“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination


This week, amidst great fanfare, the State General Assembly came to a close. For many, it couldn’t have come fast enough.

I would argue that this year’s legislative session produced an overabundance of bad bills. Especially when it came to public education. From bills that devoted millions in resources to a problem that we can’t even measure, learning loss, to attacking transgender athletes, whose numbers we can’t even measure, this year legislators favored bills that favored emotion over minds.

The bizarre moments for me were when the General Assembly ignored conservative tenets despite being a conservative supermajority. The size of the government was grown. Power was shifted away from local communities to the state. The state enacted laws that seemed to indicate that local communities were incapable of solving their own issues without the heavy hand of a central government. It’s almost like Democrats without book knowledge were running the state.

The senate government even went as far as trying to pick winners and losers, going as far as to write individual private companies into legislation as beneficiaries.

As the session progressed, I became increasingly concerned with the apparent lack of understanding when it comes to the subjects of history and science. It appears to many that both consists of settled conclusions, and therefore are pseudo carved in stone. Both suppositions would be false as our understanding of both is everchanging as new facts emerge.

Proponents of the “Science of Reading” used science as a cover to enact reading policies that were eerily similar to legislation enacted in the past. The Daily Memphian is in the midst of publishing a 4-part look at the history of reading instruction in Tennessee, It is among the best reporting I have ever read of late. David Waters has produced a true must-read for those interested in reading instruction. In part 1, I’m struck by the observation that emerged from the Reading Panel held back in 2000.

The Reading Panel’s full 449-page report, issued in 2000, promoted a “balanced reading program” that included systematic phonics instruction. “Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached,” the full report stated.

Despite their warning, it was phonics that got the headlines. Joanne Yatvin, an elementary school principal and the only panel member not appointed to any of the study subgroups, submitted a harsh dissent to the panel’s findings and the summary’s focus. She pointed out that there were no primary school teachers on the panel, and that its 15 members included nine university research professors “who believed in the same reading process.”  A practice we still conduct today. Yatvin’s summary held harsh words for policymakers,

“Government officials and promoters of phonics have twisted those findings in an effort to reconfigure all school reading instruction and all teacher preparation in reading to conform with their own ideas of how reading should be taught,”

Critics of the Reading Panel went even further, insinuating that recommendations were driven by politics and money,

“Most of the summary is devoted to findings related to phonics instruction — not because that was the focus of the panel, but because it opened a new market for phonics-related educational materials and assessments,”

Apply that lens to today and it’s not hard to conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Commissioner Schwinn’s preferred publishers and vendors stand to make millions off of the new legislation that is really just a new version of an old version. The game hasn’t changed, only the players. Or as David Waters points out, “These changes are mostly revised and repackaged versions of proposals and policies made by previous administrations.”

Waters shares that Tennessee has been at this revamping reading instruction game for quite some time,

From Alexander’s “Better Schools Program” to Ned McWherter’s “21st Century Schools.”

From Don Sundquist’s version of “Reading First” to Phil Bredesen’s “First to the Top” and “Books from Birth.”

From Bill Haslam’s “Read to be Ready” to Lee’s “Reading 360.”

Kinda dims the bulb a little on Governor Lee’s talk about all this new legislation being a “historical moment.” In fact, it’s in reality a rather pedestrian moment.

Under Lee’s plan, students in grades K-3 will “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.” But again, as Waters illuminates, even before the new law was passed, the state required that K-2 reading curricula “provide explicit, systematic, sequential and evidence-based instruction of grade level foundational skills including alphabetic principle (K), phonological awareness (K-1) phonics and word recognition (K-2)”.

We all remember the TNDOE and legislators running around waving the flag of success in 2013. Tennessee was recognized by NAEP as the fastest improving state in the union when it came to literacy. That didn’t last long. In 2015 the scores sunk back down again, and the education commissioner at the time, Candice McQueen, wanted to know why. So she commissioned a study.

Be sure you don’t remind legislators about the results of that study. It showed that schools were devoting too much classroom time to phonics, and not enough to actual reading.

“At the K–2 level, classroom time in Tennessee tends to be centrally organized around phonics and other word recognition abilities. … Students learned a set of skills that they rarely had the chance to translate into the act of reading — the act of making meaning from text …

The study found that two other factors contributed to the state’s declining reading scores:

  1. Ten percent of Tennessee third graders have missed almost half a year of school between kindergarten and third grade. “These chronically absent students perform far below their peers, with only around one in four achieving proficiency in reading,” said the report.
  2. The state’s early reading intervention program, Response to Intervention or RTI², launched in 2013 without state funding, hadn’t moved beyond ‘checkbox implementation.’
    About 75 percent of Shelby County’s students qualified for the daily RTI intervention, but only about 10 percent were getting it.

Funny, as I flip through the recently passed legislation, I see little reference to either of those issues.

Central to the argument about reading instruction at this time was the beloved State Collaborative on Reforming Education(SCORE). They were, and remain extremely critical to the “Balanced Literacy” approach. And critical of the state’s efforts to incorporate that approach.

“This neutral position inadvertently perpetuates ineffective early literacy instruction by leaving room for practices borrowed from whole language, at times masquerading as balanced literacy, that are not based on the cognitive science around how children learn to read,” SCORE declared.

