Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

Since it is Academy Awards season, let me start with film as context.

Whiplash has received a great deal of Oscars buzz with five significant nominations. But that film praise is interesting to frame against a review that considers how the film’s topic, jazz, is portrayed:

The mediocre jazz in Damien Chazelle’s new film, “Whiplash,” the story (set in the present day) of a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the brutal tutelage of a conservatory professor (J. K. Simmons), isn’t itself a problem. The problem is with the underlying idea. The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.

“Mediocre,” “grotesque,” and “ludicrous caricature” are certainly not the stuff of Oscars, one would think, but this contrast of responses to the film represents well my problem with the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats who are cited with missionary zeal whenever you spend much time in the reading wars (see the comments here): Daniel Willingham, John Hattie, E.D. Hirsch, and Grant Wiggins.

With some qualifications for Wiggins (who taught high school and coached for 14 years, but has focused primarily on assessment since then), these often cited men are primarily quantitative researchers who are not within the field of literacy (Hirsch’s background is literature, not literacy) and have created cottage industries out of their names/work: Willingham as a psychologist, Hattie as a researcher/consultant, Hirsch as a core knowledge advocate, and Wiggins as proponent of understanding by design and consultant.

As I have noted before, most of my concern here is how certain advocates for phonics and direct instruction in literacy use the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats to close the door on the reading wars—not with any of these men or their work specifically (except Hattie [1]).

Therefore, I must offer, Beware the technocrats, because of the following:

  • Beware the seductive allure of statistics, numbers, and “scientific” research. As I have detailed more often than I would have liked, a perfect example of this concern is the prevalence of the Hart and Risley research on the “word gap,” which persists despite many concerns being raised about not only the research itself, but also the deficit ideology that drives the conclusions. Of course, high-quality experimental and quasi-experimental research matters, but many aspects of teaching and learning require and lend themselves to other research paradigms—notably qualitative action research conducted by classroom teachers with the real populations they teach.
  • Beware the momentum of cottage industry gurus. Hattie, Hirsch, and Wiggins have created entire careers for themselves—books, workshops, consultations. I remain deeply skeptical of such ventures (see also Nancie Atwell and a whole host of gurus on the “softer” side of research and within literacy as well). Even the best people with the best intentions can find themselves victims of “‘filthy lucre,'” but just as the higher the quality of scientific research, the more likely it means less to real-world teaching, the urge to reduce an evidence base or best practice to a program means that evidence and practice are mostly ruined.

In the reading wars, then, I witness time and again that the advocates for intensive phonics, phonics programs, and direct instruction grounded in prescribed content are either not within the field of literacy [2] or themselves invested in programs that benefit from those positions (the Common Core debate represents the same issue since most advocates stand to benefit from Common Core being implemented, some politically and some financially).

Which brings me back to Whiplash. If you know little or nothing about jazz, the film likely appears more wonderful than if you do.

I have a thirty-plus year career in literacy, including teaching literacy (mostly writing) and scholarship addressing literacy. That context for me renders the Mt. Rushmore of technocrats not insignificant, but certainly less credible than a century of research and practice by literacy practitioners and researchers that informs my practice.

There is a tyranny to certainty among those who wield the work of Willingham, Hattie, Hirsch, and Wiggins in ways that end the conversation, that shut the door on a broader basis of evidence to inform, not mandate, practice. There is a greater tyranny of commerce lurking here also, using “scientific” as a mask for commercialization.

Both serve to further de-professionalize teachers, and both often result in classroom practices that may raise test scores but create nonreaders.

And thus, when Hattie is cited (yet again) during the reading wars, for example:

I posted a question in Pamela and Alison’s article last week, but didn’t get a response from anyone. My question is: if the “effect size” of synthetic phonics (according to Hattie’s research) is 0.54, and that of whole language learning is 0.06, does that mean:

  1. That whole language actually does have an effect; and
  2. Should we therefore use the two approaches in the ratio of 1:9 (i.e. the difference in their effect sizes)? (scroll to the comment from John Perry, who, I must add, is being reasonable here)

I share the exasperation Richard Brody expresses at the end of his review of a jazz film that uses Buddy Rich as the icon for the film’s protagonist: John Hattie. John Visible Learning Hattie.

