The Science of Profits and Propaganda

28 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/28/2022

The Orwellian labeled science of reading (SoR) is not based on sound science. It more accurately should be called “How to Use Anecdotes to Sell Reading Products.” In 1997, congress passed legislation calling for a reading study. From Jump Street, the establishment of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a doomed effort. The panel was given limited time for the study (18 months) which was a massive undertaking conducted by twenty-one unpaid volunteers. The NRP fundamentally did a meta-analysis in five reading domains while ignoring 10 other important reading domains. In other words, they did not review everything and there was no new research. They simply searched for reading studies and averaged the results to give us “the science of reading.”

It has been said that “analysis is to meta-analysis as physics is to meta-physics.”

Setting up the Sale

Nancy Bailey is an expert in special education and early reading instruction. In a recent posting she shared,

“A troubling feature of the Science of Reading (SoR) is the connection between those who believe in the power of phonemes (and more) and those who want to privatize public schools. The old NCLB crowd has been rejuvenated and seems onboard with digital instruction replacing public schools and teachers.

“For example, former gov Jeb Bush has been crusading for the Science of Reading, praising Emily Hanford for her advocacy for the SoR, implying teachers haven’t understood how to teach reading.”

Also in the post by Bailey are links to about 30 companies who sponsored Bush’s reading summit. They are all looking to cash in on the SoR.

Professor Paul Thomas has a deep background in teaching and education research. He spent 20 years in high school English classrooms and another 20 years at Furman University teaching teachers. Thomas recently wrote,

“Those of us in literacy, specifically the field of reading, have been highlighting since 2018 that APM Reports (specifically the work of Emily Hanford) has been misrepresenting both the problems around reading achievement and how to teach reading.

“Hanford and APM Reports are ground zero for the deeply flawed “science of reading” (SoR) movement that now pervades mainstream media.”

Hanford’s status as a reporter at American Public Media (APM) makes her work very damaging. APM is a sister organization to the Public Broad Casting system which has a well earned reputation for being unbiased and accurate.

Hanford is not an expert in education or reading.  In 1994 she earned a BA in English from Amherst College and in 1996 she took a job as a reporter at Chicago’s public media station WBEZ. She has been in the public broadcasting system ever since.

Professor Thomas points out that Hanford’s reporting is biased toward SoR claims that she agrees with and ignores all other evidence. He states,

“As I have pointed out numerous times, there is a singular message to Hanford’s work; she has never covered research that contradicts that singular message.

“For example, not a peep about the major study out of England that found the country’s systematic phonics-first policy to be flawed, suggesting a balanced approach instead.

“And not a peep about schools having success with one of Hanford’s favorite reading programs to demonize.”

Hanford is a glaring symptom of the journalism plague that is infecting public education but hardly the only one. Dana Goldstein continues to write problematic articles for the New York Times. Her writing is also biased towards the privatization agenda as salve for reading education. Her degree from Brown University in European intellectual and cultural history does not make her an expert in education, none-the-less, she regularly gets many inches in the Times to pontificate about it.

Maren Aukerman is an education expert. Professor Aukerman is currently a Werklund Research Professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on literacy education and democratic citizenship. She previously served on the faculty at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her recently published paper in the Literary Research Association focuses on the work of Goldstein, Hanford and others promoting the SoR movement. Aukerman outlined the fundamental message they’re selling,

“a) science has proved that there is just one way of teaching reading effectively to all kids – using a systematic, highly structured approach to teaching phonics;

“b) most teachers rely instead on an approach called balanced literacy, spurred on by shoddy teacher education programs;

“c) therefore, teachers incorporate very little phonics and encourage kids to guess at words;

“d) balanced literacy and teacher education are thus at fault for large numbers of children not learning to read well.

“The problem is not with recognizing that teaching phonics can play a facilitative role in having children learn to read; that insight is, indeed, important, if not particularly new. The problem is that this narrative distorts the picture to the point that readers are easily left with a highly inaccurate understanding of the so-called ‘science of reading.”’

Aukerman points to four fundamental flaws in their journalism: (1) Lack of Balance in Reporting , (2) Sensationalistic “Straw Man” Arguments, (3) A Myopic Lens Fetishizing Phonics Instruction and (4) Logical Fallacies. She gives examples for each of these claims. For example, a Logical Fallacy is not reporting research that shows students taught to read without systematic phonics “read more fluently.”

Mandating Dyslexia Testing and Structured Literacy

In January 2021, California State Senator Anthony Portantino a New Jersey transplant to the San Fernando Valley introduced SB237 which stipulates dyslexia testing for all students, kindergarten through third grade. The legislation also calls on local school districts to use “structured literacy instruction.” Although the bill was not adopted the concepts are still being actively pursued in Sacramento.

