17 September 2020 turned out to be a day of disinformation about education in the U.S. The White House launched another assault on education (not a surprise), and the International Literacy Association offered (for a fee) “Making Sense of the Science of Reading.”

The latter is disappointing from a powerful and influential professional organization because the “sense” made appears to be quite different than the intent.

Ultimately, as this event revealed, the “science of reading” (SoR) advocacy fails for several key reasons:

  1. The movement is driven by parent advocacy (specifically around dyslexia) and media advocacy. That grounding lacks historical context and expertise in reading, literacy, and special needs.
  2. SoR promotes a simple view of reading and seeks to mandate systematic intensive phonics for all students (regardless of student need).
  3. SoR embraces a simplistic and distorted view of “science” as “settled.”
  4. SoR links reading to policies and practices that lack scientific support and cross ethical lines of allowing the ends to justify the means (for example, nonsense literacy and grade retention linked to high-stakes testing).

Here, I want to focus on how SoR crosses ethical lines in order to justify and misrepresent the very “science” those advocates embrace.

Writing about corporal punishment, Rutherford quotes from Gertrude Williams: “[s]ince the dawn of humanity, children have been treated with incredible cruelty and have little recourse to the law which regarded them as things, not persons” (p. 356).

In my scholarship and public work, corporal punishment and grade retention share something, ironically, with SoR advocacy; I contend that the scientific research base (both decade’s long) on corporal punishment and grade retention , while not “settled,” is overwhelmingly compelling against the use of either with children and students.

And thus, I am deeply alarmed at ILA justifying the use of grade retention as a component of the SoR movement. A speaker at the ILA event and a follow-up email from ILA highlighted a disturbing report from the conservative Manhattan Institute: Do Retention Policies Affect Student Success?

In 1974, talking on education at UC Berkley, James Baldwin confronted the same sort of inequity toward children highlighted by Rutherford on corporal punishment: “And education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of that industry is the child.”

With that in mind, the report on grade retention from Perrault and Winters must be interrogated for its lack of peer review (How does one reach for the unscientific to support the scientific?) and its distorted view of teaching and learning along with its antagonism toward children (and teachers).

Perrault and Winters make several key mistakes in how they focus this report and what they fail to identify and consider important.

Decades of high-quality research on grade retention as well as more recent examinations of high-stakes retention similar to what Perrault and Winters address have found the following: grade retention’s impact on raising test scores is mixed, but even when test scores increase, those gains dissipate over time (those gains, then, are a mirage); grade retention is strongly correlated with negative consequences for students, including being separated from their peers and increasing the likelihood of dropping out of school; and grade retention tends to disproportionately impact students of color, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students (contributing, then, to perpetuating inequity).

Perrault and Winters choose to ignore the overwhelming negative consequences, preferring to argue for the ends justifying the means, and instead focus again on a simplistic look at whether or not the “threat” of grade retention increases test scores for students not retained (a circular argument for decreasing grade retention).

Those choices lead to a very disturbing and flawed argument that grade retention, according to Perrault and Winters, improved student learning and teaching (a reductive claim based solely on test scores as an adequate proxy for learning and teaching); their concluding rhetoric is very telling:

Our results, however, suggest that earlier studies, which focus entirely on retained students, substantially understate the benefits of test-based promotion policies on student achievement. The test-score improvements that we find within the third grade for students in Arizona and Florida apply to a much larger group of students than those who were eventually retained by the policies. Indeed, our results show that the threat of retention [emphasis added] improves student academic achievement, thus reducing the need for retention.

SoR advocacy and ILA have made a fatal flaw in citing this report in order to argue that the ends justify the means.

Grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, it does not improve learning and teaching, and it disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our schools.

Instead of the report from Perrault and Winters, we should paid heed to Huddleston’s Achievement at Whose Expense? A Literature Review of Test-Based Grade Retention Policies in U.S. Schools:

Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. The author concludes by providing alternatives for ending social promotion that do not include grade retention as well as suggestions for further researching the role such policies play in perpetuating class inequities. [from abstract]

The SoR movement has lost its way, depending on reports and anecdotes in order to promote a simplistic view of reading and teaching reading.

As Baldwin noted in the 1970s, education is an industry, and we must be suspicious why so many are compelled to make claims that seem more likely to serve the interests of those who produce and sell reading (phonics) programs and reading tests than the very children we claim to serve.