In terms of evidence, that has the opposite effect intended.

See Also

Education ‘experts’ may lack expertise, study finds

Taming the Wild West of Educational Research, Simon P. Walker

[1] Those who rush to use Hattie are proof of solid research fail to note that his work has been challenged for quality, even within the quantitative paradigm; see:

[2] Since many people continue to refer to the National Reading Panel report, please examine Joanne Yatvin’s minority view, starting about page 444, including:

In the end, the work of the NRP is not of poor quality; it is just unbalanced and, to some extent, irrelevant. But because of these deficiencies, bad things will happen. Summaries of, and sound bites about, the Panel’s findings will be used to make policy decisions at the national, state, and local levels. Topics that were never investigated will be misconstrued as failed practices. Unanswered questions will be assumed to have been answered negatively. Unfortunately, most policymakers and ordinary citizens will not read the full reviews. They will not see the Panel’s explanations about why so few topics were investigated or its judgments that the results of research on some of the topics are inconclusive. They will not hear the Panel’s calls for more and more fine-tuned research. Ironically, the report that Congress intended to be a boon to the teaching of reading will turn out to be a further detriment.

As an educator with more than 40 years of experience and as the only member of the NRP who has lived a career in elementary schools [emphasis added], I call upon Congress to recognize that the Panel’s majority report does not respond to its charge nor meet the needs of America’s schools.

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Depending on your historical and literary preferences, spend a bit of time with Franz Kafka or Dilbert and you should understand the great failure of the standards movement in both how we teach and how we certify teachers—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy tends to be inadequate because bureaucrats themselves are often lacking professional or disciplinary credibility or experience, depending, however, on the status of their authority to impose mandates. For education, Arne Duncan serves well as the face of the bureaucrat, an appointee who has only the bully pulpit of his appointment to hold forth on policy.

However, as corrosive to education—and ultimately to evidence-based practice—is the technocrat.

Technocrats, unlike bureaucrats, are themselves credible, although narrowly so. For technocrats, “evidence” is only that which can be measured, and data serve to draw generalizations from randomized samples.

In short, technocrats have no interest in the real world, but in the powerful narcotic of the bell-shaped curve.

As a result, a technocrat’s view often fails human decency (think Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein) and certainly erases the very human reality of individual outliers.

The face of the technocrat—in fact, the technocrat’s technocrat—is Daniel Willingham, whose work is often invoked as if handed down by the hand on God, chiseled on tablets. [1] [Note: If you sense snark here, I am not suggesting Willingham’s work is flawed or unimportant (I would say important but narrow), but am being snarky about how others wield the technocratic hammer in his name.]

And it is here I want to return to a few points I have made recently:

  • Even the gold standard of experimental research fails the teacher in her day-to-day work because her classroom is not a random sampling of students, because her work is mostly with outliers.
  • And in the teaching moment, what counts as evidence becomes that teacher’s experience couched in that teacher’s content and teaching knowledge as all of that happens against the on-going evidence of the act of teaching.

Stewart Riddle, offering yet another effort in the reading war, is essentially speaking for evidence-based practice while raising a red flag against the tyranny of the technocrat, embodied by the systematic phonics crowd (those who wave the Willingham flag, for example).

On Twitter, in response to my piece on evidence-based policy and practice, Nick Kilstein raised a great point:

My ultimate response (prompting this blog):

My thoughts here, building on the bullet points above, are that having our practice informed by a wide range of evidence (including important evidence from technocrats, but also from other types of evidence, especially qualitative research [2] that can account for outliers, nuance, and the unexpected) is much different than having our practice mandated by evidence (think intensive, systematic phonics for all children regardless of needs or fluency because that is the program the school has adopted).

For day-to-day teaching, the tensions of the disciplines remain important: what we can measure against what measuring cannot address.

