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The Four Fallacies of the Media’s Representation of Literacy

Published On: March 19th, 2024 | Categories: Latest News |

The following is a publication from a group of Concerned Educators in Massachusetts 2024, urging state legislators to resist a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy instruction. “If not done well,” they share, “policy decisions related to reading curriculum and instruction could permanently damage the positive change you hope to effect—a child’s ability and desire to read.” While citing Massachusetts-specific examples, this document reflects the concerns of literacy educators nationwide and is relevant in many states where restrictive literacy legislation is taking hold.

The “Proficiency” Fallacy

“Proficiency” is one of the most misused statistics in education, according to Peter Green, and we agree. Those invested in the narrative that public schools are failing like to quote the NAEP scores.

As outlined on the National Center for Educational Statistics website, in 2022, the average score of fourth-grade students in Massachusetts was 227—higher than the average score of 216 for students in the nation. The average score for students in MA in 2022 (227) was lower than their average score in 2019 (231) and was not significantly different from their average score in 1998 (223). This trend has been seen nationwide.

Learning was disrupted during the pandemic, and we know that teachers make a difference, so it comes as no surprise to see lower post-pandemic scores. Dr. Catherine Snow, a language and literacy pioneer at Harvard, says she’s “puzzled by the public discourse about a literacy crisis.” The NAEP data declined even more in math than reading, with the sharpest declines for the students below the 50th percentile who relied more heavily on support services, suggesting other factors are at play.

The “Science is Settled” Fallacy 

Popular media suggests that the science is settled on literacy, and public schools got it wrong. Journalists reference the Simple View of Reading (1986) as “the settled science.” The Simple View demonstrates the importance of both phonics and language comprehension for skilled reading, but there’s more to the story. A reliance on science from the 80’s ignores important advancements in the past 30+ years.

The most current research is far more nuanced, taking into account factors such as executive functioning skills, motivation, and sociocultural context.  Well-respected researchers in the field of literacy are wary of curriculum developers who claim alignment with the SOR in order to sell products. For example, Nell Duke (2020) cautions that “research being cited is out of date… and we have to be careful not to oversimplify.” Recent key developments in the science of reading include Disrupting Racism and Whiteness in the Science of Reading, and in-depth explorations of culturally destructive literacy practices which pose specific critiques of several of the DESE’s  approved “high quality” curricula.

The “One Size Fits All” Fallacy 

School systems are being asked to trade in their classroom libraries and adopt a one-size-fits-all reading curriculum. One size does not fit all in literacy instruction. Teachers use a variety of methods and tools to reach each learner.

In our school districts, the core curriculum and instructional strategies are research-based and address the standards for teaching and learning, as outlined in the MA ELA Curriculum Frameworks. Classroom literacy instruction includes the essential components of reading (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary), integrates writing and emphasizes comprehension across diverse, grade-level, complex texts.

From a recent NY Times article: “I stopped looking for these silver bullets,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent in Los Angeles, which has seen above-average recovery compared with the rest of California, including strong recoveries for Black and Hispanic children. “More often than not, it is the compound effect of good strategies.”

The “Proven High Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM)” Fallacy 

In Massachusetts, Bill S.263, “An Act to Promote High Quality Literacy Instruction,” is wending its way through the legislature. This bill, similar to those in other states, would force MA school districts to choose from a narrow list of curricula largely limited to basal anthologies without opportunities for teacher and student choice. Most do not realize that if the bill is successful, MA school districts would be unable to comply because none of the approved curricula have a demonstrated level of success (or “Impact on Learning” rating.)

For the past three years DESE has advocated for districts to select a curriculum from this HQIM list, but they have yet to publish data for districts where this shift has made a continuous impact on student learning. If there were irrefutable gains in student outcomes, it would be logical to change to a new curriculum. In the absence of proven results, we believe it’s best to leave educational decisions to local educators who understand the needs of their students. We urge our legislators to demand a thorough and rigorous educational review of any potential mandated or recommended curricula.


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