What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

In one of the last class sessions of my education foundations course, a student I had taught in a first-year writing seminar the semester before posed a question while being nearly exasperated: To paraphrase, she wondered allowed why education had such a problem with how classroom practices often contradict what the research base shows is (for lack of a better term) best practice.

Since I have repeatedly addressed in my public and scholarly work Lou LaBrant’s masterful charge about the historical (and current) “considerable gap” between practice and research, I chose to help walk students through unpacking her question by asking them first who controlled the fields of medicine and law.

We tended to agree that doctors and lawyers mostly (although certainly not exclusively) had the greatest authority and autonomy in their fields.

By contrast, education in the U.S. is primarily public institutions at the K-12 and higher education levels, and thus, education as a discipline is significantly barricaded from education as a practice by legislation, bureaucracy, and a public discourse dominated by disciplines other than education—economics, psychology, and political science.

Embedded in that bureaucracy, we must also note, is the authority of administrators, a subset of eduction as a field that is in many ways disconnected from pedagogy, if not antagonistic to teacher autonomy.

Education as a discipline, then, suffers under the weight of being routinely declared a failure as well as an inadequate field while simultaneously being denied authority and autonomy in its practice, the very thing being used as evidence of its failure.

So, in 2018, we have yet another example of the on-going problem in the so-called publication of record on the field of education, Education WeekWhen It Comes to Public Education, the Nation Is Still at Risk.

Thomas Toch grounds his commentary is a praising and uncritical embracing of A Nation as Risk—although that report has been thoroughly discredited as a partisan hatchet job masquerading as research (see Gerald Holton here and here as well as Gerald Bracey).

Few things better represent all that is wrong with education as a discipline and profession than how A Nation at Risk (as a partisan political sham) came to drive policy by claiming “research” and “scientific” while being any but.

But the relentless bashing of education and then teacher education certainly did not stop with the rise of standards and high-stakes testing in the form of the accountability movement after Reagan; it was reinvigorated under W. Bush, and then Obama doubled down even further.

No Child Left Behind took its cue from A Nation at Risk, in fact.

This brings me to a recent Twitter discussion representing the reading wars debate that will just not die.

Let’s join that sort of in media res with Daniel Willingham refuting some claims made by Carol Black quoting from my blog post:

This Twitter exchange holds almost all of the elements I am confronting in this post: the disciplinary arrogance of economics, psychology, and political science (disciplines that routinely impose themselves in education as if the field dose not exist); the veneer provided by claiming “research” and “scientific” among hard-core phonics advocates; and the irony of the “research” crowd embracing partisan reports that fail as credible research.

First, let me clarify that I have taken a very clear stand against how the media embrace scholars from outside the fields of education and literacy when they arrogantly impose on those fields—for example, Willingham and Mark Seidenberg.

Next, it is illustrative that Willingham’s rebuttal of my criticism, in fact, provides proof of my point: His NYT’s op-ed is both a sweeping discrediting of teachers (since teacher educators are teachers) and, as Toch does, Willingham offers an uncritical embracing of the National Reading Panel (NRP), a partisan hack job powerfully refuted by Joanne Yatvin.

The NRP report serves a different purpose than it intended since it represents how partisan politics combined with unchallenged claims of “research” and “scientific” provide cover for everything that is wrong with the discipline of education being blocked from having authority and autonomy in the practice of education, specifically how reading is taught in US public schools.

If you skim through the discussion after I responded to Willingham, you also witness the problems with the cult of phonics, how advocates for phonics simultaneously beat the drum for “research” and “scientific” while refusing to engage with the field of literacy and reading in an honest way.

For example, whole language and balanced literacy are misrepresented and then those misrepresentations are attacked. Both whole language and balanced literacy are evidence-based approaches to teaching reading that include phonics instruction (just as writing pedagogy includes grammar instruction); however, phonics advocates typically frame them as hostile to phonics as well as not supported by “research” (something dishonestly posed by the NRP).

In other words, this Twitter debate exposes that far too often educational research and practice are highjacked for partisan political and ideological concerns as well as bureaucratic and market ones (phonics advocacy is significantly driven by the textbook and testing industries, for example).

If we return to my student’s question that is echoes in this Twitter debate grounded in Willingham’s sweeping dismissal of teacher education, we are faced with a real dilemma.

LaBrant’s charge that a “considerable gap” exists between evidence and practice exists today, but not in the way or for the reasons stated and implied by Willingham.

Literacy as a sub-discipline of education is not bereft of research, and it is not populated by incompetent professionals who do not know or teach that research base.

Education and literacy scholars are often women, and at its core, the fields suffer from some of the lingering sexism that hovers just beneath why economists, psychologists, and political scientists feel compelled to speak over education as a discipline.

Concurrent with that uncomfortable fact, however, is a damning dynamic captured in Applebee and Langer’s analysis of writing instruction in formal schooling; they concluded something that also explains virtually every problem found in why so many are compelled to declare education a failure: Applebee and Langer discovered that although teachers today know more than ever about best practice in teaching writing (and despite the field of composition being more robust than ever), teachers overwhelmingly disclosed that they are not able to implement that knowledge because of the mandates anchored in standards and high-stakes testing.

As I argued in the Twitter debate, whether or not teacher educators of literacy are teaching as Willingham wants, it doesn’t matter because when teachers enter the field they are being mandated to teach to the tests that measure standards. Teachers in the US have very little to no professional autonomy.

So I want to circle back to the more narrow issue of balanced literacy, a concept rejected by phonics advocates.

At its core, balanced literacy is about having highly expert teachers of literacy who then have the professional autonomy to individualize instruction for all students so that every student excels in literacy.

Intensive phonics programs and textbooks as well as isolated phonics testing (such as DIBELS) are the antithesis of that expertise and professional autonomy—just as the standards and high-stakes testing machine is.

I am not at all dissuaded from my not-so-modest proposal that all disciplines deserve their own autonomy and professionalism, that education has been denied that autonomy and professionalism because of sexism and the corrosive influence of bureaucracy and partisan politics.

This recent Twitter debate captures all that in a way that is relatively concise with many players inadvertently proving my points.

But, alas, I am not hopeful of having made any progress because, you know, I am but a lowly education scholar and practitioner, one mired even lower in the field of literacy.


For Further Consideration

Please note that, like economics, psychology has much to do to keep its own house in order; maybe slamming other disciplines serves as distraction:

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy