Can You Believe It? In Ohio, the Science of Reading Has Been Proposed as Part of the Governor’s Budget

The battle over the “science of reading” was formally launched a couple of weeks ago in Ohio as part of Governor Mike DeWine’s budget proposal. The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reports: “In introducing his two-year budget proposal late last month, DeWine planted his flag with the so-called ‘science of reading’ camp that requires students to break down words into parts and sound them out and incorporate phonics and vocabulary lessons. His budget proposal contains $162 million over the next two years to get the science of reading instructional approach into all of Ohio’s public schools.”

My biggest concern about the die-hard promoters of the “science of reading” is that they utterly neglect the role of experienced public school teachers. Lobbyists promote the idea that kids learn to read according to whatever reading program or curriculum their school district purchases. The politicians listen to the lobbyists instead of the teachers who have been trained to teach reading. It has become an ugly habit here in Ohio for our political leaders to disdain and blame teachers.

Both of my children experienced formal reading instruction in the first grade class of Marlene Karkoska in a public elementary school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Miss Karkoska did include phonics in her reading instruction, but she also included lots of fun.  And in that elementary school, the students spent a period in the school library every week when Carol Lee May, a certified school librarian, read them books and helped them choose books that fed their own curiosity and interests. As students got older, there were also all-school reading projects like the time everybody read and talked about Brian Jacques’ Redwall fantasy adventure series. As a mom, I got tired of hearing about the villains in these novels—rats, foxes, ferrets, weasels, and stoats—but the students loved the suspense. My son and his friends spent a lot of time speculating about how the books would work out in the end, and at the same time they confronted a relatively advanced vocabulary. There was some phonics in the reading curriculum, but the rest of all this reading activity was led by teachers who knew how to motivate students to read and read some more.

In Ohio there has been considerable lobbying going on about Governor DeWine’s proposed new reading curriculum. The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock describes political pressure from Dee Bagwell Haslam, who with her husband, Jimmy, runs the Haslam Sports Group, “which owns the Cleveland Browns and Columbus Crew soccer team.” The Haslams “have given DeWine and (Lieutenant Governor) Husted’s campaign over $115,000 since 2017….” Dee Bagwell Haslam also serves on the board of Jeb Bush’s education think tank, ExcelinEd, which promotes not only the Science of Reading curriculum but also the Third-Grade-Reading Guarantee, which mandates holding kids back in third grade if they have not scored “proficient” on the state’s third-grade achievement test.  Last year, after the Ohio House voted 82-10 to stop the requirement that students be held back and the State Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to end the Third Grade Guarantee, the Ohio Senate neglected to take up the bill, which died at the end of the legislative session.

Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd is by no means the only lobby behind such policies. The Thomas Fordham Institute, a prominent lobbyist at the Ohio Legislature, also promotes the science of reading. On Tuesday of last week, one of Fordham’s policy analysts, Jessica Poiner predicted what she believes is the policy the legislature will pass and pay for with the money in DeWine’s budget for the science of reading. I suspect that Poiner understands DeWine’s reading plan because the Fordham Institute may be the author of the plan.

Poiner explains: “DeWine has a three-step plan. First, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) will be charged with creating a list of high-quality core curriculum and instructional materials in English language arts, as well as a list of evidence-based reading intervention programs, that are aligned with the science of reading. Second, public schools will be required to use the materials and programs that appear on this list—and only those on the list—starting in the 2024–25 school year. Unless schools apply to ODE for a waiver (which they are permitted to do on an individual student basis in certain circumstances), they are forbidden from using any curriculum, materials, or reading intervention programs that utilize the three-cueing approach, which encourages students to make predictions and use context clues to identify words. Third, DeWine has pledged to provide funding to each school to pay for curriculum based on the science of reading.” (Underlining is mine.)

Poiner adds that DeWine has put enough money in his budget to pay for professional development and training to ensure that teachers know how to use the method he is imposing and to buy the “materials and programs” based on the “science of reading” approach.

I worry when politicians start prescribing policy based on campaigns by advocates who seek to promote their own theories and also to sell the programs and textbooks and materials they produce. Tom Ultican, a California teacher-blogger commented in December about the problem with this kind of partnership: “The Science of Reading movement is another example of oligarch spending diminishing professionalism in education. The combination of arrogance and too much money in a few hands is a disaster. It is probably true that many students with issues learning to read are not being well served, but turning to products from private companies to save the day is a mistake.”

