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Radical Eyes for Equity: Forty Years of Failure: When Caricature Drives Education Reform in Post-Truth America

Reporting for NPR about A Nation at Risk, Anya Kamenetz (2018) noted:

When it appeared in April 1983, the report received widespread coverage on radio and TV. President Reagan joined the co-authors in a series of public hearings around the country.

The report’s narrative of failing schools — students being out-competed internationally and declining educational standards — persists, and has become an entrenched part of the debate over education in the U.S.

Years later, writing for The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post, James Harvey (2023) explains that the report under Reagan was “gaslighting” for political purposes, and not the clarion call to address education reform that media, the public, and political leaders claimed. In short, A Nation at Risk was a “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1997).

Yet, education reform has become a central focus of the political agendas for governors and presidents since the 1980s, reaching a critical peak under George W. Bush who turned the discredited “Texas Miracle” (Haney, 2000) into groundbreaking and bipartisan federal legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In fact, public education in the US has been under an intense public and political microscope over forty years of high-stakes accountability. For educators, that accountability is indistinguishable regardless of the political party in the White House. The Obama administration in many ways continued and even doubled down on the crisis/miracle rhetoric found under W. Bush (Thomas, 2015).

Below, I examine how the current 40-plus year cycle of accountability reform in education represents the power of fake news and post-truth rhetoric to shape not only our perceptions of education, students, and teachers but also the policies and practices we implement in our schools to the detriment of teaching and learning. The following false narratives—fake news since these stories are nested in and perpetuated by the media and political rhetoric—are interrogated: the use of caricature in criticism of education, A Nation at Risk, reading crises, student reading proficiency and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, balanced reading, the “science of reading” (SOR) and phonics advocacy, teacher knowledge and teacher education, and the crisis/miracle cycles of education criticism and reform.

Who controls the stories is central to who maintains power in the US. Public beliefs are created by the stories media and political rhetoric offer regardless of the facts or credibility in those stories. In education, fake news has been central to those stories well before the popular consideration of “fake news” and “post-truth” associated with Trump era politics.

Fake News, Post-Truth, and the Accountability Era of Education Reform as Caricature

“Fake news” as a term has an interesting history and represents how words and terms often shift in their meaning when they expand out from a narrow technical meaning to popular usage; also, once a word enters popular usage, we are wasting a great deal of energy if we persist in arguing “That’s not what the word means” (a good example being “epitome”).

However, “fake news” originally referred to online news stories that were intentionally fabricated to drive clicks and revenue; these stories were almost entirely false and often included provocative images and headlines—and the creators typically removed these false stories when revenue traffic dwindled. Once “fake news” entered the media and popular discourse, the term broadly identified false claims in news or public/political speech; eventually, during the Trump era, Trump and other conservatives co-opted the term as a paradoxical weapon, calling anything “fake news” that contradicted their ideological agendas (Goering & Thomas, 2018). 

Because of these developments, we are in a post-truth era in which using the term “fake news” can mean either exposing false claims or masking false claims behind rhetorical histrionics. None the less, we must pull back from this current and convoluted status of “fake news” to place how we arrived here and to avoid framing either “fake news” or “post-truth” as an essentially Trump-based phenomenon. Consider, for example, how mainstream media has worked historically and currently in terms of shaping public narratives not grounded in valid evidence.

In 2017, the New York Times published an article shaming poor people for their grocery shopping habits (O’Connor, 2017), speaking into the “Food Stamp Fables” that were immediately debunked by a scholar of public service who cited and corrected the journalist’s misrepresentation of a USDA report (Soss, 2017). Further, the NYT’s article is eerily like a parody article in The Onion (Woman a leading authority, 2014) that offers an excellent window into how popularly held beliefs allow compelling stories to trump evidence, facts, and valid claims (Thomas, 2019a). There is a long history of media and political rhetoric speaking into and perpetuating false stories to appease and attract their customers and their voters.

