The current “science of reading” climate surrounding public education in the U.S. has its roots, ironically, in misreading (or at least reading uncritically) A Nation at Risk, a report during the Ronald Reagan administration that was widely reported by mainstream media. The politically driven and deeply flawed report also prompted the accountability movement in the U.S.—state standards and high-stakes testing—that eventually enveloped the entire country by the 1990s.
The report established a false but compelling cultural truism that is too rarely interrogated: Public schools in the U.S. are failing. Since the early 1980s, political leadership has decided that the failure is due to a lack of accountability, but accountability of whom or what has shifted over the past 40 years.
The first blame narrative focused on students and schools, ushering in high-stakes testing at 3rd grade, 8th grade, and high school (exit exams) as well as school and district report cards. Eventually high-stakes accountability of students and schools seemed not to change the measurable outcomes that advocates had promised; there were also unintended consequences such as exit exams increasing drop-out rates.
Gradually after No Child Left Behind, the blame narrative moved to teachers, in part driven by George W. Bush’s popularizing the slogan “soft bigotry of low expectations,” the rise of charter schools embracing “no excuses,” and the same messages and buy-in for Bush era education policy by Barack Obama’s administration and Department of Education.
For about a decade the blame narrative focused on teachers, and political leaders rushed to intensify teacher evaluation, notably the use of value-added methods (VAM). Once again, the outcomes promised by advocates did not come to fruition. Recently, in fact, the tide is turning hard against the use of VAM and other types of punitive teacher evaluations.
The vacuum left in the blame narrative did not remain long. Concurrent with the “science of reading” movement that claims public school teachers are not teaching reading guided by the “science of reading” is the next round of blame—teacher education.
The blame narrative makes for strange bedfellows. While mainstream media have begun to pound the drum of blame about teacher education fairly consistently, the leading literacy professional organization, the International Literacy Association (ILA), has join the story as well.
Education Week has led this charge; for example, Madeline Will writes in Preservice Teachers Are Getting Mixed Messages on How to Teach Reading:
Decades of research have shown that teaching explicit, systematic phonics is the most reliable way to make sure that young students learn how to read words. Yet an Education Week analysis of nationally representative survey results found that professors who teach early-reading courses are introducing the work of researchers and authors whose findings and theories often conflict with one another, including some that may not be aligned with the greater body of scientific research.
EdWeek‘s survey data are being confirmed, it seems, by ILA’s survey data: 60% of respondents claim their teacher education programs did not prepare them well to teach reading.
First, we should pause at media and professional organizations citing survey data while also embracing a very rigid and narrow demand for the “science of reading.” Survey data have many problems, and in this case, we may want to know if disgruntled teachers were disproportionately motivated to reply.
None the less it is quite a different thing to say “60% of respondents claimed X” than “60% of teachers claimed X.” Are these survey data representative of all teachers of reading?
Let’s assume this is true, that more than half of teachers charged with reading instruction are not properly prepared to teach reading. But let’s also unpack how that came to be, and ultimately answer in a fair way, where is the blame?
For the past 30-40 years, teachers and teacher educators have had less and less professional autonomy; or stated a different way, the professional autonomy of teachers and teacher educators has been reduced to how well they can implement mandated standards and produce measurable outcomes that prove those standards were implemented and effective.
In the high-stakes accountability era, then, if we are going to accept that 60% of teachers were not well prepared in their teacher education programs, we must be willing to acknowledge that those programs were governed most often by the accreditation process. Organizations such as NCATE and CAEP have been holding teacher education accountable along with the coordination of professional organizations.
How teacher education approached literacy broadly and reading specifically was grounded in standards designed by ILA (elementary) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) (secondary), and those programs were periodically monitored by ILA and NCTE for if or how well the programs met those standards.
If we currently believe that the teaching of reading in our public schools is failing our students, we must also acknowledge that teachers are implementing state standards of reading and preparing students for state tests of reading; those teachers were also taught how to teach in teacher education programs implementing national standards determined by ILA and NCTE.
Accepting the survey data as valid, then, the blame for these failures lie in the accountability and accreditation process, of which teachers and teacher educators are mere agents.
After being a classroom teacher of ELA for 18 years and then a teacher educator for the last 18 years, I believe I have a strong and well informed view of what is really happening. This is a better explanation, but not a simple one that the media would prefer or a politically expedient one that politicians would prefer.
Education was never the type of failure determined by A Nation at Risk, and a lack of accountability was never the cause of what the true failures in education were then and are today.
Formal education is a reflection of and a perpetuating force for inequity in the U.S. Public schools are not game changers.
Therefore, it is true that far too many students are not being taught to read well enough, and that on balance, public education is failing far too many students.
Those failures are about inequity—inequity of opportunities both outside and inside schools that disproportionately impacts poor students, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students (the “science of reading” movement has correctly identified these vulnerable student populations, in fact).
And as jumbled as the journey has been, the logic experiment I offer above reaches a credible conclusion: the accountability era has failed. Miserably. Once again disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations of students.
But accreditation has failed just as much. Accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes assessment are not conducive to teaching, learning, or scholarship.
As a former classroom teacher, I can attest to that fact; as a current teacher educator, I can confirm that complying with accreditation mandates dilute my courses and overburden my professional work to the exclusion of scholarship and research.
Accountability structures are mostly bureaucracy, mostly a distraction from real teaching, learning, or professional behavior.
While I am frustrated with mainstream media misrepresenting reading and reading instruction, I am baffled that ILA would enter a fray that turns the blame narrative back on the organization itself. Maybe they didn’t think this through, but it is really almost impossible not to blame professional organizations who govern teacher education if we determine teacher education has failed.
Here, then, is a larger lesson of this entire four-decades mess: Let’s stop looking for people to scapegoat in the blame narrative, and recognize instead that the accountability/accreditation systems are failing us, especially when we are complying well to them.
Professional autonomy for K-12 teachers and teacher educators is a process we have not tried, but one far more likely to give our schools and our students a better chance if we also acknowledge that social and educational equity need the same financial and administrative focus we have given accountability since the early 1980s.