When Willingham proclaims that a certain type of research does not support the existence of learning styles, for example, teachers should use that to be very skeptical of the huge amount of oversimplified and misguided “teacher guides” and programs that espouse learning styles templates, practices, and models. [3]

But day-to-day teaching certainly reveals that each of our students is different, demanding from us some recognition of those differences in both what and how we teach them.

It is in the face of a single child that technocrats fail us—as Simon P. Walker notes:

Some educational researchers retreat to empiricist methods. Quantitative studies are commissioned on huge sample sizes. Claims are made, but how valid are those claims to the real-life of the classroom? For example, what if one study examines 5,000 students to see if they turn right rather than left after being shown more red left signs. Yes, we now with confidence know students turn left when shown red signs. But so what?  What can we extrapolate from that?  How much weight can that finding bear when predicting human behaviour in complex real world situations where students make hundreds of decisions to turn left and right moment by moment? The finding is valid but is it useful?

If that child needs direct phonics or grammar instruction, then I must offer them. If that child is beyond direct phonics and grammar instruction or if that direct instruction inhibits her/his learning to read and write, then I must know other strategies (again, this is essentially what whole language supports).

The tyranny of the bureaucrats is easy to refute, but the tyranny of the technocrat is much more complicated since that evidence is important, it does matter—but again, evidence of all sorts must inform the daily work of teaching, not mandate it.

Professional and scholarly teachers are obligated to resist the mandates by being fully informed; neither compliance nor ignorance serves us well as a profession.

[1] For more on worshipping technocrats, explore this, notably the cult of John Hattie and that those who cite his work never acknowledge the serious concerns raised about that work (see the bottom of the post).

[2] Full disclosure, I wrote a biography for my EdD dissertation (published here), and also have written a critical consideration of quantitative data.

[3] See, for example, how evidence (Hart and Risley) functions to limit and distort practice in the context of the “word gap.” The incessant drumbeat of the “Hart and Risley” refrain is the poster child of the tyranny of technocrats.

The “Word Gap”: A Reader

The AMC series, based on the iconic graphic series The Walking Dead, has finally included Rick admitting, “We are the walking dead” (Season 5, Episode 10).

Viewers witness the inevitable lethargy of living always under the threat of zombies, a reduced existence in which even stabbing a zombie in the brain is executed with a resignation that borders on macabre camp:

Maggie is confronted with death—and the walking dead—throughout the episode. We open to her weeping, as a walker shambles up behind her. She casually stands, and knifes the zombie in the skull. Later she finds a walker tied up and gagged in the trunk of a car. She must have been tied that way when she was alive, and starved to death before turning. It’s a horrible thought. Glenn kills that one for her. At the barn, she finds a third walker, this one apparently camped out there before she died.

I have explored the power of zombie narratives to examine the weight of living in poverty and the paralysis of anxiety, but here I want to add that one study and the term “word gap” are also yet more proof of the zombie apocalypse.

The “Word Gap” That Will Not Die

Like Maggie, I am nearly numb, having spent over thirty years in education mostly having to refute constantly misguided policy and misinformed media.

The most resilient and disturbing among those experiences is the term “word gap” and the single study that will not die—this time from Elizabeth Gilbert:

The term “word gap” was first coined in the 1995 Hart/Risley study that found low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers before age 3. This study and others have linked poor early literacy skills to lifelong academic, social and income disparities. Word gap initiatives primarily target low-income parents to help them understand the effect they have on their children’s cognitive development. Unfortunately, this misses another important part of the problem.

The deficit view perpetuated by Hart and Risley (not the credibility of the study or its claims) is as contagious as the zombie virus infecting everyone in The Walking Dead universe.

And while it would be easier just to lie down, give in, I remain steadfast against the “word gap” throng; thus, please take the time to consider the following reader:

In this article, we argue that strong claims about language deficiencies in poor children and their families based on the Hart and Risley study are unwarranted. Further, we argue that the uncritical acceptance of Hart and Risley’s findings is emblematic of a trend among some educators, educational policy makers, and educational researchers to readily embrace a deficit stance that pathologizes the language and culture of poor students and their families (Dudley-Marling, 2007; Foley, 1997). We hope that this critique will help teachers resist “research-based” policies that aim to fi x the language and culture of poor and minority students with whom they work.

