad” teachers through standardized test scores of students—was always doomed to fail.

But it did accomplish planting the seeds of today’s multi-pronged attack on teachers—the “science of reading” movement blaming teachers and teacher educators for student reading achievement and the anti-CRT/educational gag order movements being linked to parent trigger laws.

Throughout the education reform era over the past 40 years, many of us in education have argued that education reform initiatives are less about improving education and more about killing public education and the teaching profession—charter schools and voucher schemes, Teach For America, VAM and merit pay, demonizing and dismantling unions and tenure, etc., to name a few.

From Fox News lies to parental trigger laws and education gag orders, the evidence is very clear now that this current wave of teacher bashing is definitely about killing the profession, and not about student discomfort.

Let me return to the opening teacher story.

When the parent was asked for reasons why they wanted their child not to read The Great Gatsby—so the teacher had context for choosing an alternate text—the parent responded that they did not want the child (a high school student) to read about inappropriate relationships and sexual content. So here is a point of fact about the insincerity of these challenges; that student had already read and studied The Crucible, without any complaint, a play grounded in adultery.

I am certain some parents challenging what their children are being taught are sincere, but I am also certain the larger political motivation among conservatives is to completely dismantle public education.

Just as I have explained that there simply is no CRT propaganda agenda in K-12 schools, there is no liberal indoctrination/grooming occurring in K-12 (or K-16) education either.

The Ingraham rants are simply political lies.

And these lies are not improving education.

They have one goal and it seems to have been effective: Teaching is dead.

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).