Category Archives: Teaching

The Myth of the Bad Teacher: 2023

If you are paying attention to traditional or social media, you are aware of the following stories being told about US public school teachers in 2023:

  • Elementary teachers are failing to teach reading effectively to US students.
  • That failure is “because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it,” according to Hanford.
  • Elementary, literature/ELA teachers, and history teachers are brainwashing students with CRT.
  • Elementary and literature/ELA teachers are grooming children to be gay or transgender by forcing them to read diverse books and stories.

Except for teachers themselves and some education scholars, these new bad teacher myths are both extremely compelling and almost entirely false. Writing in 2010 during a peak bad teacher movement in the US, Adam Bessie explains about the bad teacher stories represented by Michelle Rhee and perpetuated by the Obama administration and Bill Gates:

The myth is now the truth.

The Bad Teacher myth, [Bill] Ayers admits, is appealing, which is why it’s spread so far and become so commonly accepted. Who can, after all, disagree that we “need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom?” Even Ayers agrees that he, like all of us, “nods stupidly” along with this notion. As a professor at a community college and former high school teacher, I nod stupidly as well: I don’t want my students held back, alienated, or abused by these Bad Teachers.

This myth is also seductive in its simplicity. It’s much easier to have a concrete villain to blame for problems school systems face. The fix seems easy, as well: all we need to do is fire the Bad Teachers, as controversial Washington, DC, school chancellor superstar Michelle Rhee has, and hire good ones, and students will learn. In this light, Gates’ effort to “fix” the bug-riddled public school operating system by focusing on teacher development makes perfect sense. The logic feels hard to argue with: who would argue against making teachers better? And if, as a teacher, you do dare to, you must be “anti-student,” a Bad Teacher who is resistant to “reforms,” who is resistant to improvements and, thus, must be out for himself, rather than the students.

The Myth of the Bad Teacher

Bessie concludes, “The only problem with the Bad Teacher myth, as anyone involved with education is intimately aware of, is that problems in education are anything but simple,” and ultimately, in 2023, these myths are not supported by the evidence.

For example, as the authors of a report out of UCLA assert about anti-CRT attacks on teachers:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

The Conflict Campaign

The bad teacher myth in 2023 “thrives on caricature” and anecdotes that, as noted above, as very compelling but ultimately not only lack credible evidence [1] and logic, but also cause far more harm than good in terms of reforming education, serving student needs, or recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

The bad teacher myth in 2023 is targeting educators who are 70-90% women, and those teachers under the most intense attacks tend to be elementary teachers who are even more disproportionately women and the lowest paid educators [2]:

Further, there is little evidence that students today are uniquely underperforming in reading achievement, yet the bad reading teacher myth is perpetuated by misrepresenting reading achievement through misleading messages around NAEP reading data (see Hanford’s chart that ironically suggests gradual improvement, not a crisis).

Two problems with the bad reading teacher myth is that NAEP reading proficiency is not grade level reading, as Loveless examines:

NAEP does not report the percentage of students performing at grade level.  NAEP reports the percentage of students reaching a “proficient” level of performance.  Here’s the problem. That’s not grade level. 

In this post, I hope to convince readers of two things:

1.  Proficient on NAEP does not mean grade level performance.  It’s significantly above that.
2.  Using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.

The NAEP proficiency myth

And the low levels of reading proficiency are historical, not a recent set of data that constitutes a reading crisis:

If we want to rely on NAEP reading scores, however flawed that metric, the historical patterns suggest a relatively flat state of reading achievement with some trends of improvement in the 1970s (which was followed by the manufactured myth of schools failing with A Nation at Risk [1983]) and steadily from about 1990 until 2012 (an era demonized as a failure due to reliance on balanced literacy).

Notably, the “science of reading” movement tends to be connected to legislation starting around 2013 and Hanford’s journalism beginning in 2018, and that NAEP data has remained relatively flat except for the Covid drop.

Again, as Bessie acknowledged over a decade ago, the real problems with education, teaching, and learning are very complex and far larger than pointing fingers at teachers as “villains.”

For most of the history of US education, student reading achievement has been described as “failing,” and vulnerable student populations (minoritized races, impoverished students, students with special needs such as dyslexia, and MLLs) have always been underserved.

The dirty little secret about teacher quality related to student reading proficiency is that those vulnerable students are disproportionately sitting in class with early-career and uncertified teachers who are struggling with high student/teacher ratios.

Are students being underserved? Yes, but this is a historical fact of US public education not a current crisis.

Are low student achievement and reading proficiency the result of bad teachers? No, but these outcomes are definitely correlated with bad teaching/learning conditions and bad living conditions for far too many students.

In 2023, just as in 2010, the myth of the bad teacher is a lie, a political and marketing lie that will never serve the needs of students, teachers, or society.

Way back in 1984 when I entered the classroom, I was excited to begin my career but quickly discovered that despite my respect and even love for my English professors and teacher educators in my undergraduate degree, I simply was not prepared well enough to do my job, notably as a teacher of writing.

I set out to learn by teaching, and do better. During the late 1980s, I was fortunate to learn further through the Spartanburg Writing Project (Nation Writing Project), where I discovered that much of my on-the-job training was misguided (thanks, Brenda Davenport).

Anyone who teaches knows that becoming an effective teacher is a journey and that those first 3, 5, or even 10 years are challenging and include a great deal of growth that cannot be accomplished in teacher certification programs.

None the less, everything surrounding teaching, and especially the teaching of reading, can and should be better.

That was true in 1940 and every decade since then.

Teacher and school bashing, shouting “crisis”—these have been our responses over and over; these are not how we create a powerful teacher workforce, and these will never serve the needs of our students who need great teachers and public education the most.

The myth of the bad teacher is a Great American Tradition that need to end.

[1] Valcarcel, C., Holmes, J., Berliner, D. C., & Koerner, M. (2021). The value of student feedback in open forums: A natural analysis of descriptions of poorly rated teachers. Education Policy Analysis Archives29(January – July), 79.

[2] See Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues


The Anti-Teacher (and Sexist) Roots of Rejecting Teacher Autonomy

One challenge of doing public work and advocacy addressing education, education reform, and teachers/teaching is framing clear and accessible messages that avoid being simplistic and misleading.

Since I am in my fifth year of challenging the overly simplistic and misleading “science of reading” (SOR) movement, I have attempted to carefully craft some direct and brief messages, including “not simple, not settled,” “teach readers, not reading,” and my core commitments to teacher autonomy and the individual needs of all students.

One would think that those core commitments attract support even among those who disagree on other aspects of teaching and education policy. However, I face a persistent resistance to supporting teacher autonomy.

At a fundamental level, teacher autonomy is essential for teaching to be a profession, but autonomy is also essential because education is a high-accountability field.

The problematic tension in education is that teachers are routinely held accountable for mandates (not their professional decisions and practices) and how well they comply with the mandates. Since many education mandates are flawed (such as current reading legislation) and for decades have failed, teachers are then blamed for that failure even though they didn’t make the mandates and were simply the mechanisms for practices.

Most education crisis rhetoric and education reform have been grounded for decades in anti-teacher sentiments. Currently, the reading crisis movement blames reading teachers for being ill-equipped to teach reading (failing children) and teacher educators for not preparing those teachers, for example.

One of the strongest elements of rejecting teacher autonomy, in fact, is among SOR advocates who promote structured literacy, often scripted curriculum [1] that reduces teachers to technicians and perpetuates holding teachers accountable for fidelity to programs instead of supporting teacher expertise to address individual student needs.

Let me be clear that all professions with practitioner autonomy have a range of quality in that profession (yes, there are some weak and flawed teachers just as their are weak and flawed medical doctors). To reject teacher autonomy because a few teachers may not deserve it is a standard not applied in other fields.

But there may be a gender-based reason for such resistance.

K-12 teaching (especially elementary teaching) is disproportionately a woman’s career:

And while teacher pay is low compared to other professions, the pay inequity is more pronounced in areas where the proportion of women is even higher:

As a frame of reference, a more respected and better rewarded teaching profession is in higher education where professor have professional autonomy, except the gender imbalance exposes a similar sexist pattern:

While the gender balance is better in higher education than K-12, the pay and security of being a professor increases where men are a higher proportion of the field.

Autonomy, pay, and respect track positively for men and negatively for women in teaching, and the resistance to autonomy for K-12 teachers strongly correlates with the field being primarily women.

A key but ignored element of education reform must include better pay for all K-12 teachers and supporting teacher autonomy so that individual student needs can be met.

The historical and current resistance to teacher autonomy exposes the lingering sexism in how we view, treat, and reward educators.

[1] 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.

Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers (The Post and Courier)

Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers

While the Editorial Staff of the Post and Courier rightfully raises cautions about newly elected Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver, who has a history of extremely conservative positions on public education, that caution should also extend to Weaver’s plans for merit pay to address teacher needs in South Carolina.