Currently, the most cited study detailing the deficiencies of low-income children is that of Hart and Risley (1995). This study has been criticized by language scholars, including in a past issue of Language Arts (Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009), although the criticism seems to have had little impact….

Of course, there are many problems with the Hart and Risley study (Dudley-Marlin & Lucas, 2009; Michaels, 2013; Miller & Sperry, 2012). Among the criticisms are the reduction of language to vocabulary knowledge, the extrapolation from six families in one state to all poor children, whatever their familial, cultural, linguistic, and community circumstances, and the lack of a correlation between children’s vocabulary as mea- sured at age 3 and their school performance in third grade (noted by Hart & Risley [1995] themselves, on p. 161). Nonetheless, it is widely assumed that this study illuminates the “deficiencies” of poor children and that these account for school difficulties. This assumption is simply a continuation of societal ideologies linking income, race, and lan- guage deficiency that have been part of this coun- try since colonial times (e.g., the views of slaves’ capacities).

And thus the worries Labov (1972) articulated many years ago have come to pass: educators (and researchers and policy makers, I add) view chil- dren through the taken-for-granted lens of language deficiency and, thus, attempt to “repair the child, rather than the school.” One consequence of this is the indiscriminate erasure of children’s language strengths. (pp. 200-201)

Hart and Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children—Google it and in .15 seconds you get over 100,000 hits. Hart and Risley’s book Meaningful Differences (1995) is the most-cited piece of academic work that attempts to explain what goes wrong with poor kids, with grand extrapolations and claims (which you’ll see that I argue are totally unsubstantiated) about how poor children will fare in school and later life—based on their early home experiences with language. The book purports to demonstrate (with what I will call pseudo-scientific elegance) that poor children (in their study six families, all black, all on welfare) are doomed before they enter school because 1) their parents don’t talk to them as much as upper middle class parents (13 upper SES, “professional” families—where the parents were predominantly professors, all white except one); and 2) poor children don’t experience as many “quality” features in the talk with their parents.

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Unlike fatalism in The Walking Dead, World War Z is a zombie narrative offered after the apocalypse, a tale told with a dark optimism since humans have survived the rise of the living dead.

There are lessons in this version as well, particularly about the possibility of an antidote—about choosing to see the world differently in order to make a different world.

Let us put the term “word gap” to rest, permanently, along with the nearly compulsive urge to cite Hart and Risley.

Related and Recommended

Why we need to smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces, Andre Perry

What Are Evidence-Based Practices and Policies in Education?

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

“To a Mouse,” Robert Burns

If John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men offers a fictional dramatization of Scottish poet Robert Burn’s dire warning in poetry, above, then the mangled federal education policy popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) may be a top candidate for real-world proof of Burns continuing to be right 230 years later.

Heralded as bi-partisan and bold, NCLB has been unable to manage its central directive: scientifically based policy and practice in education.

The wider accountability paradigm of education reform driven by standards and high-stakes tests and NCLB have proven to be failures, but with the reauthorization of ESEA (NCLB) now on the table, those failures provide ample evidence for how to move forward with education reform and policy.

A policy memo from NEPC now stresses the importance of making evidence-based decisions during reauthorization:

Kevin Welner and William Mathis discuss the broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform. Yet the debates in Washington over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act largely ignore the harm and misdirection of these test-focused reforms. As a result, the proposals now on the table simply gild a demonstrably ineffective strategy, while crowding out policies with proven effectiveness. Deep-rooted trends of ever-increasing social and educational needs, as well as fewer or stagnant resources, will inevitably lead to larger opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it. Instead, the gaps will only close with sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn.

First, to heal the damage done, we must admit those clear failures. Next, we must change course away from accountability, standards, and high-stakes tests. Finally, we must clearly identify the reasons for educational struggles and failures in order to embrace the best policies and practices to prompt genuine and effective reform.

That reauthorization process, the new reform agenda, and then the daily practice of running schools and teaching students must re-embrace evidence-based policies and practices, but not without clarifying exactly what that means.