Although the sections below examine in detail how the “science of reading” (SOR) education reform movement reflects the power of “fake news” to drive public perception and policy, that movement is paralleled by another powerful example of narratives, especially false stories, in media, public, and political discourse—the book banning and anti-CRT (Critical Race Theory) movement. At the core of book and curriculum bans is the use of “caricature”:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school. (Pollock & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

From Rush Limbaugh to Christopher Rufo (Beauchamp, 2023), conservative pundits have refined a strategy that involves misidentifying a term or phenomenon without credible evidence, but then moving quickly to attacking that misidentification as factual. This ideological use of “caricature” is a subset of “fake news” that is extremely effective, especially over the four decades of high-stakes education reform.

A Nation at Risk: The Original Manufactured Crisis

Ground zero of the use of caricature/fake news to drive public opinion about education and then a constantly recurring cycle of education reform (initially at the state level and then the federal level with NCLB) is the Reagan-era report, A Nation at Risk. What that report represents, however, is not credible evidence that US education was an international failure or that the US was on the precipice of collapse due to a crumbling education system, but a blueprint for politicizing education and education reform for partisan gain.

Many scholars have discredited A Nation at Risk as political propaganda, an effort by Reagan to shift public opinion in support of conservative agendas (school choice, prayer, etc.) regardless of the evidence about educational quality in public schools (Bracey, 2003; Holton, 2003). Over the past 20-plus years as well, A Nation at Risk has been characterized as a “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1997) and “gaslighting” (Harvey, 2023). In short, announcing that the US was a “nation at risk” due to educational failures was both an extremely compelling story for media, public, and political consumption and a series of claims that represent the power of fake news to mask and even erase more nuanced and credible explanations for education quality as well as needed educational reform.

Although the report has been repeatedly discredited, the story has established a recurring belief that public schools, teachers, and students are failing as a crisis level in the US; further, we have entered several decades of perpetual reform. The narrative created by A Nation at Risk has some enduring elements:

  • Educational failure is grounded in the educational system itself, and thus, education reform has been in-school-only reform policies.
  • Identifying systemic societal, community, and home influences on measurable student learning is rejected as using poverty/inequity as an “excuse.”
  • Teachers are simultaneously the most important factor in education and the agents of failure due to poor training and/or low expectations for marginalized student populations.
  • The rhetoric is grounded in crisis/miracle binary.
  • Policies tend to be one-size-fits all solutions to overstated and unsupported problems.

A Nation at Risk has become the education “fake news” reform template, then, for a (never-ending) series of education crises that politicians must address.

The discussion to follow details how the SOR movement depends on and perpetuates that “fake news” template, as outlined by Aukerman (2022a):

From how much of the media tells it, a war rages in the field of early literacy instruction. The story is frequently some version of a conflict narrative relying on the following problematic suppositions:

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.

And as I have documented (Thomas, 2022b), the following elements of the media SOR story are misleading or “fake news”:

  • The US has a reading crisis because of reading programs not aligned with SOR and based in balanced literacy instead.
  • SOR is settled science that is reflected in NRP reports and the simple view of reading (SVR).
  • Students have not been afforded systematic phonics instruction that must be implemented for all students before they can comprehend or even “love” to read.
  • The reading crisis includes misidentifying and under-serving students with dyslexia, who represent a large percentage of students struggling to read at grade level.
  • The evidence of a reading crisis is NAEP data.

Next, the repeated reading crisis, our reading proficiency myths, and the nearly universal misunderstanding of NAEP data are examined in the context of education reform as “fake news.”