I am in my fifth decade as an educator in SC, beginning as a high school English teacher in Upstate SC in 1984. Over that career I have witnessed one frustrating pattern: A constant state of education reform that recycles the exact same crisis rhetoric followed by the same education reforms.

Over and over again.

In fact, in very recent history, SC and the nation have experienced a high intensity focus on teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher merit pay models under the Obama administration.

And just like in the so-called real world of business, merit pay models for teachers have failed.

Under Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state policy helped implement teacher evaluation and pay schemes modeled on Bill Gates’s use of stack ranking. Notably this value-added model of teacher evaluation and pay was famously heralded by the media when Michelle Rhee was chancellor of DC schools.

However, over time, Rhee’s tenure was unmasked as mostly a fraud but also as extremely harmful for teachers and students.

While merit pay remains a popular approach to recruiting and maintaining workers across many fields, research has consistently shown that merit pay does not work, and often has negative consequences, especially in education.

Research by Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn, for example, highlight the disconnect between what merit pay promises and how that plays out in the real world.

Gary Clabaugh challenged Obama’s merit pay polices, offering evidence that remains valid today and suggests not only caution about Weaver’s merit pay plan but also solid reasons not to try the same thing again.

Merit pay fails education, teachers, and students in the following ways:

  • Merit pay assumes workers need motivation to work harder; teachers are often overworked and their ability to be effective is not a result of how hard they are working, but the conditions under which they work.
  • Merit pay is often linked to standardized testing in education. As a result, merit pay incentivizes teaching to the tests and corrupts evaluation systems intended to measure learning.
  • Merit pay creates a culture of competition, instead of cooperation. Research also shows that competition is more harmful than cooperation, especially in the field of education where all educators should be invested in the success of all students.
  • Measurable student achievement, mostly through standardized testing, is more heavily linked to out-of-school factors (60-80%) than to in-school factors or teacher quality (10-15%). Therefore, merit pay overemphasizes direct and measurable teacher impact and often holds teachers and students accountable for factors beyond their control.

Policy makers in SC are faced with two facts: (1) Teacher pay is important to address and long overdue in the state; however, (2) merit pay is an ineffective and even harmful approach to addressing pay and teacher shortages.

Since SC has tried to use pay incentive to address teacher shortages in struggling districts already, we will better serve the needs of our students if we commit to new and different reforms.

The greatest need in SC is that elected officials directly address poverty across the state—access to healthcare, stable jobs with strong pay, and access to affordable housing.

But we can also do better with in-school reform.

If we want to bolster the teaching profession among our high-poverty districts, we must address teaching and learning conditions, which include the following:

  • Parent, community, and administrative support for teachers.
  • School facilities in good repair.
  • Fully funding teaching and learning technologies and materials.
  • Guaranteeing students who are struggling have access to experienced and certified teachers.
  • Recognizing that student success is linked to teacher quality, but that teacher quality is only one element in a complex network of forces that help children learn.

SC remains faced with a very old problem—high-poverty students struggle to achieve well enough or fast enough compared to their more affluent peers.

Those children deserve new solutions, and merit pay is a tired gimmick that has never worked and will fail children and teachers once again.

See Also

Edujournalism and Eduresearch Too Often Lack Merit

The Empty Politics of Teacher Attrition: SC Edition

Former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, who would go on to be Secretary of Education, remains, for me, the gold standard of education governors.

Riley established education as a central agenda of a governor by launching SC’s commitment to the accountability movement linked to increasing teacher pay. My first year teaching in SC was the fall after Riley helped pass a significant teacher pay raise, in fact.

Over the next several decades, for example, George W. Bush parlayed education reform in Texas (the now discredited “Texas miracle”) into the White House and the historic No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era.

My entire career as a teacher has been in the hyper-accountability era of K-12 education grounded in accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing. I have offered critiques and advocated for finding a different way to do education because the accountability merry-go-round hasn’t served anyone well except politicians and the education market place.

Those good intentions and politically thoughtful strategies used by Riley in the early 1980s have, regretfully, devolved through W. Bush’s failed NCLB, Obama’s doubling down on accountability (focusing harsh accountability and bad science on teacher accountability and reform), and finally to today’s even more hostile environment toward teachers, who are routinely characterized as indoctrinators and groomers by Republican governors and other elected officials.

Only 14 years ago, this was the national antagonism toward teachers and teaching:

How to Fix America’s Schools, Time (8 December 2008)

The Bill Gates/Michelle Rhee era of stack ranking and value-added methods of evaluating teachers not only failed but also it further eroded the value of teaching and being a teacher.