Two powerful lessons about creating evidence-based policy and practice can be drawn from the NCLB era: (1) simply codifying and mandating policy and practice must be evidence-based do not make that occur, and (2) the National Reading Panel’s procedures and outcomes highlight that “evidenced-based” when politicized is just as subject to human whims and corruption as anything else.

The inevitable train wreck of the Common Core (doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results) can be avoided now if we learn from NCLB; otherwise, we continue a long history identified by Lou LaBrant, former president of NCTE, in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

What Are Evidence-Based Practices and Policies in Education?

What counts as evidence has been the basis of stringent debate within the disciplines throughout the history of organized disciplines. In fact, that tension is how disciplines continue to seek knowledge, define themselves, and thus crawl closer and closer to the ultimate goal of Truth.

The two lessons noted above, however, show that once partisan politics are the process for mandating what counts as evidence, the credibility of that evidence is essentially destroyed.

Along with the National Reading Panel (NRP), A Nation at Risk demonstrated as a process how partisan political goals corrupt evidenced-based conclusions. The panel creating A Nation at Risk and the NRP had conclusions dictated first and then selected the evidence to reach those conclusions. Codifying what counts as evidence through a political process corrupts knowledge (and thus policy and practice) while forcing disciplinary debate about what counts as evidence to remain on the sidelines (and thus ineffective).

Briefly (and at the risk of oversimplification), the debates within fields over what counts as evidence tend to be between those embracing quantification and generalizability and those who who embrace qualitative data in order to raise and pursue essential questions.

In most disciplines, experimental and quasi-experimental (and thus quantitative) research has historically (and still currently) dominated those debates. The rise of qualitative research, however, has both expanded the disciplines and forced quantitative analysis of the world to address that reducing phenomena to numbers is both limited and limiting.

So the first problem with codifying what counts as evidence through the political process is that mandates (through legislation and funding) narrow and render static a process that must remain vibrant and organic in order to be effective.

For education as a discipline, then, the added political layer (again, think A Nation at Risk, NRP, or the USDOE) is the problem that mutes the already existing and rich professional organizations that have the needed knowledge base and guidelines for both how to teach students the disciplines and what to teach students within the disciplines.

Since it is difficult to clearly separate policy and practice in education, let me end with some concrete examples in order to give the bones of the question what counts as evidence flesh: corporal punishment, grade retention, and teaching reading.

Corporal punishment remains relatively common in parenting in the U.S., but it also lingers in schools in about a third of states. The American Psychological Association (APA), however, has a clear stand against corporal punishment based on over 60 years of evidence.

This represents one level of the needed relationship between government mandates and the disciplines as that informs education: When a professional field has a clear understanding of an issue, policy should reflect that stance. In other words, corporal punishment should be banned in public schools—not because some partisan political committee has studied the issue, but because the APA has done so and over a long period of time, while taking into consideration a wide and varied body of evidence.

A second level of the needed relationship between government mandates and the disciplines as that informs education is grade retention. Like corporal punishment research, grade retention research is robust and suggests that grade retention is mostly harmful. But at this second level, how the political process fails is strongly highlighted. Currently, states are mandating the opposite of what the research reveals (embracing high-stakes testing as a trigger for grade retention).

At this second level, based on the disciplinary evidence over a long period of time and built on a wide and varied body of evidence, grade retention must not be mandated, but not banned either. In cases such as grade retention, policy should caution against the practice, but allow that, as the research shows, some children may benefit from the practice, but professionals closest to those case are best for making that decision.

A third level involves daily classroom teaching of the disciplines; I’ll focus here on reading by highlighting whole language and balanced literacy.

Reading policy and practice are possibly the most debated areas of partisan political agendas. Everyone believes children need to learn to read—and almost everyone thinks s/he knows how that should happen.

Whole language has been codified (see California) and banned (see NRP), and balanced literacy has also been codified (see New York).