Today, forty states mandate dyslexia screening even though there is no consensus on how to define dyslexia. Some researchers even question its existence. Ball State University and University of Texas researchers have joined the chorus of scientists stating, “There are no universally employed measures or procedures for identifying dyslexia.” Commercially available tests misidentify both those that have a disability and those that don’t. Screening expert Dr. Amanda M. Vanderheyden reported that tools like The Shaywitz Dyslexia Screen have error rates of more than 50%. Vanderheyden also stated, “Readers may be surprised to learn that there is not a direct positive relationship between screening assessments and improved reading outcomes.”

Professor Rachael Gabriel makes this important observation about the screening tool Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), “Just like a 20-minute consult with a doctor is always better than health advice from an online calculator, a one-on-one conference with a teacher or reading specialist will always be better than DIBELS at diagnosing and understanding reading difficulty, ability and progress.”

Politicians in a growing number of states are mandating “structured literacy.” It is a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction based on the 1930s theories of Anna Gillingham and Samuel Orton. The advantage of this approach is that it can be easily packaged into commercial products. Both the Department of Education’s clearing house and the International Literacy Association state that this approach is not supported by research.

The Cynical Use of Dyslexia

In their studies, the research teams from Ball State University and the University of Texas noticed that an intricately linked closed circle of organizations are driving dyslexia discourse. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA), the International Multisensory Language Education Council (IMSLEC) and Decoding Dyslexia (DD) are the major players. The study states,

“… IMSLEC started as an IDA committee, and ALTA certifies dyslexia specialists in the multisensory language approach, which in turn is consistent with IDA’s standards for educator preparation in reading (Knowledge and Practice Standards, n.d.). The IDA began certifying teachers in 2016, in addition to accrediting dyslexia teacher training programs.”

DD has parent chapters in every state in the union and they all employ the same language from IMSLEC and IDA in their lobbying materials and mission statements. DD’s parent chapters are able to drive many people out to legislative hearings to testify on behalf of structured literacy programs and commercial dyslexia testing.

Associate Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut Rachael Gabriel has been studying parent engagement with reading issues. In her report, she shares several extracts from the oral and written testimonies given at various legislative sessions on special education. The testimonies are often emotionally delivered anecdotes that support the privatization agenda. In this typical statement, a student claims,

“I have dyslexia. Reading and math are really hard for me. I’ve had too many teachers that don’t understand how to teach me. Finally, this year I went to Lindamood Bell training and reading is getting easier.”

In her paper, Professor Gabriel also noted how parents are told that the public school teachers do not know how to teach reading especially to students with dyslexia. They are informed that dyslexia is often associated with other giftedness, a claim with no evidence other than anecdotal undocumented claims about Einstein and other famous people who are said to have been dyslexic. Those testifying regularly call for the five point DD agenda:

  1. “A universal definition and understanding of ‘dyslexia’ in the state education code.
  2. Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs and appropriate intervention strategies.
  3. Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia.
  4. Mandatory dyslexia remediation programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations.
  5. Access to appropriate ‘assistive technologies’ in the public school setting for students with dyslexia.”

Some of what DD is calling for has been standard practice addressed in teacher education programs for decades. Some of it looks like a call to sell technology which often is worse than useless. Unfortunately, the screening tests will misidentify and harm many students. The call for a universal definition of dyslexia by political edict in education code is anti-science and bizarre.

Conclusions

The SoR 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. The people who were on the NRP were dedicated professionals and the last thing they wanted was to harm reading education yet their report is being used for just that purpose.

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. School districts in most of the nation are starved for cash and administrators look for any way to cut spending. This is the root of the poor service for struggling students.

The answer is to drive more money into early education and insure that teachers are provided with extensive training in reading education. It should be the purview of these trained professionals to screen their students one-on-one for learning problems. Once those evaluations are made, the school staff should be charged with deciding on the appropriate response.

Stop the incessant neoliberal agenda of monetizing everything.

11 Responses to “The Science of Profits and Propaganda”

  1. Garden Variety December 28, 2022 at 5:27 pm #

    Great article here Tom!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A.Mick January 10, 2023 at 6:30 am #

      This blog entry is confusing to me. I honestly cannot figure out how you are defining this science of reading. You name the NRP, Emily Hanford, parent groups, and private companies that sell education products. Are they (collectively) what you term the science of reading?

      Like

      • tultican January 10, 2023 at 1:34 pm #

        No. They are collectively profiting off promoting the bogus science of reading which fundamentally concentrates on teaching only decoding through phonics instruction.

