Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

From Education Week to the Hechinger Report to The Answer Sheet (the latter two typically good sources for education journalism), the media simply cannot resist publishing misguided takes on how we do and should teach reading.

Citing the National Reading Panel as credible (it isn’t), misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy (as somehow anti-phonics), hand-wringing about third-grade reading ability, and taking broad uneven swipes at teacher education—these are the hallmarks of bad journalism and garbled takes (usually with ulterior motives) on the reading wars.

Since I simply cannot continue to make the same points over and over, I suggest below a bit of actual reading to clarify why the media continually misrepresents the reading wars:

Here is a final note worth emphasizing: Phonics-intense and phonics-only reading instruction is a gold mine for textbook publishers, reading program shills, and the testing industry.

Consider carefully the who and why of public commentaries screeching about reading instruction, especially when the arguments are full of easily identifiable holes in their credibility and logic.

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Misreading the Reading Wars Again (and Again)

Here is some incredibly bad edujournalism: Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

And the summary blurb beneath the title takes that to truly awful:

Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.

Now, let me offer a brief rebuttal.

First, the claim that we are not teaching reading as we should is well into its twelfth decade of crisis rhetoric. But the classic example rests at mid-twentieth century: Why Johnny Can’t Read.

That blather was a lie then and it remains a lie today.

I invite you to peruse the work of a literacy educator who taught from the 1920s into the 1970s and left behind decades of scholarship: Lou LaBrant. But the short version is the reading war claim that we are failing reading instruction is a long history of false claims grounded in selling reading programs.

Now let’s be more direct about the bad journalism.

This article cites thoroughly debunked sources—the National Reading Panel (NRP) and a report from NCTQ.

The NRP was a political sham, but it also was not an endorsement of heavy phonics. Please read this unmasking by an actual literacy expert and member of the NRP, Joanne Yatvin: I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report.

NCTQ is a partisan think tank exclusively committed to discrediting teacher education. Their reports, when reviewed, are deeply flawed in methodology and typically misread or misrepresent research in order to reach the only conclusion they ever reach—teacher education is a failure! (Like reading instruction, apparently, has always been.)

I offer here one example of why no NCTQ report should be cited as credible: Review of Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. (See also GUEST POST by Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review.)

NCTQ lacks credibility, but the organization has learned how to manipulate the current state of press-release journalism that simply publishes whatever aggressive organizations are willing to feed journalists desperate for click bait.

As well, the article plays the usual game of misrepresenting whole language and balanced literacy. A more accurate explanation of whole language and balanced literacy exposes a really ugly reason some are so eager to trash both and endorse phonics: the former are not tied to (lucrative) reading programs, but phonics is a veritable cash cow for textbook companies and the testing industry. (Note the NRP and NCLB directly led to a textbook scandal under the Bush administration.)

Although I tire making this point, no one in literacy recommends skipping direct phonics instruction. WL and BL both stress the need for the right amount and right time for direct phonics instruction (depending on student needs) and recognize that most students eventually need rich and authentic whole reading experiences to grow as readers (not phonics rules, not phonics worksheets, not phonics tests).

Finally, however, is the real paradox.

Formal schooling has likely never taught reading well. Little of that has to do with teacher education or teacher buy in. Again, see LaBrant’s work from the 1920s into the 1960s and 1970s; she laments the gap between good research and practice over and over.

Of course, the key point is why are we failing our students and everything we know about teaching reading?

One powerful reason is the accountability movement grounded in standards and high-stakes tests. Reading instruction (like writing instruction) has been corrupted by the all-mighty tests.

Test reading is reductive (and lends itself to direct phonics instruction, hint-hint), but it is a pale measure of deep and authentic reading, much less any student’s eagerness to read.

Because of the accountability movement, then, and because of high-pressure textbook reading programs, we have for decades ignored a simple fact of research: the strongest indicator of reading growth in students is access to books in the home (not phonics programs).

I want to end by addressing the real scapegoat in all this—teacher education.

Full disclosure: I have been working in teacher education for 17 years, after 18 years teaching high school English in public school.