Perpetual Reading Crisis, Reading Proficiency Myths, and Misunderstanding NAEP

Since at least the 1940s (Thomas, 2022b), phonics-centered caricatures of a reading crisis have been compelling for the media, the public, and more recently political leaders; yet, “there is no indisputable evidence of a national crisis in reading, and even if there were a crisis, there is no evidence that the amount of phonics in classrooms is necessarily the cause or the solution” (Reinking, Hruby, & Risko, 2023). Even though no evidence exists to justify a reading crisis, major media outlets have repeated the same inaccurate claim over and over to manufacture that crisis: 60% (or more) students are not reading at grade level (see Hanford, 2018, and Kristof, 2023b, for examples).

While claiming the US has a reading crisis has been based in several “fake news” causes over the past eight or nine decades—progressive education, whole word readers, whole language, etc.—the current focus of a crisis in the SOR movement is NAEP data and the misleading achievement levels used for reading. NAEP uses “proficient” for student reading well above grade level and “basic” for what may be common across state-level measurements of grade level reading (Loveless, 2016, 2023; Rosenberg, 2004; Scale scores, 2021). As a result, SOR advocates claiming a reading crisis imply and directly state that 60-70% of students aren’t proficient readers based on the long-time trend of students scoring only about 35% at NAEP reading proficiency in reading. Historically that data point is relatively flat (so not a crisis) and is not a reflection of students reading at grade level (ironically, using NAEP fairly would mean claiming that about 60-70% of students are at or above grade level reading).

But more troubling than using NAEP reading data as “fake news” to manufacture a reading crisis is a rarely admitted fact about reading in the US: There is no standard measure of grade level reading; therefore, we genuinely have no real idea what the status of reading proficiency is in the US. We do know that reading achievement, like all measures of student learning, are significantly correlated with race and socioeconomics. Yet, we remain focused on grade-level reading, specifically grade 3, and misrepresenting test data because the reading crisis itself is far more lucrative for the media and political leaders than genuinely addressing reading or educational quality.

The caricature as “fake news” in the SOR movement is possibly most extreme, however, in the media’s targets of blame for the manufactured reading crisis—balanced literacy, three cueing, guessing, and reading programs (specifically programs by Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell).

Scapegoating Balanced Literacy and Reading Programs

The genesis of the intensified media-based reading crisis (Hanford, 2018) established both the manufactured reading crisis and a convoluted blame game that gradually included false claims that balanced literacy (identified primarily as lacking phonics instruction while depending on three cueing and prompting children to guess at words) and specific reading programs (Calkins’ Units of study and Fountas and Pinnell’s programs that constituted only a fraction of programs implemented in the US) were failing children as readers (see for example, Goldstein, 2022; Hanford, 2020).

Throughout mainstream media and among many political leaders—like how whole language was misrepresented in the 1990s (Krashen 2002a, 2002b)—SOR advocates offer descriptions of balanced literacy that range from oversimplification to outright misinformation. Balanced literacy is a philosophy of language acquisition that seeks to serve individual student needs, honor teacher autonomy, and neither prescribe nor ban any literacy practice that would serve a student’s needs (Spiegel, 1998). None the less, SOR advocates have blamed balanced literacy as the primary source of the reading crisis while also reducing balanced literacy to overly simplistic characteristics that include reductive definitions of three cueing and guessing.

Three cueing is better identified as multiple cueing, and despite SOR claims, multiple cueing has a wealth of research supporting the practice. However, SOR advocates, the media, and political leaders have successful created the “fake news” that three cueing is most of what balanced literacy entails and that it is essentially having students guess at words through looking at pictures instead of decoding:

This rally against multiple-cueing systems models has been reiterated by scholars (Paige, 2020) and journalists (Hanford, 2018, 2019, 2020). Although it may be true that as readers become more proficient, they attend less to illustrations, this does not negate the role that illustrations play in helping young students learn to attend to meaning while reading. In short, drawing students’ attention to illustrations is one means of helping them attend to the stories and information presented in texts. Learning to attend to meanings that emerge while reading is essential for understanding both the simple and increasingly complicated texts that students encounter as they become skilled readers. Describing multiple-cueing systems models as having students draw on “partial visual cues to guess at words (Adams, 1998; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989; Solman & Stanovich, 1992; Stanovich, 1986)” (Paige, 2020, p. 13) misrepresents these models and ignores the important role of illustrations as tools for learning to access and monitor meaning construction. (Compton-Lilly, Mitra, Guay, & Spence, 2020, p. S187). 

