“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
Philip Roth, American Pastoral

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
Joyce Carol Oates



There are a lot of things that frustrate me when it comes to schools, and education policy, but none like the endless hamster wheel the conversation seems to run on. Historical context is repeatedly dismissed and we end up with the same old arguments over and over and over. It’s an offshoot of the green shirt/brown shirt analogy I’ve often made in the past.

When you initially join the education policy discussion you are given a brown shirt or a green shirt with their respective talking points and you are expected to recite and promote those talking points with fidelity. Varying from those points, or even tempering them is deeply frowned upon. And god forbid, you ever admit that the other side makes some legitimate points. It’s your bible or no bible. A prime example is the recently reignited “Reading Wars”.

I feel the need to point out the new version of the Reading Wars follows the familiar template that the reform crowd has utilized regularly over the last several decades.It’s a pattern that’s been utilized for every idea from charter schools to alternative teacher licensing to vouchers. Always the same steps.

Step 1, roll out your “I heart kids” banner and wrap yourself with it. This gives a sense of purity to your argument after all nobody loves kids like you do and disagreeing with you just proves that point.

Step 2, focus on a subject and accuse public schools of completely failing in this arena. The important thing to remember here is that you have to paint schools and teachers as failing, there is no room for saying something like, ” They are doing good work for some kids, but together we can supplement the work and make it better for all kids.” That’s not an option, they have to be failing and it has to be due to the lack of concern by adults. These are two crucial elements.

Test scores are handy tools here and the mantra of “two-thirds of kids in our country aren’t reading on grade level” has been especially effective in spurring action as of late, despite the fact that it doesn’t quite hold up.  Notice though that the mantra never cites a specific data source nor comes with an accurate definition of “on grade level”. I don’t think we even working definition of “reading”.

As a sidebar, and I’ll be quoting him often today, education expert Peter Greene has an excellent recent piece that dismantles the arguments being put forth in response to recent NAEP results. When critics like Education Secretary Betsy Devos try to use those recently released results to once again push the 2/3 statistic, he rightfully responds, “Nope. The results show that two-thirds are not at NAEP proficiency level, which is considerably above grade level. She is simply wrong here, a fairly stunning level of wrong for a US Secretary of Education.”

Step 3, requires that you introduce a solution that requires a wholesale reversal of existing policy. One that includes a requirement for new materials and extensive training that luckily folks in the private sector can provide. In the case of the “solutions” being proposed for literacy, textbook companies, consulting services, and universities stand to make a great deal of cash in the event that proponents of structured literacy are able to cause school districts to make wholesale changes. Don’t think that’s not playing a role in the conversation.

Time for another sidebar. We’ve seen the cost of this kind of wholesale switching in the past. Smaller districts do not have the resources to repeatedly switch focus. Several years ago, a smaller Tennessee district bought into the common core argument and invested deeply. When that investment didn’t turn out as planned, they were stuck. They had no resources to tap to make another switch. Proponents wrapped in their “I heart kids” banners, seldom mention, nor consider, the inherent costs of their proposals.

Which brings step 4, never, never, never, ever, admit that the outcomes of the proposed solution are anything but predetermined. It is, if you do X, y is sure to follow, nothing else. This is a good place to throw in a science reference.

The best made plans go awry. Just because you believe 100% doesn’t mean that the plan will work large scale. Common Core is a prime example.When it was rolled out, supporters guarenteed scores would take off and treated detractors with utter disdain. Ten years later, and we’ve found out that the critics were right.

In my 54 years on this earth not once have I seen evidence that when it comes to people, such a formula holds up. It should go without saying that every person is unique and there ain’t one way they’ll respond to anything. So any proposal that purports to be the only way to do something, never fails to raise an eyebrow.

That’s why I’m a supporter of giving teachers as many tools as possible and allowing them to use them as they see fit. What if I hired a carpenter to build me a deck and I stood over the shoulder the whole time they were working and said think like, “Think you should use a hammer there?” or “I watched Property Brothers the other day, and they always made that cut cross-sectional.” It would n’t be long before I found myself without a carpenter.

I do believe that for some the desire to influence what happens in the classroom is rooted in decency.  Watching kids grow up and head towards adulthood is scary stuff. No one wants their kids. or any kid, to go through the struggles they went through in life – despite the fact that the tribulations we faced are responsible for shaping our character. We want children to live a life that is free of shame, strife, fear, and anger and look at education as a tool to mitigate, if not eradicate, those experiences. Unfortunately, that’s not reality.

It’s that desire to protect that causes us to ignore historical context, and latch on to results from small sample sizes that cause us to believe in scalability sans evidence. There is a reason that balanced literacy is the prevailing strategy across the country with very few large districts embracing structured literacy. That reason can be found by reviewing  the historical conversation.

