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Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

While rewatching Zombieland recently, I noticed that this version of the zombie genre was not only a blend of horror and comedy but also a slightly different take on the zombie mythology; a central character, Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg), embodies a motif focusing not on the zombies but on the survivors, and their survival techniques often grounded in anxiety and other compulsions that are often a burden in the so-called normal world.

Zombie narratives are enduring in popular culture throughout history because reanimation of life and the near impossibility of killing the reanimated are truly horrifying elements. But zombie narratives are also highly adaptable to many cultural perspectives.

Currently the Reading War has been reanimated around the branding of the “science of reading,” and this version seems even harder to kill than previous iterations; the effectiveness of the double tap perfected by Columbus in the film would be deeply appreciated in this circumstance.

As we wander into 2020, the “science of reading” movement has developed a few new approaches grounded in the foundational arguments that have made “science of reading” as compelling as a zombie story: discrediting popular reading programs as not scientific and reanimating Reading First (the program built on the National Reading Panel).

Central to these developments in the “science of reading” onslaught on reading are two key names: Timothy Shanahan and Lucy Calkins.

In many ways, Shanahan (a member of NRP) has emerged as a key voice in rewriting the history of both the NRP and Reading First. Calkins, as the name on a widely adopted reading program, now represents the so-called failed balanced literacy movement.

Here we have names and people superimposed onto the false war between phonics (Shanahan) and balanced literacy/whole language (Calkins).

Calkins has posted a defense of her programs, and Shanahan has recently posted a somewhat garbled defense of Reading First.

However, there is no value in mainstream media pointing fingers at Calkins, charging her with a self-serving agenda, while supporting Shanahan, who is conducting his own PR campaign for his role in the NRP. Let them without agendas cast the first stone. (Hint: There are plenty of agendas to go around on this.)

Yet, it is a negative review of Calkins’s program that has found a home in the mainstream media:

A new player has moved into the curriculum review market: Nonprofit consulting group Student Achievement Partners announced this week that it is going to start evaluating literacy curricula against reading research.

The group released its first report on Thursday: an evaluation of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading in grades K-5, a workshop style program designed by Lucy Calkins and published through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The seven literacy researchers who reviewed the program gave it a negative evaluation, writing that it was “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This last point quoted from the review is incredibly important to unpack, as is the urgency with which the mainstream media reports this review mostly uncritically.

First, there is a serious contradiction and hypocrisy when the mainstream media commit to a term such as the “science of reading,” demanding that reading instruction is always grounded in a narrow concept of “scientific” (the so-called gold standard of cognitive psychology, specifically), but participate in press release journalism.

We must ask about the review endorsed by EdWeek: Is it scientific? Has it been blind peer-reviewed? Do the authors have any agendas that would skew the findings?

And then we must argue: If mainstream journalists are now demanding that educators implement only practices supported by high-quality scientific studies, those journalists should not report on any reviews or studies that themselves are not also high-quality scientific studies.

This contradiction in which the media have lower standards for their reporting than for the agenda they are promoting is a window, however, into what is really going on, bringing us back to the conclusion about Calkins’s reading program.

All reading programs can and should be viewed through that conclusion: “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

In fact, like the Orwellian named Reading First, reading programs always put reading last because reading programs are inevitably linked over the past 40 years to the accountability movement; teachers and students have been disproportionately held accountable for implementing and following the programs and not for authentic reading.

Reading First did in fact fail, despite arguments to the contrary, because the bureaucracy allowed the natural corruption inherent in the market; funding for reading became inappropriately tied to specific reading programs and textbook companies using the label of “scientifically based” (a central element of No Child Left Behind and the NRP almost twenty years ago).

Reading was last in the Reading First scandal because the focus became adopting and implementing Open Court.

The real irony here is that the market/accountability dynamic is at the heart of why it makes perfect sense to conclude that Calkins’s program is “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

And the bigger irony is that whole language and balanced literacy were attempts to pull back from scripted and prescriptive program approaches to teaching reading and to provide philosophical and theoretical frameworks within which teachers could use their professional autonomy to shape reading instruction to the needs of “all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This is a much ignored truism found in John Dewey: In education, we must resist reducing philosophical and theoretical truths to fixed templates that then become not guiding principles but simplistic mandates to be fulfilled.

Children reading eagerly and critically—this is the real goal of teaching reading in our public schools; that is putting reading first, not any commercial program whether it be systematic intensive phonics or one promoted as balanced literacy.

Reanimating NRP and Reading First is, I concede, on its second round so I can hold out hope that a vigilant double tap may put these zombies back in the ground permanently.

None the less, I will remain anxious like Columbus, skeptical that we are safe.

See Also

Reading First: Hard to Live With—or Without, P. David Pearson

Pearson Reading First