Complicating this third level is that politicians, the media, parents and the public, and even practitioners often misunderstand practices such as whole language and balanced literacy. In the cases of California and New York, whole language and balanced literacy did not fail; the political and implementation processes failed them.

Whole language commercialized (textbooks, programs), tested in high-stakes contexts, and prescribed (standards, curriculum and pacing guides) ultimately is not whole language (or best practice).

The lesson at this third level is that political policy always corrupts classroom practice because classroom practice is never as simplistic as policy. Even the gold standard of experimental research fails the teacher in her day-to-day work because her classroom is not a random sampling of students, because her work is mostly with outliers.

At this third level, the political mandate must address only that teachers are provided the opportunity to decide for each student and during each teaching moment what counts as evidence. And in the teaching moment, what counts as evidence becomes that teacher’s experience couched in that teacher’s content and teaching knowledge as all of that happens against the on-going evidence of the act of teaching—which is exactly what balanced literacy is:

Spiegel 3

The third level, then, is the arena of professionalism. A reading teacher must come to class equipped with the knowledge of her field of literacy (one powerfully informed by whole language and balanced literacy, for example, but also a field in constant tension due to the debates about what literacy is and how to teach it), and then, capable of providing different students different approaches in order to provide the learning needed in the pursuit of each child’s literacy.

The evidenced-based real world of teaching reading is messy, chaotic, and cumulative over a period of time that cannot be predicted for any individual child.

Simply put, no politician or political committee in DC or any state house has any business or ability to mandate the daily teaching of children. The political job is to ensure professionals have the opportunity to be professionals—and to create a process of transparency so that tax payers know that professionals are provided for children and doing their work as experts in the disciplines.

Federal and state policies are misguided when they are prescriptions that supersede the complex and on-going knowledge of the disciplines.

As the NEPC memo above notes, what counts as evidence now in education reform is the political disaster that is NCLB. The grand lesson of that evidence is that political mandates in education—detailed in three levels above—are creating problems, not solving them—and at tremendous expense.

In education reform, we need political humility and a new era of recognizing both the existing power of the disciplines and the the professional possibilities of teaching.

We do not need a commission of a wide range of stakeholders to fumble badly again what, for example, the field of literacy has been carefully examining for decades, what the field of literacy could easily and quickly provide every teacher in the U.S.—the wide range of strategies for ensuring each child becomes an eager and empowered reader.

If our goal is truly evidence-based practices and policies in education, the evidence suggests we must first have partisan politics step aside.

No Excuses for Advocacy Masquerading as Research

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel

A rallying mantra of politicians, education reform advocates, and many charter schools is “no excuses”—a mask for an ideology steeped in classism and racism and targeting mostly black, brown, and poor children.

In the spirit of Commander Buck Murdock, we now have ample evidence that there should be no excuses for the pattern of advocacy masquerading as research used to justify “no excuses” charter schools.

First, let me remind everyone of a 2007 report on school choice from Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which promotes itself as Wisconsin’s free-market think tank.

Despite the study finding choice ineffective, George Lightbourn introduced the report as a Senior Fellow, admitting:

The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find. We had expected to find a wellspring of hope that increased parental involvement in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) would be the key ingredient in improving student performance.

And later on the WPRI web site (although no longer available online), Lightbourne emphasized:

So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice [emphasis added]. School choice is working and should be improved and expanded. School choice is good for Milwaukee ‘s children.

For many, if not most, school choice advocates, ideology trumps evidence.

In the more narrow commitment to charter schools as a market mechanism and then “no excuses” charter schools specifically, the evidence is overwhelming that not only think tanks but also university departments have relinquished academic freedom for masking advocacy as research.

The latest can be found in No Excuses Charter Schools: A Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence on Student Achievement from the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—founded and funded by the pro-choice Walton family.

