For 36 years now, I have been teaching people to write; that journey is a large subset of my own being and becoming a writer, an experience that is captured well in an old Nike poster I used to hang on the wall of my high school classroom, proclaiming “There is no finish line.”

there is no finish line

For the last decade-plus, I have taught first-year college students to write. While I am teaching writing, however, I also am teaching young people how to do college, how to make the important transition from being a student to being a scholar.

Part of that work is unlearning bad habits from high school embedded in traditional approaches to writing essays.

Here is one of the worst: Many students come to college having followed a narrow writing process in which teachers require students to submit a one-paragraph introduction with a direct thesis statement. Once approved, the student is then released to write an essay that fulfills that approved essay thesis.

This instills in students two incredibly misguided practices. One is writing with a level of certainty that an 18-year-old has yet to reach (particularly on topics about which they have only second-hand knowledge); and another is failing to see drafting and writing as an act of discovery, as a journey to understanding ideas better.

Neither of these lessons from high school serve young people well in their quest of becoming more educated, being a scholar. Scholarship and deep understanding of a field or discipline comes mostly from interrogating ideas, not from grand pronouncements.

Knowledge is living forest; dogma is a rigid stone slowly wearing away to nothing in its resistance to the elements.

This also comes into play when anyone is trying to understand a situation outside their own areas of expertise. As Ballantyne explains about epistemic trespassing:

First, the intellectual characters of trespassers often look unsavoury. Out of their league but highly confident nonetheless, trespassers appear to be immodest, dogmatic, or arrogant [emphasis added]. Trespassers easily fail to manifest the trait of intellectual humility and demonstrate one or another epistemic vice (Whitcomb et al. 2017, Cassam 2016). Second, it’s useful to distinguish between trespassers holding confident opinions and investigating questions in another field [emphasis in original]. I assume it can be epistemically appropriate for people to look into questions beyond their competence, even when it would be inappropriate for them to hold confident opinions.

This is a key distinction (arrogance v. modesty) for an enduring question in the U.S., one that has remained at the forefront of public and political debate since at least the 1940s: Why are students not learning to read?

If we are going to focus on asking questions and not making grand pronouncements, we probably should first interrogate the question, and confirm whether or not students are learning to read in reasonable ways and when they genuinely need to read independently.

Here we have a serious problem because at no period in the U.S. has anyone pronounced reading achievement to be satisfactory; thus, the somewhat bell-shaped curve of reading achievement among school-age students could very likely simply be normal.

Yet, most of us view education as a 100% attainable venture—all students can and should learn to read by X age. This is a valuable ideal, but it certainly isn’t a reasonable measure for any sort of accountability (see the disaster that was No Child Left Behind).

We are left then with an enduring question that I think is valid and worth considering: Why do some students not become eager and critical readers at the same rate as most of their biological peers?

Data for many decades have shown that all sorts of achievement gaps, reading included, are strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of any student’s parents, home, and community as well as the educational attainment of the parents (notably the mother). [Every administration of the SAT reflects those patterns, for example.]

Especially over the past forty or so years, however, emphasizing the correlation between inequity and academic achievement has been discounted with making “excuses.” Public and political concern for any problem seeks to find individual causes to blame, but Americans tend to balk at systemic explanations for negative outcomes.

When the U.S. declared a reading crisis in the 1940s during WWII, many immediately blamed progressive education, then strongly associated with John Dewey. But there were three practical problems with that blame.

First, as Alfie Kohn has explained, Dewey’s progressive education has never been implemented on any wide scale in the U.S. Despite mainstream arguments to the contrary, formal education in the U.S. has almost always been primarily conservative and traditional.

Second, as Lou LaBrant carefully detailed in 1942:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

Third, and this is possibly the most important point for understanding our current reading crisis, many students were unsuccessful in situations where educators claimed to be practicing progressive education, but in fact, were not.

Let me offer an example—Dewey’s project method.

First, Dewey tended to offer philosophical and theoretical parameters for teaching, but refused to offer models and never templates or programs. This made, ironically, a practitioner of pragmatism (Dewey’s philosophical roots shared with William James) quite impractical for day-to-day teaching and the running of schools.