But, I am the first to admit teacher education is quite bad, technocratic, bureaucratic, and mostly mind-numbing.

Teacher education, however, is not the problem because whether or not we are teaching reading research and practices correctly is irrelevant; teacher candidates overwhelmingly report that once they are in the classroom, they are told what to do and how—what they know from teacher education is tossed out the window.

The article is not a powerful call, then, for teaching students to read. It is a standard example of really bad edujournalism.

Ironically, a bit of Googling and reading could have alleviated much of that, but I guess we are asking for too much and may want to blame teacher education and teachers for those journalists’ inability to read.

Recommended

Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

“[A]ll this fiddle”: On Genre Wars in a Time of Craft Beer

Poetry MM

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

Several years ago I was initiated into the craft beer world—having been a serious drinker of beer since high school but being a somewhat resolute low-brow consumer in many ways eschewing the snobbery I witnessed among wine connoisseurs.

Along with my cycling friends Rob and Brian, I made a couple trips to Colorado for bicycling and beer; while on those trips, I was gradually indoctrinated into a more refined understanding of craft beer, mostly guided by Brian.

Today, I frequent local and regional breweries almost exclusively for my beer drinking—along with my one remain low-brow habit of grande Dos Equis ambers a couple times a week at Mexican restaurants.

I remain far too naturally unsophisticated to ever grasp wine nuances, although I have friends who can easily convince me to enjoy wine with them, but my beer palate is moderately well educated, and I do enjoy a wide range of craft beers that I am certain baffles the mostly Bud Light crowd of my hometown and state.

Having come to beer snobbery late in life, I find the distinctions about “good” or “bad” beer quite similar to the genre wars that I have been living since I was a teen since my introduction to so-called literary fiction was significantly primed by my initial love for science fiction (mere “genre” fiction) and comic books (not any sort of literature at all!).

In Literary fiction or genre? When Megan Abbott and Naomi Novik are writing, who cares, Michale Robbins opens by confronting: “If there’s a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction,’ it’s certainly not that the former isn’t literary and the latter isn’t generic. It’s mostly that the generic conventions of the latter are those that critics and professors are trained to value most.”

A former student, who was a top-notch English major and now teaches English, recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and drew the same conclusion—if we remain in a formalist paradigm of what counts as “literary,” then Tartt’s novel may well be pronounced so much popular fiddle.

Yet, as my former student noted, the novel could just as easily be praised if we change our metrics, set aside our snobbery.

John Warner’s Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ really required reading? Disrupt Texts challenges teachers to reconsider the classics also ventures into the debate about such snobberies grounded in the canon:

Much of the discussion among educators focuses on how using these texts can be enhanced by injecting marginalized perspectives. This is the “disrupt” part of Disrupt Texts. Rather than taking a single perspective as representative for all, the discussion challenges the notion of a single, fixed history. This is the root of critical thinking and a pre-requisite to lasting learning.

Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.

Warner’s last point can be extended, I think, to giving students not the right or only lens for evaluating texts (using the often unnamed New Criticism approach to dissecting text often written with New Criticism’s emphasis on craft and meaning in mind) but many and varied opportunities to examine texts in order to draw their own ways to navigate texts (a variety of lens, some more formal such as feminist or Marxist) and their own guidelines for what makes texts compelling, satisfying, and even “good.”

My former student and I continued to discuss her experience with The Goldfinch, the challenges, I noted, of making a really long novel satisfying. Tartt’s work, she said, was enjoyable to read, but she felt it failed in some important ways—ways I categorize as achieving or not that “satisfying.”

This discussion prompted me to think about Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a very long and complex work.

When I first read 1Q84, I was initially drawn to the rotating main characters, but when a third focal character is introduced, I began to feel uncomfortable, a sense that the novels’ cohesion was being compromised.

Also I was uneasy with Murakami’s novel being labeled “science fiction”; I could not see anything about the work as I read it that would make me classify it as that genre (maybe something like fantasy or magical realism?).