In a review of the report, Jeanne M. Powers finds:

The working paper reviewed here seeks to assess the extent to which “No Excuses” charter schools raise student achievement in English language arts and math and thereby close the achievement gap. The paper defines such schools as having: a) high academic standards, b) strict disciplinary codes, c) extended instructional time, and d) targeted supports for low-performing students. From their meta-analysis of 10 quasi-experimental studies , the authors concluded students who attended No Excuses charter schools had average achievement gains of 0.16 standard deviations in English language arts and 0.25 in mathematics. While conceding that charter schools with lotteries and No Excuses charter schools are not representative of all charter schools, the authors did not address whether or how students who apply to lottery charter schools might not be representative of all charter school students. They also did not address the possible relevance of student attrition for the individual studies’ findings and their own analysis. As a result, the claim that No Excuses schools can close the achievement gap substantially overstates their findings. Moreover, the report’s relatively small sample of schools concentrated in Northeast Coast cities suggests the current research base is too limited to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of No Excuses charter schools.

This is not, however, an isolated situation, as I have documented, so I offer below the full record:

Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3

For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Criticizing KIPP Critics

When a “Visit” Trumps Expertise and Experience: A New Deal

The Rise of the Dogmatic Scholar: “A Cult of Ignorance” pt. 2

Beware Reports Claiming “No Excuses”

Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions about Literacy

Poor Kids and the “Word Gap” opens with an important admission by Jessica Lahey: The Horace Mann ideal that education is the “great equalizer” has not materialized (or at least, has eroded). While the impact of education appears powerful within class and race classifications, educational attainment remains ineffective in overcoming social inequity.

As the article title states, however, Lahey turns to the “word gap”—a compelling and repeated entry point for discussing the educational differences among social classes and races of children. Quoting a Clinton Foundation report, the article equates that “word gap” with childhood hunger and food insecurity before detailing the Obama administration’s initiative to bridge that socioeconomic word gap.

Lahey’s article, the Clinton Foundation, and the Obama initiative are all sincerely grounded in good intentions, and all rightfully highlight the need to address the inequity of education in the U.S. that mirrors the social inequities a rising and high percentage of impoverished children experience.

But, once again, the problem persists that we remain committed to a deficit gaze, one that ultimately blames the parents of children in poverty (often the mother) for the “word gap.”

Looking closely at the Clinton Foundation report, in fact, reveals that Hart and Risley’s 1995 research (see chart on page 10) continues to anchor assumptions that the quantity and quality of words are linked to both the socioeconomic status of a child’s home and then the child’s ability to succeed once in formal schooling.

As Dudley-Marling and Lucas emphasize, the foundational study by Hart and Risley and pathologizing the language of impoverished students are misguided and misleading because of the essential deficit perspectives embedded in each, perspectives reflecting and perpetuating stereotypes. “Pathologizing” language means that the language itself is seen as a “sickness” and thus what must be “treated”—including the concurrent implicating that the host of the language, the child, is also diseased and must be treated.

As well, research in the UK reveals that the dynamic among literacy, social class, and educational attainment is complex, but also powerful. Pleasure reading and even the quality of that reading appear to increase literacy in adults, Sullivan and Brown detail.

Sullivan reaches two important conclusions: the need to protect the library and the importance of books in the child’s home.

This focus—on strategies for enriching the literacy of children born into impoverished homes—offers important ways for shifting our deficit gaze away from blaming the victims of poverty and toward systemic causes for characteristics (“word gap,” for example) so that we can develop policy to prevent the conditions in the first place and also create contexts for alleviating inequity that already exists.

The great challenges facing the U.S. and our disturbingly high percentage of children living in poverty are social inequities linked to classism and racism. We must admit these problems, and then we must address them directly (and not by clinging to idealistic beliefs such as education will be the “great equalizer”).

But we must also address directly the existing inequities reflected in the homes and education of impoverished children.

Let’s not blame high-poverty mothers; instead, let’s develop policies that provide books for children in their homes while we commit to social programs that allow impoverished families the sort of security and opportunities supporting them in their roles as a child’s first teachers.

Let’s not diagnose and then treat impoverished children and their literacy; instead, let’s insure that all children have rich and engaging formal schooling experiences

The deficit gaze fails because it focuses on people and not the conditions within which people find themselves (through no fault of their own).

Regardless of good intentions, we must shift our deficit gaze and begin to ask different questions so we can create new and more humane answers.

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or 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)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.