These “Reading Wars” have been going on since public education was created. In 1997, the Atlantic published an article on the history of the debate,

“Although the whole-language movement began in the early 1970s, the dispute about reading instruction goes back much further. Noah Webster believed in phonics, Horace Mann in the word method. In the late 1920s, as progressive education became an influential movement, schools began to switch from phonics to whole-word reading instruction. The much-lampooned mid-twentieth-century Dick and Jane readers, and also Dr. Seuss’s are based on whole-word theory: they try to get children to familiarize themselves with a limited set of simple words (to memorize them, phonics people would say, like trick ponies), not to use their knowledge of letters and sounds to decode words they haven’t seen before. Rudolf Flesch’s scorching 1955 best seller turned the pendulum back toward phonics in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the glory decade for whole-language, the pendulum had swung again.”

And you thought all of this was new. Acerbating the problem is that what side you fall on tends to be influenced by your world view. As such it has political connotations. The Atlantic article notes that “Although many people are for phonics simply because they believe it works better, phonics is also a long-standing cause of the political right; in a number of communities it is one of the main organizing issues for the Christian Coalition. Whole-language is generally a cause of the left.”

I don’t know if I buy that – political lines have become so blurred of late that an organization like Democrats for Education Reform can lay claim to being Democrats while ignoring basic tenets of the Democrat platform – but I do believe that the current conversation is being used by some as a vehicle to discount the value of experienced teachers. If I can provide a blueprint that is supposedly rooted in science and as such can be administered by anyone, why do I need teachers? I can go out and recruit anybody to teach classes, all they have to do is follow my script.

By arguing for just the so-called science and ignoring teacher experience, we are again painting teachers in an unflattering light. Do you really believe that teachers are sitting in classrooms watching kids fail to learn to read and doing nothing? Do you think that they are incapable of doing the same research and reading that non-educators do? Do you think they are not out seeking answers from peers? It is an extremely insulting proposition to paint teachers as willing participants, or of being too ignorant, to address children not learning to read without counteraction.

Education weekly points out the growing issue of devaluing of teacher experience in a recent piece,

“The drive to use evidence to inform action in education has an essential problem: the academic community’s almost religious belief that scientific evidence is the only evidence that has legitimacy. We have arrived at the position where other sources of knowledge are not only devalued, they are rarely acknowledged. Scientifically valid knowledge is widely regarded in the education research community as the only knowledge worth having. A draft paper recently presented at a national conference asserted disapprovingly: “Teachers do not use evidence,” referring to the scientific variety.”

The author of the piece, Joseph Murphy, an education professor and the associate dean for special projects at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, relates a story that will probably have phonics supporters crowing, “See we are right”, but which I believe more importantly illustrates how teachers really work.

Take my colleague at that school in North Carolina, Mrs. Wyatt. She was still using phonics to teach reading when I arrived at the school, but then a mandate came down from administrators: “Use the whole-language approach.”

So Mrs. Wyatt taped everything she needed for her phonics lessons on the inside of the double doors that closed off her closet. The doors were open when she taught reading, closed when she had administrative visitors. Eventually, of course, scientific research vindicated Mrs. Wyatt’s approach.

Teachers teach kids to read every day. Through that experience, they gather what Murphy calls “Craft Knowledge”. They share that knowledge and it influences their teaching practice. If a strategy works, you can bet they will find a way to get it into the tool chest. We just have to provide the space for them to do that.

In the late ’90s, a National Reading Panel was constructed in order to try and put an end to the Reading Wars. The first panel assembled came out with a report that rejected the simplistic dualism between phonics and whole language and raised new questions for fruitful inquiry and research. However, since the panel did not focus its review on questions about the efficacy of different instructional methods, Congress authorized a second panel of experts to conduct an objective review of studies that could provide clear instructional guidance to classroom teachers.

A second panel was constructed of “leading scientists in reading the research, representatives of colleges of 54 education, reading teachers, educational administrators, and parents.” Their report stated that although phonics improved word recognition ability, the NRP emphasized that “systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program. Phonics instruction is never a total reading program.” In addition, the NRP found that providing support and guidance during oral reading of text helped children improve their ability to read connected text with greater speed, accuracy, and comprehension. However, the NRP cautioned that guided oral reading should be used as part of “an overall reading program, not as stand alone~interventions”. Hence balanced literacy was born.

Some may be surprised to know that all of the elements of structured literacy are already available in MNPS’s literacy framework. If a teacher is looking for phonetic instruction or decoding exercises, they are readily available. If a teacher wants to do 30 minutes of phonetics or 20 is mostly left to them. So I’m not quite sure what structured literacy proponents are looking for.

I recently asked a structured literacy supporter for examples of districts nationwide that had successfully made structured literacy the focus of their literary strategy. She provided two small Tennessee school districts, both with served less than 14k students and had only recently initiated the strategy. While I’m not downplaying those districts’ limited success, I have to point out that if you are asking a district of 87k kids to make a systematic change of this magnitude, you are going to have to provide some evidence of scalability. To date, I have seen little to none.