I find all of Murakami compelling so I read quite eagerly even as I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the long work would not remain cohesive (I am sure my English training in New Criticism and literary snobbery were in play here as well). However, the work came together, fell into place—although how that happens is at least fantastical (one would argue a convention of genre not literary fiction).

All of this is to say that as an experienced and autonomous reader I have developed capacities for interrogating texts, mostly to determine if I enjoyed the work and the writer.

Some of my formal background as a student and English education major/English teacher actually inhibits my joy as a reader—a reality all too common for students.

The genre wars, then, often create barriers to reading and reading for pleasure.

In Moore’s “Poetry,” her second stanza evokes “high-sounding interpretation,” “unintelligible,” and “we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

Writers, like Moore and others, it seems, do themselves play into the genre wars and all that snobbery, especially about what constitutes the “good” writers as distinct from the hacks. But in the end, writers are mostly about having readers, readers eager to read, readers satisfied by a compelling and cohesive text—wishing for a next story, or book, or essay, or poem.

I cannot shake from my own mind as a reader the importance of texts being satisfying, cohesive. But I also think about my joy as a reader.

Two of the most wonderful texts I have ever read are Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We”  and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—beautiful, compelling works of fiction that depend heavily on so-called genre conventions but rise well above the bar of satisfying (even if we cannot resist the allure of evaluation, whether they are “literature”).

As a reader I am seeking writing that demonstrates purpose, a fidelity, I think, to the sort of writing the writer intends, the sort of text I am choosing to read.

Everything else is just fiddle, like calling Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers.”

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

In one of the last class sessions of my education foundations course, a student I had taught in a first-year writing seminar the semester before posed a question while being nearly exasperated: To paraphrase, she wondered allowed why education had such a problem with how classroom practices often contradict what the research base shows is (for lack of a better term) best practice.

Since I have repeatedly addressed in my public and scholarly work Lou LaBrant’s masterful charge about the historical (and current) “considerable gap” between practice and research, I chose to help walk students through unpacking her question by asking them first who controlled the fields of medicine and law.

We tended to agree that doctors and lawyers mostly (although certainly not exclusively) had the greatest authority and autonomy in their fields.

By contrast, education in the U.S. is primarily public institutions at the K-12 and higher education levels, and thus, education as a discipline is significantly barricaded from education as a practice by legislation, bureaucracy, and a public discourse dominated by disciplines other than education—economics, psychology, and political science.

Embedded in that bureaucracy, we must also note, is the authority of administrators, a subset of eduction as a field that is in many ways disconnected from pedagogy, if not antagonistic to teacher autonomy.

Education as a discipline, then, suffers under the weight of being routinely declared a failure as well as an inadequate field while simultaneously being denied authority and autonomy in its practice, the very thing being used as evidence of its failure.

So, in 2018, we have yet another example of the on-going problem in the so-called publication of record on the field of education, Education WeekWhen It Comes to Public Education, the Nation Is Still at Risk.

Thomas Toch grounds his commentary is a praising and uncritical embracing of A Nation as Risk—although that report has been thoroughly discredited as a partisan hatchet job masquerading as research (see Gerald Holton here and here as well as Gerald Bracey).

Few things better represent all that is wrong with education as a discipline and profession than how A Nation at Risk (as a partisan political sham) came to drive policy by claiming “research” and “scientific” while being any but.

But the relentless bashing of education and then teacher education certainly did not stop with the rise of standards and high-stakes testing in the form of the accountability movement after Reagan; it was reinvigorated under W. Bush, and then Obama doubled down even further.

No Child Left Behind took its cue from A Nation at Risk, in fact.

This brings me to a recent Twitter discussion representing the reading wars debate that will just not die.

Let’s join that sort of in media res with Daniel Willingham refuting some claims made by Carol Black quoting from my blog post:

This Twitter exchange holds almost all of the elements I am confronting in this post: the disciplinary arrogance of economics, psychology, and political science (disciplines that routinely impose themselves in education as if the field dose not exist); the veneer provided by claiming “research” and “scientific” among hard-core phonics advocates; and the irony of the “research” crowd embracing partisan reports that fail as credible research.