Connected to this caricature of three cueing is the SOR attack on guessing.

Ken Goodman (1967) established the roots of how SOR advocates can construct their caricature of balanced literacy as “guessing” when he identified “reading [as] a psycholinguistic guessing game”:

It involves an interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. The ability to anticipate that which has not been seen, of course, is vital in reading, just as the ability to anticipate what has not yet been heard is vital in listening. (p. 127)

While Goodman noted later that “guessing” may have not been the best choice, whole language proposed a theory of reading that valued holistic meaning making over decoding every word. And while the pervasiveness of whole language in K-12 education, I think, is greatly overstated, elements of holistic and workshop approaches certainly impacted practice and informed what would later be called “balanced literacy.”

The problem with “guessing” is the same as the problem with “theory”; both have very specific meanings in technical usage (as Goodman did) and quite different (and often negative) meanings in day-to-day use. And when theory/philosophy is translated into practice, it is entirely possible, even likely, that some practitioners misunderstand and misuse “guessing.” But it is quite a huge leap, as the SOR movement has done, to announce that we have a unique reading crisis now that can be traced to teacher education teaching “guessing” and a couple reading programs that rely exclusively on “guessing.”

In this context, the most problematic aspect of cause and effect in the manufactured reading crisis is the “fake news” that two reading programs—Calkins’s Units of Study and programs by Fountas and Pinnell—are the primary if not singular causes of that crisis. This campaign has resulted in Teachers College and Calkins parting ways (Calkins forming her own new entity) and several states effectively banning the use of these programs (Goldstein, 2022; Hanford, 2020). Reading programs across the US over several decades have varied greatly, not only in the programs themselves but also in their implementation; and over those decades, reading proficiency has remained relatively flat. Further, there simply is no research currently that draws any clear causal relationship on a national scale of reading programs and student reading proficiency.

Declaring balanced literacy and specific reading programs associated (often falsely) with balanced literacy as failing children as readers is simply “fake news” in the same way that media and political leaders demonized whole language throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and even after Ken Goodman’s death).

Bad Teachers Redux

Writing during a peak bad teacher movement in the US, Adam Bessie (2010) explains about the bad teacher stories represented by Michelle Rhee and perpetuated by the Obama administration and Bill Gates:

The myth is now the truth.

The Bad Teacher myth, [Bill] Ayers admits, is appealing, which is why it’s spread so far and become so commonly accepted. Who can, after all, disagree that we “need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom?” Even Ayers agrees that he, like all of us, “nods stupidly” along with this notion. As a professor at a community college and former high school teacher, I nod stupidly as well: I don’t want my students held back, alienated, or abused by these Bad Teachers.

This myth is also seductive in its simplicity. It’s much easier to have a concrete villain to blame for problems school systems face. The fix seems easy, as well: all we need to do is fire the Bad Teachers, as controversial Washington, DC, school chancellor superstar Michelle Rhee has, and hire good ones, and students will learn. In this light, Gates’ effort to “fix” the bug-riddled public-school operating system by focusing on teacher development makes perfect sense. The logic feels hard to argue with: who would argue against making teachers better? And if, as a teacher, you do dare to, you must be “anti-student,” a Bad Teacher who is resistant to “reforms,” who is resistant to improvements and, thus, must be out for himself, rather than the students. (n.p.)

Bessie concludes, “The only problem with the Bad Teacher myth, as anyone involved with education is intimately aware of, is that problems in education are anything but simple,” and ultimately, in 2023, these myths are not supported by the evidence, but are yet another example of “fake news” and caricature.

