The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading” (Updated)

While too often inordinately dangerous* for the most vulnerable, social media can be a powerful window into how we think about and judge education. Recently, the reading wars have been once again invigorated; this time driven often by parents and advocates for students with special needs and accompanied by a very familiar refrain, the “science of reading.”

One problem with public debate about education is that political and public voices often lack experience and expertise in education as well as any sort of historical context.

First, those who have studied the history of education, and specifically the ever-recurring reading wars, know that there has never been a decade in the last 100+ years absent political and public distress about a reading crisis.

However, one doesn’t need a very long memory to recognize that if we currently are (finally?) having a reading crisis, it comes in the wake of almost two decades (nested in a larger four decades of accountability birthed under Ronald Reagan) dedicated to scientifically-based education policy, specifically reading policy driven by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

The NRP was touted as (finally?) a clearing house of high-quality evidence on teaching children to read (although it proved itself to be partisan hokum).

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

For example, I noticed a very odd dynamic on social media: a post on a community Facebook page for advocates of education that was linked to a dyslexia Facebook page promoting this from Mississippi:

MS gains propaganda

The message included dramatic arguments: Mississippi has somehow found the science of reading and is excelling in ways South Carolina refuses to do.

Knowing standardized test scores, and NAEP specifically, well, I was immediately skeptical of these claims.

Here is the short version: In 2017 NAEP data, MS is slightly ahead of SC in 4th-grade reading (both states remain near the bottom and below the national average), but SC is slightly ahead of MS in 8th-grade reading (again, both near the bottom and below the national average):

4th reading 2017

8th reading 2017

While Mississippi is promoting gains (accurately), the data remain clear that high-poverty states tend to score low on standardized testing while more affluent states tend to score higher.

What is extremely important to note is that some traditionally low scoring states have found methods (test-prep, reading programs focused on raising test scores, and grade retention) that increase test scores short term (making for political propaganda), but those gains have proven to be a mirage, disappearing in the span between 3rd/4th- grade tests to 8th-grade tests and then high school (see, for example, research on Florida).

So we sit here with some real problems and questions: Is there a reading crisis in the U.S. and my home state of SC? And if so, is that crisis somehow the result of refusing to implement the science of reading?

Well, first, I need to note that the “science of reading” is code for intensive phonics and is intended as an antidote to the current evil in reading, balanced literacy.

Now, consider this: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar event happened when people started shouting about the reading crisis in California spawned by whole language (now, people claim balanced literacy and whole language are the same thing, and thus, equally evil).

Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, unmasked that round of the reading wars, noting that although CA claimed whole language as the official reading approach of the state, teachers were almost never practicing whole language.

Further, the reading score plummet of those years did correlate with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).

This isn’t particularly simple or compelling but let’s detail why this recent round of the reading wars is way off base:

  • Standardized tests of reading are only proxies of reading, typically they reduce reading to a series of discrete skills that test designers claim add up to reading. This is at least inadequate, if not misleading. No standardized test measures eagerness and joy for reading, as well; nearly none address critical literacy.
  • Making raising reading test scores your primary or exclusive goal is actually cheating all students. Period. And this is what many states are doing, including MS.
  • Achieving test score gains when you are low scoring is much easier that making gains when you are high achieving.
  • Adopting, implementing, and staying focused on any reading program—these are also very common practices, and completely flawed approaches to literacy. Access to books in the home and choice reading remain the strongest predictors of increased reading and reading achievement.
  • Ultimately, if we insist on using reading test scores to judge the quality of teaching reading in any state or the country, we must acknowledge that how students are being taught is both almost impossible to identify and completely impossible to characterize as one clear practice (teachers are very likely to shut their doors and do as they please, regardless of policies).
  • And most important is the fact that standardized test scores of reading are a reflection of a large number of factors, with teaching practices only one (probably small) causal factor.

To that last point, consider this matrix of 2017 NAEP reading scores (4th/8th) along with the poverty in each state, the African American population percentage, and the Hispanic/Latinx population percentage. These data portray a much more complex picture of the reading problem, and resist the distraction that how students are being taught reading is cheating students, who could be saved by the “science of reading” (which, by the way, is balanced literacy—o, irony):

[Click links above each chart for expanded charts with grade retention legislation identified.]

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 1

NAEP reading 2017 1

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 2

NAEP reading 2017 2

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 3

NAEP reading 2017 3

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 4

NAEP reading 2017 4

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 5

NAEP reading 2017 5

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 6

NAEP reading 2017 6

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 7

NAEP reading 2017 7

The “science of reading” mantra is a Big Lie, but it is also a huge and costly distraction from some real problems.

Relatively affluent states still tend to score above average or average on reading tests; relatively poor states tend to score below average on reading tests.

Some states that historically scored low, under the weight of poverty and the consequences of conservative political ideology that refuses to address that poverty, have begun to implement harmful policies to raise test scores (see the magenta highlighting) in the short-term for political points.

It is 2019. There is no reading crisis in the way the “science of reading” advocates are claiming.

It is 2019. Balanced literacy is the science of reading, but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.

It is 2019. Political and public efforts to do anything—often the wrong thing—so no one addresses poverty remain the American Way.

It is 2019. It is still mostly about poverty when people insist it is about reading and reading policy.


* This opening has been revised because I made a careless error by making an analogy using the “Wild West,” seeking an engaging opening but making a culturally insensitive comparison instead. I regret this use of phrasing, but also appreciate being kindly informed of my carelessness in private. I try to listen to such concerns, and kindness, and am learning every day to be a better person, and writer.


Third-Grade Reading Legislation

3rd grade retention legislation

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