Academic researchers recognize that helping children read is far more complex than buying a particular curriculum or set of materials.  In a brief prepared for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Furman University’s Paul Thomas summarizes the decades-long battle over the teaching of reading, and responds: “Scholars and literacy educators have… conducted extensive research…. In contrast to much of the public debate and policymaking, these researchers have found reading instruction and learning to be complex…. Overall, this robust research base supports policies and approaches that acknowledge a range of individual student needs and that argue against ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescriptions…  Among literacy educators and scholars, then, important reading debates continue but… without any identified silver-bullet solutions. The public debate is different. Since 2018, the phrase ‘science of reading’ has been popularized as loosely defined shorthand for the broad and complex research base characterizing how children learn to read and how best to teach reading. Simplifying the issue for the public and for political readers, and failing to acknowledge the full complement of research findings, prominent members of the education media have used the term… often as pro-phonics versus no phonics. Various types of vendors have also found the shorthand term ‘science of reading’ highly useful in branding and marketing specific phonics-oriented reading and literacy programs.”

Thomas recommends that policymakers “end narrowly prescriptive non-research-based policies and programs such as grade retention based on reading performance, high-stakes reading testing at Grade 3, mandates and bans that require or prohibit specific instructional practices, (and) ‘a one-size-fits all’ approach to dyslexia and struggling readers.”

Last week, progressive educator Steve Nelson published a wonderful blog post on the latest battle in the reading wars: “(S)eparating whole language from phonics is pointless. Reading is both things… Poor children in the United States have far fewer books…. Then they go to schools, often hungry, with unwieldy class size…. One unsurprising study about superior literacy levels in Finland mentioned class sizes as small as 8-10 compared to 30-40 in many urban American schools.”

Nelson concludes: “And we have a phonics problem? In many ways, we are a failing society. Income, wealth and opportunity are increasingly inequitably distributed. Education is the secret to upward mobility, most politicians claim. Then they bash teachers, cut budgets, and support charter and voucher schemes that further exacerbate inequality. We don’t have a phonics problem. We have racism/poverty/equity problems and we won’t solve our literacy woes until we honestly address those issues.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Hancock quotes the President of the Ohio Education Association, Scott DiMauro in what seems the most sensible response to Governor DeWine’s fixation on the science of reading: “Things tend to be dramatically oversimplified for political purposes… I don’t know of any teachers who are 100% pro-phonics or anti-phonics, pro whole language or anti whole language… I think the evidence is there are a whole lot of components of reading instruction that are all important in order to help students, and we’ve got to trust teachers to use their expertise to identify the specific needs of the students they serve.”


New York’s Alliance for Quality Education Urges Cuomo to Invest in Public School Equity

These days, by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization, politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the very real problems that affect achievement at school—problems of child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in state budgets.   This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia.

But nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking school teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

In his State of the State address today Governor Cuomo, who just won a second term as Governor, is scheduled formally to announce his priorities for 2015, including his plans for public education.  Here is how the NY Times describes the lead-up to Cuomo’s scheduled speech: “In speeches, interviews and a letter over the last few weeks, the governor has said that he thinks New York State’s teacher grading system, only in its third year, is too easy to pass, making it too difficult to fire underperforming teachers. He has suggested that a current limit on the number of charter schools needs to be raised or eliminated. He has also expressed support for a tax credit for people and companies donating money to public schools and private school scholarships.  All of those positions are opposed by the teachers’ unions, and they, along with advocates of charter schools and other groups that back those changes, have already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars this month to television advertisements in New York City and Albany, leading up to Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State speech….”

Last week the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), in collaboration with the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action, released Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, a report that accuses Governor Cuomo, through the budgets he has signed, of widening the gap in investment between wealthy and poor school districts, despite a promise at the beginning of his first term to make school funding more equitable.

AQE reports that as the centerpiece of the remedy in a 2006 ruling in the school funding equity lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. New York (CFE), the state agreed to add $5.5 billion in new Foundation Aid over the next four years.  The state honored its commitment in  2007 and 2008 but between 2009 and 2013,  the state froze funding and cut school aid.  Inadequate state budgets resulted in the loss of almost 40,000 educators and other staff and in widespread reductions in curricular offerings in New York’s poorest school districts.

While as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.  There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”  Despite these words, according to the new AQE report, during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history.  Tragically the money that was promised in 2007 to keep closing this gap was only delivered for two years and then Governor Cuomo led the legislature to stop funding CFE and the gap widened again.”

Examining one measure of unequal outcomes for students in poor and wealthy districts, AQE tracks high school graduation and notes that from 2005 to 2014, the disparity in graduation rates between the poorest and the wealthiest school districts has hovered consistently between 25 percent and 27 percent. AQE declares, “While there are many factors that contribute to unequal outcomes—particularly the contrasting impacts of poverty and wealth on every aspect of children’s lives—educational resources are the essential ingredients schools provide to close the gap in educational outcomes.  These resources include pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum including art, music and physical education as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, mentoring and supports to strengthen teachers, programs for English language learners, and social, emotional and health supports to meet the diverse needs of students.”