While many of us in education felt that this had to be the low point of teacher bashing and education reform designed to dismantle education, we could not have envisioned the last few years, anchored in the final months of the Trump administration’s attack on the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in education.

Along with Covid, curriculum bans targeting (falsely) Critical Race Theory (CRT), book bans and attacks on libraries, and charging educators with being indoctrinators and groomers have now resulted in historic teacher shortages and likely one of the national low points for being a teacher in a country founded in part on a commitment to universal public education as a corner stone of being a vibrant democracy.

One of the more virulent anti-teacher and anti-education governors in the nation (likely just behind Gov. Abbott in Texas and the worst, Gov. DeSantis in Florida) is right here in my home state of SC, Governor Henry McMaster.

Yet, Gov. McMaster wants to have his cake and eat it to—but this will prove to be mere rhetoric and a disturbing example of how far the governorship has fallen since Riley:

Calling for a pay raise and a bonus to address the abysmal conditions of being a teacher in 2023 is yet another example of the empty politics of teacher attrition.

Should teachers be paid more?

Of course.

Is pay the root cause or even a major cause of teacher attrition?


For many decades, research has shown that teachers value far above pay how they are treated professionally within the building and by parents and the public, the teaching and learning conditions within which they work, and a whole host of issues that speak to their professional autonomy and authority.

For the sake of the field of education and teaching as a profession, we must stop taking politicians seriously who are unserious about education and teaching.

McMaster followed Abbott’s playbook early on by calling for book bans and suggesting teachers and schools use literature to groom children

McMaster speaks into the ugly and false narrative that teachers are “woke” indoctrinators who have infiltrated K-12 schools with CRT.

Waving a few dollars in one hand while stabbing people in the back with the other isn’t political leadership, and it certainly is not a solution for teacher attrition.

Beleaguered Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy didn’t take even a few breaths before declaring that his Congress will end woke indoctrination in schools; McMaster and most Republicans have committed entirely to that playbook filled with lies and distortions.

I do hope teachers receive significant pay raises, but that will not save teaching or education.

Political assaults on curriculum, libraries and books, and teacher professionalism must stop immediately.

Political and public narratives accusing falsely teachers of being indoctrinators and groomers must stop immediately.

Teachers deserve first and foremost in 2023 a huge public apology by the Republican Party, and then, teachers deserve a commitment to teacher professionalism and autonomy as well as a different approach not grounded in accountability but in reforming teaching and learning conditions so teachers can teach better and students can learn more.

Political leaders must

  • address poverty and inequity in our children’s lives,
  • fully fund public education,
  • reject school choice and other schemes that divert from public schools,
  • address in-school inequities such as class size and access to courses and programs,
  • and start education reform with teachers, not political fads and boondoggles.

There is a bit more than irony to Republicans who have historically been politically negligent with the refrain “You can’t just throw money at it” but who can’t imagine anything past a meager pay raise and a bonus to address teaching and education—especially when they have been the key architects in their destruction.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

How we treat and support teachers is how we treat and support students; teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Maxine Greene has implored us in her Releasing the Imagination: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

Releasing the Imagination

Yes, teachers are the key to public education, which is the key to democracy and freedom. But Greene’s call now stands as the opposite of the education system being created by Republicans

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Releasing the Imagination

Republicans are unserious about teaching, teachers, and education. We cannot afford to continue to take them seriously.

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.

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.

Whose Voice Matters?: Reading Teacher Edition

Here is a teacher voice that resonates with me in my work as a literacy teacher and scholar:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. …

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

This voice in many ways parallels a dominant narrative in the media about teaching reading in the US:

From how much of the media tells it, a war rages in the field of early literacy instruction. The story is frequently some version of a conflict narrative relying on the following problematic suppositions:

a) science has proved that there is just one way of teaching reading effectively to all kids – using a systematic, highly structured approach to teaching phonics;

b) most teachers rely instead on an approach called balanced literacy, spurred on by shoddy teacher education programs;

c) therefore, teachers incorporate very little phonics and encourage kids to guess at words;

d) balanced literacy and teacher education are thus at fault for large numbers of children not learning to read well.

The opening teacher voice is from Lou LaBrant, published in 1947 in the journal that would become Language Arts (NCTE). LaBrant was a classroom literacy teacher and teacher educator over a 65-year career.

The second passage is by Maren Aukerman, a scholarly analysis of the current media coverage of the “science of reading” (SOR).