The bad teacher myth in 2023 is grounded in caricature and anecdotes (Hoffman, Hikida, & Sailors, 2020) that are very compelling but ultimately not only lack credible evidence (Valcarcel, Holmes, Berliner, & Koerner, 2021) and logic, but also cause far more harm than good in terms of reforming education, serving student needs, or recruiting and retaining high quality teachers. The bad teacher myth in the SOR movement sits within the “fake news” that students today are uniquely underperforming in reading achievement, yet the bad reading teacher myth is perpetuated by misrepresenting reading achievement through incomplete messages around NAEP reading data (noted above).

Again, as Bessie (2010) acknowledged over a decade ago, the real problems with education, teaching, and learning are very complex and far larger than pointing fingers at teachers as “villains.” For most of the history of US education, student reading achievement has been described as “failing,” and vulnerable student populations (minoritized races, impoverished students, students with special needs such as dyslexia, and MLLs) have always been underserved.

The ignored issues with teacher quality related to student reading proficiency is that those vulnerable students are disproportionately sitting in class with early-career and uncertified teachers who are struggling with high student/teacher ratios. Are too many students being underserved? Yes, but this is a historical fact of US public education not a current crisis. Are low student achievement and reading proficiency the result of bad teachers? No, but these outcomes are definitely correlated with bad teaching/learning conditions and bad living conditions for far too many students (Benson, 2022).

As a foundational element of “fake news,” the myth of the bad teacher is a lie, a political and marketing lie that will never serve the needs of students, teachers, or society. Teacher and school bashing, shouting “crisis”—these have been our responses to education over and over, these are not how we create a powerful teacher workforce, and these will never serve the needs of our students who need great teachers and public education the most. The myth of the bad teacher is a Great American Tradition in terms of the power of “fake news” to drive popular and political perceptions and ultimate policy.

The Crisis/Miracle Cycle that Never Ends

Finally, the “fake news” template in education reform begun with A Nation at Risk as a manufactured crisis relies on a duality of crisis/miracle. For the last forty years of educational crisis, the media has perpetuated several educational “miracles” that have all been debunked as “mirages” (Thomas, 2016)—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” to name the most high-profile examples. In the SOR movement, the media has perpetuated the “miracle” of this moment, Mississippi (Hanford, 2019), despite, again, there being essentially no credible research showing a causal relationship between Mississippi’s 2019 NAEP gains in grade 4 and policy changes (Thomas, 2019a, 2022b).

The media has persisted, however, to make dramatic and unsupported claims that Mississippi’s outlier grade 4 reading scores on NAEP in 2019 prove that SOR reading policies directly cause improved student reading proficiency even in the face of high populations of Black and impoverished students. The problems with claims of “miracle” lie in the likely distorting impact of grade retention (a similar dynamic as seen in Florida for decades) and disregarding that Mississippi, again like Florida, has a significant drop in reading scores in grade 8 even after enough years of policy implementation (over a decade) impacting those students (Thomas, 2022a).

Further, reducing Mississippi’s reading score improvements on NAEP lacks the appropriate historical context that notes the states steady score improvement over three decades, well before any SOR legislation or practices and excessive grade retention. In short, like claims of a reading crisis; the failures ascribed to balanced literacy, three cueing, and reading programs; and reading teachers as well as teacher educators, the claim of a Mississippi “miracle” is frankly absent any credible evidence, especially scientific evidence. The “fake news” dynamic of education reform includes manufactured crises and manufactured miracles.

Although we associate “fake news” with the most recent cycles in national politics, education reform in the US into its fifth decade reflects that same grounding in caricature and ideological misinformation. In politics and education reform, “fake news” serves the powerful as well as the political and market interests of those perpetuating misinformation. As a result, students, teachers, and our democracy lose, and we squander the resources needed to examine credibly how well or not our students are reading and what we can and should do better to serve the needs of every single student.


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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...