There was a remarkable moment near the end of last week’s ExcelinEd conference in Salt Lake City—one that I never would have thought possible and might have scoffed had someone predicted it, even a few short years ago.
Emily Hanford of American Public Media had just addressed a plenary session of nearly 1,000 education policymakers in a crowded ballroom describing her new podcast, Sold a Story, which follows several years of her reports on the foundational “science of reading.” She described how some of the most popular—and most profitable—approaches to reading instruction in American elementary schools disregard what we know about how children learn to read.
The meeting broke up with a warm round of applause. As attendees started speaking among themselves and heading for the exits, ExcelinEd’s normally circumspect CEO Patricia Levesque stepped to the mic and fired a parting shot. “You all now know that there is something in our schools that’s doing harm to our children, so what are you going to do about it?” she challenged the crowd of policy advocates and elected officials. “Fountas and Pinnell? Lucy Calkins? Reading Recovery and Levelled Literacy Instruction? Get them out of your schools!”
Curriculum and pedagogy have historically taken a backseat to policy prescriptions at most major ed reform conferences, so to see reading instruction get plenary session treatment is a strong indication of a change in the weather. Meanwhile, something approaching panic is settling over the targets of Hanford’s podcast, which Levesque singled out in her cri de coeur. Over the weekend, Calkins was among fifty-eight self-styled literacy greats who signed a critique of Hanford’s podcast that read like a clemency petition. It expressed dismay that Sold a Story creates “a false sense that there is a war going on between those who believe in phonics and those who do not. Systematic phonics instruction is essential.”
University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham captured the mood of many in a Twitter thread responding to the defensive and disingenuous letter, noting that to call the importance of systematic phonics instruction “settled” or characterize the debate as “fabricated” strains credulity. “The whole point of the podcast was that two of the most popular reading programs in the U.S. did NOT treat it as a settled issue,” he wrote.
Advocates for scientifically sound literacy instruction, both in the classroom and in statehouses, clearly have the whip hand: At least twenty-nine states have adopted or are weighing measures aimed at aligning classroom practice with the science of reading, including teacher preparation, teacher certification, and license renewal. At least two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, have banned curriculum that includes “three-cueing,” a discredited teaching technique that encourages students to guess at unfamiliar words instead of sounding them out. As Hanford explains in Sold a Story, three-cueing resembles habits formed by poor readers, not proficient ones.
It is fair to be skeptical that effective classroom practice can be legislated from statehouses. As my AEI colleague Rick Hess often notes, it’s easy to get people to do things, but hard to get them to do it well. Hanford sounded a similar caution to her audience of policymakers. “Just banning something isn’t enough. We have a lot of laws on the books that aren’t accomplishing what they’re supposed to. There are lots of unintended consequences,” she explained. “Don’t let that happen in your states.”
It is also fair to note that there’s very little about the science of reading that has not been known by researchers for quite some time. The current enthusiasm owes much to Hanford, whose breakthrough achievement has been to demonstrate how teachers and school administrators are not sinners, but have been sinned against by ideological schools of education and self-interested commercial publishers. This makes doubly significant her high-profile appearance at ed reform’s biggest conference and her warm embrace by policymakers.
For decades, the implicit logic of standards and test-based reform has been that teachers know what to do; policymakers’ role is to hold them accountable for doing it well. But if teachers have been “sold a story,” then that logic model collapses. It pushes reform from policing outcomes to something closer to teachers’ allies, with a role to play in ensuring that America’s nearly four million teachers are given the training and tools they need to align their instruction with sound practice—arguably a role that reform should have embraced from the start, but better late than never.
Editor’s note: This was first published by the American Enterprise Institute.