Although 77 years apart, these voices and claims about teaching reading seem to suggest that concerns about reading achievement have been similar for many, many decades, and thus, placing blame for current reading achievement on specific aspects of teacher preparation and teacher practice today seems if not baseless at least misguided.

For a couple years now, I have also heard from dozens and dozens of teachers, some of whom send me real-time DMs documenting teacher PD they are receiving in SOR; these teachers identify misinformation in that PD as well as misunderstanding about reading and teaching reading by their administrators.

Often these are LETRS training sessions, or similar programs designed to emphasize phonics for teachers of reading.

Many teachers have contacted me about being reprimanded and threatened for simply asking questions about the training or pointing out the misinformation.

What is important to stress here is that these teachers—often veteran teachers who have a high level of expertise—do not have a podcast or a Facebook page amplifying their stories.

To be blunt, in today’s SOR climate, these reading teachers’ voices do not matter.

But other points need to be stressed also.

First, is the media narrative that teacher education does not include SOR or phonics instruction true?

No, and in fact, there is research that teacher education is grounded in science, but there also is an absence of research on these exact concerns (again, identical to LaBrant’s reference to the “gap” above):

It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques. However, to dismiss these critiques as unimportant would ignore the reality of consequences, both current and foreseen, for literacy teacher preparation….

In contrast to the claims made by the SOR community, research in literacy teacher preparation has been extensive, scientific, and useful for guiding reform efforts….

Despite the political and media attention given to the SOR and the tools on which the SOR community relies, there is no body of evidence that reflects the SOR perspective on literacy teacher preparation by members of the literacy teacher preparation research community.

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

Next, and really important, if we are demanding scientific research inform practice, currently the research base on LETRS simply does not show that the training improves teaching or learning to read by students:

A growing number of U.S. states have funded and encourage and/or require teachers to attend professional development using Moats’s commercial LETRS program, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas. This is despite the fact that an Institute of Education Sciences study of the LETRS intervention found almost no effects on teachers or student achievement (Garet et al., 2008).

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

We are confronted, then, with an increasingly harmful pattern: The media continues to make unsupported claims about reading failures by teachers, teacher educators, and students, leading to parental and political responses that have resulted in very harmful policies and practices (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

And these questions remain:

  • Should we reform how reading is taught in the US? Of course.
  • Should we reform teacher education, notably focusing on literacy instruction? Absolutely.

However, the current SOR movement is doing the same thing once again while expecting different results.

And the SOR movement isn’t playing by the rules advocates and policy makers are demanding for everyone else.

If we are disqualifying reading programs popular throughout the US because of personal and corporate profit (a key claim in one podcast episode), then we must hold people and programs being implemented in their place to the same standards.

Media and journalists are making money off a false narrative, shouting “science” while using cherry-picked anecdotes to sell their story.

Corporations and program designers are making huge amounts of money off PD that isn’t supported by science at all. My home state of SC, like many states, just allocated $15 million for LETRS training.

If we are disqualifying anything that isn’t “scientific” (notably the exact same call as was codified in No Child Left Behind in 2001), then we cannot use anecdotes (especially cherry-picked anecdotes) to demand reform and cast blame.

Yet, the media continue to drive a narrative by including only voices that make that story seem true.

We could easily fill a podcast episode with teachers who have suffered through really flawed LETRS training, and at least several episodes of teachers who have had their professional autonomy stripped from them because of administrators holding them accountable for implementing a program and not teaching students (which is exactly what is happening with structured literacy as a replacement for so-called failed programs):

We recognize that some teachers using structured literacy approaches will find ways to respond to the interests, experiences, and literacy abilities of individual students; however, we are concerned about the indiscrim- inate and unwarranted implementation of the following practices:

• Directive and/or scripted lessons that tell teachers what to say and do and the implementation of les- son sequences, often at a predetermined pace (Hanford, 2018)

• Privileging of phonemic awareness and phonics as primary decoding skills (Hanford, 2018, 2019; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Pierson, n.d.; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Use of decodable texts that do not engage multiple dimensions of reading (Hanford, 2018; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Specialized forms of reading instruction designed for particular groups of students as core literacy instruction for all students and teacher educators (Hanford, 2018; Hurford et al., 2016; IDA, 2019; Pierson, n.d.)

• Mandating structured literacy programs despite the lack of clear empirical evidence to support these programs

• Privileging the interest of publishers and private education providers over students.

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.