In some ways, I’m glad that the literacy conversation is still heated and passionate. I always say, we need more people in the conversation not less, and can’t think of a more important subject for discussion than literacy. For me, I’d like to see less “you’re wrong” and a little bit more of “how can we modify to improve.” But that’s me.

As always, Peter Greene supplies the words I’m searching for,

“The reading technocrats and pure phonics police are focused on the future, and even the lifelong love of reading camp is looking forward. Both run the risk of forgetting that reading is useful for children right now, this year, this minute, as a way of finding answers to fundamental questions– how does the world work, and what does it mean to be fully human, and how can I be in the world? Reading gives children access to answers beyond their own immediate experience which is always limited and all-too-often, as in Solnit’s case, severely limited by the control of adults who have trouble working out answers of their own. In the crush to provide reading instruction that will benefit children someday, we shouldn’t overlook the ways in which reading will benefit them right now. Both reading science and lifelong love camps stand at the window and say some version of, “Let’s look at this window. Let’s examine it and study it and polish it and enter into a deeper relationship with it,” while anxious children hop up and down on their toes and beg to look through it.”

There is one way in which we could have a tremendous impact on student outcomes and protect them from the strife of life at the same time.  That would be by all of us advocating for systems that ensure every child gets a full night sleep, access to green space to play, and a nutritious diet. But I have little hope that’ll happen as long as we insist on remaining on the hamster wheel.


Remember that story about ICE agents showing up at a South Nashville school looking for information on students? It was horrifying but now we are finding out that it may not be true. Per the Tennessean,

“In an Oct. 11 email among Nashville school officials obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, district chief of staff Hank Clay said Una Elementary Principal Amelia Dukes told him she never said the incident was immigration-related. According to Clay, Dukes said a school employee told her it was U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after they left, but Dukes wasn’t sure.”

This is inexcusable and has the potential to put even more students at risk. There is no reason this story should have ever advanced without closer vetting and is just one more example of why a change in the MNPS communications department was necessary.

Former Director Rob Johnson was an ally of former board member Will Pinkston – lot of formers in that sentence – and as such, I can’t help but wonder how much Pinkston used Johnson to undermine current interim-director of schools Adrienne Battle. Too often in the past six months, snafus in the communication department have led to embarassment for the interim-director. Pinkston has been very vocal in his dissatisfaction with Battle and the communications department has been very useful, even if not complicit, in painting her as described by Pinkston.

Ironically, the Washington Post yesterday ran an article on the incident in which Pinkston, though no longer a board member, is liberally quoted, “The fact that the school system doesn’t have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to this stuff is very, very troubling,” Pinkston said. “That needs to get corrected yesterday.”

How can we miss you if you won’t go away?


Tennessee State University has a coding event for middle school and high school girls on the next three Saturdays of November. Give them a call to include your child.

Catherine Knowles, MNPS HERO coordinator, has been named Homeless Liaison of the Year by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. She is tireless, dedicated and makes a huge difference. In other words…she’s an MNPS teacher.

MNEA has a full calendar for November: 11/4-AR training by NEA; 11/5-7-Listening Tour; 11/7-Member Celebration; 11/12-Solidarity Action with Workers Dignity; 11/18-RA & Committee Mtgs; 11/21-22- Bargaining for the Common Good; 11/25-BOD Mtg; 12/2-Town Hall w/ Dr. Battle; Details- mnea.com

Not to mention, they are a partner with the Pencil Foundation as a mini-distribution center for LP Pencilbox!! Teachers can stop by & grab 1 of these bags filled with school supplies! Just call before you come to make sure someone is in the office. Sometimes infusing new blood really makes things change.

If we are looking for a way to increase literacy rates in third grade we could just follow the lead of Memphis, keep the struggling ones back. This is in spite of the fact that no evidence shows retention is beneficial but plenty that demonstrates its harmful effects. Based on  Governor Lee’s recent remarks about his desire to continue enacting policies that serve to disrupt education and recent headlines about Mississippi’s success on NAEP, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bill put forth to make 3rd-grade retention law in Tennessee.

That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is also welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do.

You can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.




Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. Some researchers say the entire reason for the TN miracle NAEP result from years ago was changes in retention policy. That may be overblown, or completely wrong, or it may just be evidence of how the numbers can be gamed.

    I think it fair to say current NAEP results merely tell that TN did a “”tiny bit less worse“” than some other states. It would be foolish to read much more into it.

    Anyway, you have used many words and maybe to sum up: teachers dislike mandated practices no matter what they are.

    Our new people do need some materials and some practices to go from. But as usual we are going to go from thing to new thing to newer thing and so on. All in search of being a “”tiny bit less worse””.

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