AQE recommends that Governor Cuomo and the state of New York improve public schools through five measures: fulfill the commitment to universal full-day pre-kindergarten; make a serious commitment to community schools; focus on high quality curriculum for all students, not testing; meet the needs of English language learners; and close the inequality gap by fully funding schools. The report concludes: “New York’s wealthiest districts are able to offer tremendous curricula with course offerings that include Tournament Debate, Advanced Placement Art History, Advanced Placement Chinese, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Wall Street: How to Become a Millionaire, and Personal Law (complete with mock trials).  These same districts often offer dozens of options in arts, music and performing arts.  Meanwhile students in poor communities are fortunate to have a few options for AP courses, are lucky to have more than one foreign language offered, and have seen cutbacks in their limited offerings of art, music, and high school electives.”

The battle over educational equity in New York is a microcosm of what is happening across many states and at the federal level as Congress debates a strategy to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.  In New York the battle lines are clearly drawn. Should our society strengthen opportunity by investing in improving the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of our children?  Or should we pretend, as Governor Cuomo seems to do, that we can base education policy on making tougher the evaluation of teachers and creating more charter schools so that some children can escape?

Structural Racism: A Bleak Educational Future for Poor Children in America’s Metropolitan Areas

In one of the essays in Twenty-First Century Color Lines (2009), Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, confront the idea that our greatest social challenges are the result of the attitudes and behaviors of individuals.  Grant-Thomas and powell write instead about structural racism—the way the primary institutions of our society privilege some groups of people and constrain opportunity for others.  They define structural racism: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (p. 124)

Richard Rothstein has just published a fascinating piece in the fall issue of The American Prospect, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping, over the decades of the twentieth century, of structural racism in greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs.  Rothstein examines the forces that shaped the Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot this summer and where mass protests followed.  Rothstein’s piece is an eloquently engaging story of the growth and aging of a community. He concludes with this summary of decades of public policies—many of them promoted by the federal government—that have supported segregation, inequality and resegregation, not only in Ferguson and greater St. Louis but also across so many of America’s big cities: “St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.  When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses.  African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves. ”  (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Rothstein reminds us that the trends created by all these factors were then interpreted by a society used to personal racial stereotyping in ways that condemn the victims: “Whites observing the ghetto concluded that slum conditions were characteristics of black families, not of housing discrimination. Government policy thus created stereotypes that spurred ‘white flight.'”

Rothstein does not dwell on the implications for Ferguson, Missouri’s public schools, except to acknowledge that in a society where suburban jurisdictional boundaries combine with long-standing housing segregation by both race and economics, it is to be expected that extreme racial and economic segregation in public schools would persist.

We should wonder, however, how history, from the point of view of racial justice, will judge today’s school “reform.”  What will be the long term effects of the massive school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia?  What about the conversion of New Orleans to an all charter school district?  Once America’s big-city school districts are torn apart, how shall we reconstruct the political will for publicly funded mass education in our poorest communities?  Will we ever choose to rebuild institutions as systemic and comprehensive as the public school districts we have destroyed?

And what about today’s federal and state policies that push accountability by test-and-punish, rank-and-rate?  The very highest-scoring school districts—now ranked “A” or  “excellent” from state to state—are school districts in wealthy enclaves where the children bring the effects of their trips to the library and their music lessons and their travels and their computers with them to school.  What does it mean that federal test-and-punish policy, as filtered by the state rating systems, is condemning the schools in our poorest communities and conflating privilege with supposed school quality in places where all the children are wealthy?  Like our twentieth century counterparts, however, we blame the victims—in this case the public school teachers.

Back in 2005, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy warned that the racial and economic implications would emerge as a serious moral concern in the policies prescribed by the federal  No Child Left Behind Act:  “The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as ‘in need of improvement.’ Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.”

While today’s school “reformers” may not have intentionally set out to calcify racial and economic segregation and while as always we are bent on blaming individuals, there is no question that the effect will be to encourage those with wealth to buy homes in expensive, homogenous enclaves with highly rated schools and those who cannot afford to move up or move out to scramble in what is becoming a privatized competitive educational marketplace in poor communities where charters and vouchers are expanding—a marketplace that lacks the capacity to protect the rights of the students. Public education will be increasingly rationed through the metropolitan housing market along with privatized choices in poor communities for the parents who are savvy enough to be able to scramble to secure a place for their children.  Will we permit these markets to become the structures that define the way our society educates its children.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the scenario: “Aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further….  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)