William Heard Kilpatrick, however, seized the moment and packaged the project method, which did find its way into schools, often ones that claimed to be progressive.

Here comes the real but complicated problem.

In 1931, LaBrant (the subject of my dissertation and a devout Deweyan progressive) launched into the use of the project method in classes where students are supposed to be learning reading and writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Let’s imagine that some students did not grow as readers or writers if they were crafting, and not reading or writing (as LaBrant argued for over six decades), and let’s also imagine that if there was poor reading growth in these classrooms, people certainly associated that with progressive practices since it was explicitly using the project method.

To untangle this, we need to recognize that as LaBrant admonished, using the project method to craft instead of having students read and write was a misuse and misunderstanding of progressive philosophy.

Neither the project method nor progressivism failed these students, but the misuse of both certainly did.

This pattern has repeated itself at both small and large levels for decades.

The 1980s-1990s reading crisis was blamed on whole language, but almost no one was implementing whole language and the drop in test scores were easily connected to systemic factors such as reduced funding and an influx of English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals).

It is also interesting to investigate the many misuses of the term “best practice” and the instructional strategy literature circles, both important aspects of Harvey “Smokey” Daniels educational work and regrets he has explained in detail about too many people misunderstanding and misapplying the terms and practices.

At a state-level ELA teacher conference many years ago, I listened to Daniels explain that he wishes he could distance himself from the term “best practice” because nothing stopped publishers from slapping the term on any book because publishers knew the concept was in vogue. In short, like Dewey, Daniels was aware that he had no control over whether or not anything labeled “best practice” was in fact best practice (supported by evidence and research).

So this all leads to the blog post’s title: Did balance literacy fail to teach your child to read?

I suspect if you have made it this far and if you have fully interrogated the information I have provided, you can expect that the answer is very unlikely.

Are too many students not acquiring reading at rates we would prefer in the U.S.? Absolutely.

Are identifiable subgroups particularly mis-served in reading in our public schools—students with dyslexia, poor students, students of color, English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals)? Absolutely and inexcusably so.

Have these students who have experienced educational inequity sat in classrooms and schools that have adopted and implement reading programs labeled “balanced literacy”? There is no question this has happened, and continues to happen.

The paradox about blaming balanced literacy is that as a guiding reading philosophy and theory, balanced literacy supports that every student should receive whatever reading instruction the student needs (systematic intensive phonics, reading authentic texts, read alouds, special needs intervention, etc.); therefore, if a student isn’t receiving what they need, then the fault doesn’t lie with balanced literacy—just as Kilpatrick’s project method was being misused in the 1930s.

This may seem like a trivial distinction, but I think it is important because the current “science of reading” movement is laser-focused on blaming balanced literacy and offering a silver-bullet solution, systematic intensive phonics for all students.

This bodes poorly for students because with a false diagnosis, you are likely endorsing a flawed cure.

It is compelling to identify one thing to blame and to embrace a structured single solution, but that is a historically failed strategy.

Over the last few decades, we have no evidence that reading has ever been taught in any sort of uniform way, even in the same school (although analyses from the 1990s showed a positive correlation between whole language classes and higher NAEP reading scores). The causes for low reading achievement are incredibly complex, linked to out-of-school factors as well as teaching and learning conditions in schools.

We should focus more directly on out-of-school factors, but if we insist on in-school only reform to increase reading achievement, we would do better to start with teaching and learning conditions (low student/teacher ratios for struggling students, better funding) and then to abandon lock-step implementation of any reading program (not ones labeled “balance literacy” or ones prescribing systematic intensive phonics for all students).

And the one real reform we refuse to acknowledge or address is making sure every child and young person in the U.S. has access to reading in their homes, communities, and schools. When people wield “science of reading” like a hammer, they fail to acknowledge the enormous research base showing access to texts as the strongest indicator of students acquiring literacy.

In fact, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We are about 80 years late on listening to LaBrant:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Let’s be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)