First, let me clarify that I have taken a very clear stand against how the media embrace scholars from outside the fields of education and literacy when they arrogantly impose on those fields—for example, Willingham and Mark Seidenberg.

Next, it is illustrative that Willingham’s rebuttal of my criticism, in fact, provides proof of my point: His NYT’s op-ed is both a sweeping discrediting of teachers (since teacher educators are teachers) and, as Toch does, Willingham offers an uncritical embracing of the National Reading Panel (NRP), a partisan hack job powerfully refuted by Joanne Yatvin.

The NRP report serves a different purpose than it intended since it represents how partisan politics combined with unchallenged claims of “research” and “scientific” provide cover for everything that is wrong with the discipline of education being blocked from having authority and autonomy in the practice of education, specifically how reading is taught in US public schools.

If you skim through the discussion after I responded to Willingham, you also witness the problems with the cult of phonics, how advocates for phonics simultaneously beat the drum for “research” and “scientific” while refusing to engage with the field of literacy and reading in an honest way.

For example, whole language and balanced literacy are misrepresented and then those misrepresentations are attacked. Both whole language and balanced literacy are evidence-based approaches to teaching reading that include phonics instruction (just as writing pedagogy includes grammar instruction); however, phonics advocates typically frame them as hostile to phonics as well as not supported by “research” (something dishonestly posed by the NRP).

In other words, this Twitter debate exposes that far too often educational research and practice are highjacked for partisan political and ideological concerns as well as bureaucratic and market ones (phonics advocacy is significantly driven by the textbook and testing industries, for example).

If we return to my student’s question that is echoes in this Twitter debate grounded in Willingham’s sweeping dismissal of teacher education, we are faced with a real dilemma.

LaBrant’s charge that a “considerable gap” exists between evidence and practice exists today, but not in the way or for the reasons stated and implied by Willingham.

Literacy as a sub-discipline of education is not bereft of research, and it is not populated by incompetent professionals who do not know or teach that research base.

Education and literacy scholars are often women, and at its core, the fields suffer from some of the lingering sexism that hovers just beneath why economists, psychologists, and political scientists feel compelled to speak over education as a discipline.

Concurrent with that uncomfortable fact, however, is a damning dynamic captured in Applebee and Langer’s analysis of writing instruction in formal schooling; they concluded something that also explains virtually every problem found in why so many are compelled to declare education a failure: Applebee and Langer discovered that although teachers today know more than ever about best practice in teaching writing (and despite the field of composition being more robust than ever), teachers overwhelmingly disclosed that they are not able to implement that knowledge because of the mandates anchored in standards and high-stakes testing.

As I argued in the Twitter debate, whether or not teacher educators of literacy are teaching as Willingham wants, it doesn’t matter because when teachers enter the field they are being mandated to teach to the tests that measure standards. Teachers in the US have very little to no professional autonomy.

So I want to circle back to the more narrow issue of balanced literacy, a concept rejected by phonics advocates.

At its core, balanced literacy is about having highly expert teachers of literacy who then have the professional autonomy to individualize instruction for all students so that every student excels in literacy.

Intensive phonics programs and textbooks as well as isolated phonics testing (such as DIBELS) are the antithesis of that expertise and professional autonomy—just as the standards and high-stakes testing machine is.

I am not at all dissuaded from my not-so-modest proposal that all disciplines deserve their own autonomy and professionalism, that education has been denied that autonomy and professionalism because of sexism and the corrosive influence of bureaucracy and partisan politics.

This recent Twitter debate captures all that in a way that is relatively concise with many players inadvertently proving my points.

But, alas, I am not hopeful of having made any progress because, you know, I am but a lowly education scholar and practitioner, one mired even lower in the field of literacy.

Sigh.


For Further Consideration

Please note that, like economics, psychology has much to do to keep its own house in order; maybe slamming other disciplines serves as distraction:

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

 

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”