        Like

      • Garden Variety January 13, 2023 at 2:48 am #

        No. They are groups advocating for reading instruction that doesn’t work. You may wish to read the article again. Please do not take offense to this. I’ve been an educator for a long, long time, and there is a lot to unpack here. Nevertheless, Tom’s analysis is spot-on. And if you want to better understand how reading instruction has been hijacked in our classrooms, you’ll want to better understand his argument. I recommend you start with Wexler’s The Content Gap (book). This would be a terrific read to get a base for what Tom wrote in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading Intervention Teacher December 29, 2022 at 5:33 pm #

    A parent comment on the SoR Facebook group page: Teachers in North Texas, are there any schools that don’t use Lucy Calkins reading and writing workshop? I have learned so much from this group after pulling my 3rd grader (who had massivie covid gaps and has know been identified as dyslexic. He has dysgraphia also.) Structured literacy and structured writing has been WONDERFUL for him. But I want to support public schools and while homeschooling is best for my oldest, for my son about to start kinder, he WANTS to go to school so bad and that may be what’s best for him. But, the district seems to be doubleling down on the LC “new” stuff and just adding in Heggarty for PA. So I looked at the other districts you can transfer too… they all “beleive” in balanced literacy and put it on their websites. My youngest is in pre-k and wants to learn to read. He just turned 5 so I am looking at starting Logic of English Foundations with him…but if he goes to kinder I don’t want him learning their lists of sight words, coming home with non-decodale readers and learning 3 queing etc. Any schools that don’t’ use it? Or any advice for navigating this? Our schools are unlikely to change at this point.

    Like

  3. Frida Brunzell January 6, 2023 at 8:28 pm #

    I’m a longtime Democrat and I’m also a mom to a boy with severe dyslexia. I’ve worked hard to help my son and kids who are struggling like him. I’m also a scientist and an engineer and I’ve spent a decade reading about brain research and dyslexia. Your article is sadly filled with factual misinformation. Dyslexia is well defined, there is consensus among researchers on how to teach reading (it’s not just about phonics), and just because some republicans support these measures doesn’t mean it’s not correct. The bills to support evidence-based dyslexia interventions, dyslexia screening etc were all written by democrats. This is actually an area where legislators from both sides generally agree. Mississippi that went from the lowest reading scores to average over just a few years is an example that these methods work and that tracing strategies like guessing and looking at pictures does not. I’ve seen my son make no progress with whole language methods to thriving and making amazing progress with OG at a small local private school for dyslexia. He is not the only one. Please read Stanislas Dehaene’s book “Reading in the Brain” and Sally Shaywitz “Overcoming Dyslexia” for more information about the research related to reading.

    Like

    • tultican January 6, 2023 at 11:29 pm #

      Hi Frida, I am sure you believe what you have written here but I must disagree. I have read a least 10 peer reviewed papers where researchers with deep experience claimed that there is no agreed upon definition for dyslexia. In the article, I linked many of those articles.

      You claim my article is filled with factual misinformation, however, you give no evidence other than the easily refuted claim that dyslexia is well defined.

      Your son may well have made amazing progress once he was in a small school using the OG method. That is called anecdotal evidence. There are other people who claim they were not helped by OG but were helped when they received a more balance approach and personal instruction. The import thing is that small settings with individualized teaching seems to be the key and the method in less important.

      I am bothered by the mandates to buy testing that is suspect and mandates that some companies reading products are used in all schools.

      Like

      • Frida Brunzell January 7, 2023 at 2:03 am #

        The people who claim that the science of reading doesn’t work are typically proponents of whole language, for example F&P, Lucy Calkins etc. They claim that children should use “cues” and “work like detectives” to figure out words. The “strategies” taught are looking at pictures, making your mouth ready etc. They think that teaching children to sound out words is not necessary. There is absolutely no independent research to support that this is how we best learn to read! Instead there is lots of evidence from functional MRI and other brain scanning that we learn to read by figuring out the letter – sound correlation. This happens in the brain’s so called “letter box”. The eyes see a string of letters, the signal then goes to the visual cortex, then to the letter box area and then to areas that handle the spoken language and meaning. Children need to be proficient in spoken language and in decoding to be good readers.
        Dyslexia can be diagnosed in children as young as five years old with 95% accuracy. About 10-15% of people have dyslexia (it’s on a spectrum) and they need explicit reading instruction to have any chance. OG follows the science of reading and it is what is used at basically all private schools for dyslexia and learning disabilities in this country. Children with dyslexia often also have other disabilities such as ADHD and auditory processing disorder, and a skilled teacher or tutor knows that some children need to practice fundamental skills before they can benefit from Orton-Gillingham. Also, OG is an approach, not a program and there are some programs that are higher quality than others.
        Schools can save a lot of money by identifying struggling readers early and by using evidence-based reading programs. Less than 50% of fourth graders read at grade level in California. We know what to do to solve that problem, we just don’t do it.

        Like

      • tultican January 7, 2023 at 6:31 pm #

        This is just off base. Almost none of it is true. Please check your sources and stop sending out this kind of misinformation.

        Like

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