Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

Since it is Academy Awards season, let me start with film as context.

Whiplash has received a great deal of Oscars buzz with five significant nominations. But that film praise is interesting to frame against a review that considers how the film’s topic, jazz, is portrayed:

The mediocre jazz in Damien Chazelle’s new film, “Whiplash,” the story (set in the present day) of a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the brutal tutelage of a conservatory professor (J. K. Simmons), isn’t itself a problem. The problem is with the underlying idea. The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.

“Mediocre,” “grotesque,” and “ludicrous caricature” are certainly not the stuff of Oscars, one would think, but this contrast of responses to the film represents well my problem with the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats who are cited with missionary zeal whenever you spend much time in the reading wars (see the comments here): Daniel Willingham, John Hattie, E.D. Hirsch, and Grant Wiggins.

With some qualifications for Wiggins (who taught high school and coached for 14 years, but has focused primarily on assessment since then), these often cited men are primarily quantitative researchers who are not within the field of literacy (Hirsch’s background is literature, not literacy) and have created cottage industries out of their names/work: Willingham as a psychologist, Hattie as a researcher/consultant, Hirsch as a core knowledge advocate, and Wiggins as proponent of understanding by design and consultant.

As I have noted before, most of my concern here is how certain advocates for phonics and direct instruction in literacy use the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats to close the door on the reading wars—not with any of these men or their work specifically (except Hattie [1]).

Therefore, I must offer, Beware the technocrats, because of the following:

  • Beware the seductive allure of statistics, numbers, and “scientific” research. As I have detailed more often than I would have liked, a perfect example of this concern is the prevalence of the Hart and Risley research on the “word gap,” which persists despite many concerns being raised about not only the research itself, but also the deficit ideology that drives the conclusions. Of course, high-quality experimental and quasi-experimental research matters, but many aspects of teaching and learning require and lend themselves to other research paradigms—notably qualitative action research conducted by classroom teachers with the real populations they teach.
  • Beware the momentum of cottage industry gurus. Hattie, Hirsch, and Wiggins have created entire careers for themselves—books, workshops, consultations. I remain deeply skeptical of such ventures (see also Nancie Atwell and a whole host of gurus on the “softer” side of research and within literacy as well). Even the best people with the best intentions can find themselves victims of “‘filthy lucre,'” but just as the higher the quality of scientific research, the more likely it means less to real-world teaching, the urge to reduce an evidence base or best practice to a program means that evidence and practice are mostly ruined.

In the reading wars, then, I witness time and again that the advocates for intensive phonics, phonics programs, and direct instruction grounded in prescribed content are either not within the field of literacy [2] or themselves invested in programs that benefit from those positions (the Common Core debate represents the same issue since most advocates stand to benefit from Common Core being implemented, some politically and some financially).

Which brings me back to Whiplash. If you know little or nothing about jazz, the film likely appears more wonderful than if you do.

I have a thirty-plus year career in literacy, including teaching literacy (mostly writing) and scholarship addressing literacy. That context for me renders the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats not insignificant, but certainly less credible than a century of research and practice by literacy practitioners and researchers that informs my practice.

There is a tyranny to certainty among those who wield the work of Willingham, Hattie, Hirsch, and Wiggins in ways that end the conversation, that shut the door on a broader basis of evidence to inform, not mandate, practice. There is a greater tyranny of commerce lurking here also, using “scientific” as a mask for commercialization.

Both serve to further de-professionalize teachers, and both often result in classroom practices that may raise test scores but create nonreaders.

And thus, when Hattie is cited (yet again) during the reading wars, for example:

I posted a question in Pamela and Alison’s article last week, but didn’t get a response from anyone. My question is: if the “effect size” of synthetic phonics (according to Hattie’s research) is 0.54, and that of whole language learning is 0.06, does that mean:

  1. That whole language actually does have an effect; and
  2. Should we therefore use the two approaches in the ratio of 1:9 (i.e. the difference in their effect sizes)? (scroll to the comment from John Perry, who, I must add, is being reasonable here)

I share the exasperation Richard Brody expresses at the end of his review of a jazz film that uses Buddy Rich as the icon for the film’s protagonist: John Hattie. John Visible Learning Hattie.

In terms of evidence, that has the opposite effect intended.

See Also

Education ‘experts’ may lack expertise, study finds

Taming the Wild West of Educational Research, Simon P. Walker

[1] Those who rush to use Hattie are proof of solid research fail to note that his work has been challenged for quality, even within the quantitative paradigm; see:

[2] Since many people continue to refer to the National Reading Panel report, please examine Joanne Yatvin’s minority view, starting about page 444, including:

In the end, the work of the NRP is not of poor quality; it is just unbalanced and, to some extent, irrelevant. But because of these deficiencies, bad things will happen. Summaries of, and sound bites about, the Panel’s findings will be used to make policy decisions at the national, state, and local levels. Topics that were never investigated will be misconstrued as failed practices. Unanswered questions will be assumed to have been answered negatively. Unfortunately, most policymakers and ordinary citizens will not read the full reviews. They will not see the Panel’s explanations about why so few topics were investigated or its judgments that the results of research on some of the topics are inconclusive. They will not hear the Panel’s calls for more and more fine-tuned research. Ironically, the report that Congress intended to be a boon to the teaching of reading will turn out to be a further detriment.

As an educator with more than 40 years of experience and as the only member of the NRP who has lived a career in elementary schools [emphasis added], I call upon Congress to recognize that the Panel’s majority report does not respond to its charge nor meet the needs of America’s schools.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Reblogged: The Becoming Radical: Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency | Literacy Teaching and Teacher Education

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