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Radical Eyes for Equity: Contrarian Truths About Public Education and Student Achievement

“The 2022 NAEP results show that the average reading score for fourth graders is lower than it has been in over 20 years. For eighth and twelfth graders, average scores are at about a 30-year low,” states Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) in his new literacy report, adding, “The 2022 NAEP LongTerm Trend assessment for nine-year-old students showed average reading scores not seen since 1999.”

Cassidy’s alert about a reading crisis fits into dozens and dozens of media articles announcing crises and failures among students, teachers, and public schools all across the US. Typical of that journalism was Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times about a year ago:

One of the most bearish statistics for the future of the United States is this: Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient in reading.

Reading may be the most important skill we can give children. It’s the pilot light of that fire.

Yet we fail to ignite that pilot light, so today some one in five adults in the United States struggles with basic literacy, and after more than 25 years of campaigns and fads, American children are still struggling to read. Eighth graders today are actually a hair worse at reading than their counterparts were in 1998.

One explanation gaining ground is that, with the best of intentions, we grown-ups have bungled the task of teaching kids to read. There is growing evidence from neuroscience and careful experiments that the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and that we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics.

Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It

As I have noted, education and reading crises have simply been a fact of US narratives since A Nation at Risk. But as I have also been detailing, these claims are misleading and manufactured.

In fact, a report from the progressive NPE and an analysis from the conservative Education Next offer contrarian truths about public education and student achievement, neither of which is grounded in crisis rhetoric or blaming students, teachers, and schools for decades of political negligence.

Based on NAEP data—similar to Cassidy’s report—Shakeel and Peterson offer a much different view of student achievement in the US, notably about reading achievement:

A Half Century of Student Progress Nationwide

This analysis demonstrates that the current reading crisis is manufactured, exclusively rhetorical and ideological, generating profit for media, politicians, and commercial publishers.

In short, the manufactured crises are distractions from the other contrarian truth about education as highlighted in the analysis from NPE:

Public Schooling in America


This educational grading from NPE is unique because it doesn’t grade students, teachers, or public school, but holds political leadership accountable for supporting universal public education and democracy. The standards for these grades include the following:

  • Privatization Laws: the guardrails and limits on charter and voucher programs to ensure that taxpayers and students are protected from discrimination, corruption, and fraud.
  • Homeschooling Laws: laws to ensure that instruction is provided safely and responsibly.
  • Financial Support for Public Schools: sufficient and equitable funding of public schools.
  • Freedom to Teach and Learn: whether state laws allow all students to feel safe and thrive at school and receive honest instruction free of political intrusion.

These two examples come from contrasting ideologies, yet they offer contrarian truths about public schools and student achievement that would better serve how we talk about schools and student achievement as well as how we seek ways in which to reform those schools in order to better serve those students and our democracy.


Big Lies of Education: Reading Proficiency and NAEP

Big Lies of Education: A Nation at Risk and Education “Crisis”

Opinion: Should California schools stick to phonics-based reading ‘science’? It’s not so simple

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

Accordingly, when policymakers explore new guidelines,
they would be wise to do the following:

• Be wary of overstatements and oversimplifications within media and public advocacy, acknowledging concerns raised but remaining skeptical of simplistic claims about causes and solutions.

• Attend to known influences on measurable student reading achievement, including the socioeconomics of communities, schools, and homes; teacher expertise and autonomy; and teaching and learning conditions.

• Recognize student-centered as an important research-supported guiding principle but also acknowledge the reality that translating such research-based principles into classroom practice is always challenging.

• Shift new reading policies away from prescription and mandates (“one-size-fits-all” approaches) and toward support for individual student needs and ongoing teacher-informed reform.

In rethinking past efforts and undertaking new reforms, policymakers should additionally move beyond the ineffective cycles demonstrated during earlier debates and reforms, avoid ing specific mandates and instead providing teachers the flexibility and support necessary to adapt their teaching strategies to specific students’ needs. Therefore, state policymakers should do the following:

• End narrowly prescriptive non-research-based policies and programs such as:

o Grade retention based on reading performance.
o High-stakes reading testing at Grade 3.
o Mandates and bans that require or prohibit specific instructional practices, such as systematic phonics and the three-cueing approach.
o A “one-size-fits-all” approach to dyslexia and struggling readers.

• Form state reading panels, consisting of classroom teachers, researchers, and other literacy experts. Panels would support teachers by serving in an advisory role for teacher education, teacher professional development, and classroom practice. They would develop and maintain resources in best practice and up-to-date reading and literacy research.

On a more local level, school- and district-level policymakers should do the following:

• Develop teacher-informed reading programs based on the population of students served and the expertise of faculty serving those students, avoiding lockstep implementation of commercial reading programs and ensuring that instructional materials support—rather than dictate—teacher practice.

• Provide students struggling to read and other at-risk students with certified, experienced teachers and low student-teacher ratios to support individualized and differentiated instruction.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...