Throughout my forty-year career as a K-12 teacher and a university professor/teacher educator, I have a clear record advocating for students (1a) and teachers (1b).

The current megaphone allowed teachers and parents who see failure and feel failed is certainly valuable while also being anecdotes, not science, and more problematic, cherry-picked anecdotes.

I have heard much different voices, and I also know they are being ignored or often silenced with threats.

I suspect there are far more reading teachers who need better teaching and learning conditions so that their expertise can be more effective with students than those who need retraining.

Or at least if we addressed teaching and learning conditions, we would have a better context in which to decide who needs PD.

That story isn’t what sells , however.

The SOR movement has pitted teachers against teachers, teachers against administrators, and teachers against teacher educators. Those conflicts serve the interests of commercial programs, not students and teachers.

So, finally, if we drop the “science” bullying and admit that teacher voices matter, then we must hand that megaphone to all voices, not just the ones that serve the market interests of those who see the SOR movement as an opportunity to cash in (again).

See Also

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

If Teacher Education Is Failing Reading, Where Is the Blame?

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, P. L. Thomas

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

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.

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.

Additionally, journalists and mainstream media have been recycling the original claims (see Aukerman below) made by Hanford’s Hard Word, despite a lack of science behind those claims.

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. Further, I am available for educators or journalists who want to investigate the “science of reading” movement critically.

Resources by Topic

Access a PowerPoint of these topics HERE.

Historical Context [access materials HERE]

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.

McQuillan, Jeff (1998) “Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States,” Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation: Vol. 6 , Article 1.
Available at:

Literacy Crises: False Claims and Real Solutions by Jeff McQuillan

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

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

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

International Literacy Association. (2016). Research advisory: Dyslexia. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from

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.

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


Odegard, T. N., Farris, E. A., Middleton, A. E., Oslund, E., & Rimrodt-Frierson, S. (2020). Characteristics of Students Identified With Dyslexia Within the Context of State Legislation. Journal of Learning Disabilities53(5), 366–379.


The nonsense of teaching nonsense words, Abigail Marshall

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

Research Roundup: LETRS (PDF in link above also)

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

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

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper – New Politics


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


Harvard EdCast: To Weather the “Literacy Crisis,” Do What Works

Disrupting the Disruptors: Reimagining Policy Advocacy in a Post-Truth Era, Helen Aydarova

Caught In a Web of Privatizers: Science of Reading Reforms in the State of Tennessee, Helen Aydarova

“Whatever You Want to Call It”: Science of Reading Mythologies in the Educational Reform Movement, Helen Aydarova


Mississippi Miracle, Mirage, or Political Lie?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers [Update 7 December 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


The Never-Ending Debate and the Need for a Different Approach to Reading Instruction, P.L. Thomas

The Science of Reading and the Perils of State Literacy Policies: Virginia’s Cautionary Tale, Dorothy Suskind


Burns, M. K., Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2023). Evaluating components of the active view of reading as intervention targets: Implications for social justice. School Psychology, 38(1), 30–41.


Reading a philosophical investigation, Andrew Davis

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.

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.

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.

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


(Decodable texts)

The Case Against Decodable Texts, Jeff McQuillan, Language and Language Teaching, Issue No. 21, January 2022 


Bowers, J.S. Yes Children Need to Learn Their GPCs but There Really Is Little or No Evidence that Systematic or Explicit Phonics Is Effective: a response to Fletcher, Savage, and Sharon (2020). Educ Psychol Rev 33, 1965–1979 (2021).


A Meta-Analysis of Non-Repetitive Reading Fluency Interventions for Students With Reading Difficulties, Leah M. Zimmermann, Deborah K. Reed, and Ariel M. Aloe. Remedial and Special Education 2019 42:2, 78-93



Connor C. M. (2016). A Lattice Model of the Development of Reading Comprehension. Child development perspectives10(4), 269–274.


Legislating Phonics: Settled Science or Political Polemics? David Reinking, George G. Hruby, and Victoria J. Risko


NEPC Review: 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management (National Council on Teacher Quality, October 2020)

NEPC Review: 2018 Teacher Prep Review (National Council on Teacher Quality, April 2018)

NEPC Review: Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know (National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ])

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.


Reading Science: Current and On-Going Research (updated bibliography)

Research Based…Questions to Ask

Reading Research Quarterly:

Volume 55, Issue S1, Special Issue: The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions

Volume 56, Issue S1, Special Issue: The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions

Please feel free to reach out for additional resources or revising as needed (

I am available for interviews, podcasts, webinars, 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.


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