The Facts about Reading Just Don’t Matter: On the Absence of Ethical Leadership

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds is even more sobering in Trumplandia, but “reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational” being confirmed—again—is incredibly frustrating for educators.

The facts of many years of research show that people cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence; contrary evidence, in fact, tends to cause people to dig in even deeper to their misguided beliefs.

Democracy is a tenuous thing, then, when the willfully misinformed vote for those who learn to speak to and perpetuate that misinformation.

Trump has cashed in on false claims that work because of the public’s beliefs and the power of fear:

Opinion surveys regularly find that Americans believe crime is up, even when the data show it is down. In 21 Gallup surveys conducted since 1989, a majority of Americans said there was more crime in the U.S. compared with the year before, despite the generally downward trend in both violent and property crime rates during much of that period. In a Pew Research Center survey in late 2016, 57% of registered voters said crime had gotten worse since 2008, even though BJS and FBI data show that violent and property crime rates declined by double-digit percentages during that span.

Public policy in the U.S. too often is driven by popular beliefs not grounded in evidence. And an ugly irony to this dynamic includes public education policy—mostly a jumble of pet programs by people without any expertise in education who offer platitudes that resonate with a public ill-informed about what works in teaching and learning.

The misinformed echo chamber about education among political leaders, media, and the public has maintained for over thirty years now an accountability era of education policy committed to practices that have not worked, and often have caused more harm than good.

One of the many casualties of this belief culture is literacy, notably reading.

Education policy continues to march through a never-ending series of new reading programs, new reading standards, and new high-stakes reading tests (that have children perform in ways on the tests, brief passages with multiple choice questions, that are unlike real-world reading).

In 2017, then, it is stunning that a news article on reading research (from a publisher!) confirms—again—the facts we have known about reading for more than a century, but refuse acknowledge and practice.

The problem is what we know about reading and fostering literacy in children and young adults just isn’t that sexy (or profitable for politicians and publisher/testing companies): access to books in the home and libraries (community and school) and choice in what is read are strongly correlated with reading ability and eagerness.

Not phonics programs, reading programs, standards, or high-stakes testing.

Access to books and choice. Period.

From federal immigration and policing policy to how we teach our children to read, we are experiencing a fatal absence of ethical leadership.

Ethical leaders would inform the public about the decrease in violent crime, and ethical leadership would admit that our reading problems have relatively simple solutions.

Continuing to lead the uninformed by perpetuating misinformation is both a doomed practice but also a tremendous waste of our resources.

In education, the tens of millions wasted on reading programs, retooling and retraining for ever-new standards, and the bloat testing industry can and should be redirected to proven investments in books for children and robust libraries.

If we committed to buying every school-aged child 20 books a year to own (10 the choice of the child and 10 the choice of the teachers/schools), we would see an increase in reading ability and eagerness. Of course, direct instruction and fostering literacy are still needed, but these are greatly enhanced by the mere increase in book access and student choice in that reading.

And as well, we must make the same sort of ethical choices about social and education policy—addressing equity over accountability.

The facts about reading are not that sexy, but access to books and choice in what children read are what must be addressed in fostering childhood and young adult literacy.

These commitments require a move away from the inexpert ruling class and toward a culture that acknowledges, appreciates, and applies the evidence—evidence that should ground a call for ethical leadership and responsive policy.

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4 thoughts on “The Facts about Reading Just Don’t Matter: On the Absence of Ethical Leadership

  1. I’m entirely with your essential point – giving children books means they have something to read, and therefore they’ll get better at reading.

    However, unless you’re talking about school textbooks rather than reading books, I don’t see the logic of half of them being chosen by the teachers/schools.

    These are the same people/organisations who have been responsible (willingly or otherwise) for applying the educational programs of the ‘inexpert ruling class’ you identify. And when government or education authorities start cutting the scheme’s budget, the books chosen by students would be the first to disappear.

  2. Pingback: Why Don’t Teachers Encourage Their Students to Read More? – A Comprehension-Based Approach to Teaching Adult ESL

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