Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

This is capitalism, not science; this is the free market, not education for equity and democracy.

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

In the pre-pandemic world that seems much further in the past than it is, I traveled from South Carolina to Milwaukee in February of 2020 to speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA) annual convention.

My public work had been dominated by refuting the “science of reading” movement for more than a year at that point — including having a book in press on the “science of reading” as another version of the Reading War — so I arrived in Milwaukee a bit apprehensive about how I would be received.

My session was well attended by an energetic crowd of teachers who seemed eager to engage in why the “science of reading” movement was misguided, but I also encountered another distinct frustration among teachers I had not anticipated.

A significant part of the “science of reading” agenda has been to attack popular reading reading programs, notably programs associated with Lucy Calkins and Teachers College (see here and here, for example).

As I interrogated and discounted many aspects of the “science of reading” agendas, the attendees were supportive of my analysis, but teachers often expressed very negative experiences with Calkins’s programs, the third most popular reading program in the U.S.

What I was witnessing surprised me, but I soon realized that Calkins represented for very different reasons multiple problems with how reading is taught in formal schooling throughout the U.S.

When I asked teachers attending that session why they were so frustrated and even angry about Calkins’s programs, I heard what I have long argued about the essential problem with any reading program: Administrators spend a great deal of time and effort making sure teachers implement adopted program, and not acknowledging teacher expertise or student needs and learning.

To be fair, teachers frustrated with Calkins’s reading programs were credibly concerned about how it was being mandated and implemented (no real fault of Calkins or the publishers).

Despite my efforts and the efforts of my scholars and teachers of literacy, the “science of reading” momentum has only increased. The most recent development is likely one of the worst.

Across the U.S. media advocacy and parental zeal have directly resulted in state reading legislation, the worst of which has implemented third-grade retention policies. But the next shoe to drop has been how those policies directly impact teaching and learning — repeating the Open Court, Reading First, and National Reading Panel scandal not even fifteen years in the past.

And once again during the “science of reading” frenzy, Lucy Calkins is in the middle — as reported by the most prominent “science of reading” media propagandist, Emily Hanford:

The Arkansas Division of Secondary and Elementary Education announced in October 2019 that any curriculum that utilizes cueing strategies won’t be approved for use in the state, meaning that Calkins’ materials and another popular program, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, are effectively banned [emphasis added]. Colorado released a list of approved core reading curriculum, and Calkins’ programs weren’t on the list. A group outside St. Louis sent a letter signed by 216 parents, students and taxpayers to the school board asking that Calkins, and Fountas and Pinnell be dropped. The Oakland Unified School District, whose use of Calkins’ products was highlighted in the 2019 APM Reports story, announced it was forming a committee to consider adopting new curriculum. And Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit consulting group, published a review that concluded Calkins’ curriculum materials are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

So we are now confronted with a very disturbing but common formula related to reading instruction:

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

Let me return to the teachers attending my session at WSRA.

If anyone were genuinely interested in understanding the complexities of teaching reading in formal schooling, almost everything needed was available in those teachers’ comments.

For the most part, these teachers recognized the misrepresentations and problems with the “science of reading” agenda, notably that journalists and parents were driving the conversations on how to teach children to read; they also knew from lived experiences as teachers that reading programs — all reading programs — are the problem, and not the solution.

At the core of the flaws in the “science of reading” movement is the belief that there is a clearly and easily defined “right way” to teach reading, that most teachers (for some odd reason) refuse to acknowledge that one “right way” (and/or were never taught that “right way” by teacher educators who, again for some odd reason, refuse to acknowledge that one “right way”), and that all we need to do is to adopt that “right way” to (finally?) teach all children to read.

Yet, this is both magical and overly simplistic thinking.

There is no one “right way” to teach reading and there is no silver-bullet reading program.

Teaching students to read well is negatively impacted by dozens of factors that lie well outside the confines of what any reading program can address — socio-economic inequity, racial inequity, school funding, an oppressive accountability/standards/testing culture, human nature, etc.

“Science of reading” advocates have spent a great deal of time demonizing Calkins and her workshop-based, holistic programs, but now they also seem almost gleeful to claim that she has come over to their side.

All of this rather petty “gotcha” approaches to the cult of celebrity as that impacts education (Calkins as a literacy guru or Hanford as the “science of reading” prophet) has perpetuated one of the worst dynamics surrounding how we run our schools — market forces.

The changes being made to Calkins’s programs are responding to the market being closed; it genuinely doesn’t matter in that context if the original programs were or weren’t “scientific” and it doesn’t matter if the changes are or aren’t “scientific.”

Publishers respond to market forces, and for public education, that means that democratically elected officials are responding to constituents and creating legislation that governs what reading materials states can and cannot purchase to teach children to read.

This is capitalism, not science; this is the free market, not education for equity and democracy.

The NCLB, NRP, Reading First, and Open Court scandal of the 2000s laid out clearly that the exact same process happening because of the “science of reading” movement is destined to fail, guaranteed to corrupt how we teach reading.

Teaching children to read is about individual children and their teachers. At best reading programs can provide some of the tools needed to help children read, but reading programs generally are used at their worst — as ends unto themselves.

Whether or not Calkins has gone over to the “science of reading” movement is nothing to celebrate or condemn.

That we remain mired in “all students must” and myopically committed to adopting the “right” reading program are the real problems — once again.

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