Education Week’s recent report, Getting Reading Right, found that the most popular reading curricula in the country are not aligned with settled reading science. The mismatch between practice and science lies mainly in the role of careful phonics instruction in the curricula. Instead of teaching phonics systematically and instructing children to use this method to sound out unfamiliar words, popular reading programs such as Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) emphasize training children to rely on cues to guess words they do not know. Up to 75 percent of early education teachers reported using the “three cues” approach—meaning, structure, and visual. That’s a figleafed version of “whole language” reading instruction.
Such incongruity between teaching practice and scientific consensus is a theme in Natalie Wexler’s 2019 book, The Knowledge Gap. In spite of solid evidence that reading comprehension depends on content knowledge, most schools persist in trying to teach abstract comprehension skills independently of imparting content knowledge. Wexler raises a question that came to my own mind while reading the Ed Week report: Why have teachers’ beliefs about the best way to teach reading persisted in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary?
Echoing the arguments made over twenty years ago by E.D Hirsch in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Wexler locates the resistance to research-based reading pedagogy in the progressive ideology that pervades school cultures and teacher-training programs. Teaching phonics systematically entails the kind of direct instruction that progressive-minded educators disdain, as it’s associated derogatively with “rote memorization.” Hirsch explained that such disdain is the fruit of a hegemonic “Thoughtworld” in American education, rooted in the dogma of naturalism and anti-intellectualism.
Yet in the decades since Hirsch thoughtfully exposed these entrenched intellectual barriers to evidence-based practices, widespread resistance endures. Hirsch’s approach to countering it has been to advance pragmatic arguments, such as showing how the methods supported by it have failed and demonstrating scientifically how alternative methods are more effective in such high-stakes realms as scores on statewide reading assessments. While I believe appeals to the best scientific research about what works are necessary and can be effective for reforming practice, we must also recognize that they may not be adequate for removing ideological obstacles to reform, for a number of reasons.
First, virtually everyone believes that their preferred methods of instruction are sanctioned by science. (Can you think of reform initiative that didn’t claim to be “research-based”?) Popular reading programs that eschew systematic phonics make their own claims, however spurious, to being research-based. For example, the publishers of LLI cite “gold standard” research that shows students taking LLI made gains in reading relative to a control group. Never mind that the assessments used in this study were produced by the same company that owns LLI; when scientific findings resonate with one’s moral vision for how teaching should look, evidence that confirms it will be readily embraced, even if that requires overlooking methodological flaws.
Second, practitioners experience deep cognitive dissonance when they encounter scientific findings supporting methods that contradict their ideological commitments. Resolving this dissonance requires a decision to dismiss one of the conflicting elements. And it’s much easier psychologically to explain away the adverse research finding. When scientific findings contradict one’s moral vision, flaws in the studies will be magnified, so that one’s resistance to practices—for ideological reasons—can be rationalized.
Science philosopher Thomas Kuhn showed us that even in the so-called “hard sciences,” scientific findings only get accepted when they align with the regnant scientific paradigm of the age, which operates much like an ideology (or “Thoughtworld”). Anomalous findings that contradict the paradigm will be written off as “bad data”—more likely the result of some kind of error than a valid conclusion that raises serious doubts about the paradigm. Since the paradigms educators work from arguably have a much stronger political and moral element to them than paradigms in natural sciences, the personal attachments to them may be even stronger, making it harder to for people to reject the paradigm when faced with countervailing data.
Whenever there is cognitive dissonance, people must decide whom and what to trust—the paradigm and its defenders or the findings that threaten it and those that embrace the findings. Disputes about who or what is trustworthy cannot be settled merely by doing more experiments or by logical deduction. Thus, it is not enough for education reformers to appeal to science. We must also challenge flawed ideology directly and make appeals to superior values and beliefs.
This begins with unmasking the commitments people hold and understanding how those commitments affect their practice. In today’s data-driven professional climate, set within a culture that privileges scientific approaches to knowing, educators may not even be aware of their underlying ideological reasons for embracing one approach to reading over another. When attempting to persuade decision-makers to adopt a systematic phonics curriculum, we should anticipate that they may reject it because they believe it is contrary to “natural” learning processes. We will need to bring these deep assumptions to light.
Then we need to be ready to challenge them, mindful that evidence-use is never completely neutral. Evidence is selected, weighed, and interpreted within a framework (another word for paradigm) of beliefs and values. Thus, to win people over to science-based practice, we must also try to change their frameworks. This means aiming for a “conversion”—a fundamental change of mind and faith commitment. Kuhn understood that a paradigm shift in science was akin to religious conversion in that it did not happen in response to an empirical or logical proof, but rather a “decision that can only be made on faith.” Thus, we need to be prepared to persuade educators that their anti-content knowledge views are not just ineffective for teaching reading, but are also untrue, unwise, and thus untrustworthy.
If we neglect to change people’s minds at this level, disputes over pedagogy will continue forever—and best reading practices will continue to be shunned by many—because they may ultimately be proxy battles for a deeper ideological divide, a way of avoiding philosophical debate, which we have seem to have forgotten how to engage in fruitfully. Perhaps we are reluctant to engage in such discourse because we have relativized and privatized our beliefs and values, assuming that if a question cannot be answered conclusively via a randomized control trial, our conflicting positions on it must be a matter of subjective opinion or arbitrary bias. This puts our philosophical commitments outside the realm of reason. But shouldn’t we (and don’t we?) use reason as one tool to guide us when making decisions about whom to trust? Where we place our trust is a matter of judgment. And some judgments are surely more reasonable and responsible than others. For Kuhn, though paradigm conflicts could not be resolved by “proof,” people could be won over to a new paradigm by “persuasion.” Thus, if we agree with Hirsch that reforming the structure of schools requires first reforming the structure of ideas, and if we want to make progress in the battle of “Thoughtworld,” we need to be prepared to argue persuasively for educators to abandon their faith in untrustworthy dogmas and instead put it in better ideas.