For the record,

SCORE was founded in 2009. It listed more than $17 million in assets in 2019. It was led by Jamie Woodson, a Republican state legislator from 1999-2011, and former chair of the Senate education committee. She was paid about $300,000 a year until she left in 2019.

Since Woodson’s departure, David Mansouri has assumed her salary and the role of chief advocate or a phonetics-based approach.

“Tennessee should declare the science of reading to be the state’s only approach to literacy instruction. Research shows that systematic phonics instruction coupled with systematic knowledge-building is essential to learning how to read. State lawmakers should codify science-based reading as literacy policy in Tennessee.”

And that’s just what legislators did. In the process, increasing SCORE’s level of influence. After all, who in the state is the most knowledgeable on the subject? Who has already formed relationships with the new vendors? Who has been out spending Gates money to convert disciples? That’s SCORE. And as such, I suspect they also put themselves in line for a big payday. But we won’t know that for another two years when their 990 tax returns are due,

The bottom line is that SOR proponents have appropriated the moniker of “Science” to facilitate a good old fashion cash grab. The tip-off should have been when the argument was put forth as being settled. Science is never settled. It’s constantly evolving as new facts come to light. There is nothing evolutionary about this proposed “Science of Reading” legislation snd research continues to cast doubt.

Science reveals possible outcomes of certain strategies. It’s not a prescribed set of directions. If you implement certain elements and you are likely to get certain outcomes. Obviously, Science is of great value when developing policy but its information and theories still have to be filtered through human interpretation. That’s where the breakdown often comes.

History took center stage for the final week of this year’s legislative session, and once again, questionable tactics came to be employed. Over the last several decade’s Critical Race Theory tenets have taken hold in public schools. For some, it’s a welcome change, it’s very alarming, for others the response is somewhere in the middle – recognizing the need for increasing equity but uncomfortable with some of the basic tenets of CRT.

Marcus Johnson makes the case for CRT in this week’s Newsweek,

Critical race theory was developed by legal scholars and academics including Derrick Bell, Robert Cover, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Its major premise is that the American political system was initially designed to benefit whites at the expense of other racial groups. Political actors at the time of the country’s founding and in the decades since created institutions that perpetuated an ideology that empowered whites and discriminated against minorities. These actions created political and economic disparities which are still present throughout society today.

For example, political decisions made in the United States prevented Black people writ large from being able to develop wealth and political influence. Analysis from the Pew Research Center found that in 2013, the median net worth of Black families was only $11,000—compared to $141,900 for white families. There remain persistent racial gaps in life expectancy and in educational outcomes. Even in today’s job market, academic research indicates that Black people with the same credentials as whites get fewer job opportunities. Perhaps most strikingly, a Black American who commits the same crime as a white American is often sentenced to a longer prison term.

Johnson outlines very real issues that require a collective effort in order to mitigate. Where I push back is when addressing these issues comes with the belief that merely being white makes you complicit. I also disagree with the argument that America was founded to increase and protect white supremacy. Discussion around this argument took center stage this week as Tennessee legislators passed legislation that would ban the teaching of CRT in classrooms.

Like the “Reading Bill”, this was legislation passed at an accelerated rate despite requiring a deeper and more nuanced conversation.

Much of this week’s legislative conversation centered around the “three-fifths” clause in the US Constitution. The three-fifths clause (Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution of 1787) in fact declared that for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. Free blacks were to be counted as one.

It was a terrible clause, that has contributed greatly to the inequities of today. But it was added at a time, where I would argue there were no good choices. And constitution crafters were faced with deciding between letting the union dissolve or taking a moral stand.

In 1787, representatives of the individual colonies, now states, gathered for the Constitutional Convention. History often presents these individual states as a ragamuffin group of individuals united with a common goal and vision. The reality is that among these states, there was a great deal of discord and acrimony. While this was true of all states, it was especially high among those in the North and South.

The North had become more industrialized and was more populous. Slavery had more or less fallen out of favor in deference to the practice of indentured servitude.

The South was less populous and predominately an agricultural society, which made them dependent on slavery.

There was deep distrust between the states and a limited commitment to this fledgling union. It’s easy to forget that at this time America bore little resemblance to the world power of today. Our founders were attempting to forge a country with a government with no precedent. They were fighting to create a constitution based on ideals that were not as entrenched, nor even as accepted as they are today. At the same time, survival was being threatened by world powers like England, France, and Spain.

When evaluating history, it’s dangerous to do it through the lens of current times. We believe in Maslow’s Hierarchy for individuals, the same holds true for countries. Taking a moral stand is one often reserved for the privileged.

To establish the country, the two primary issues of taxation and representation had to be settled.

For the purposes of taxation, the North wanted to count the entire population, including slaves. The southern states weren’t going for that, as it would place a larger tax burden on them.

For the purposes of representation, the proposals were flipped. The south wanted slaves counted as one, and the north wasn’t going for that, as it would grant greater representation to the south.

Just as it appeared the union was on the cusp of dissolution a compromise was put forth and accepted -of counting “all other persons” as only three-fifths of their actual numbers. The entice for the southern states was that while giving less representation than originally proposed, it did give greater representation than those states in the north, while reducing their financial burden.

The proposed compromise was not without critics. Gouverneur Morris from New York criticized the proposed compromise. He doubted that a direct tax, whose burden on Southern states would be increased by the Three-fifths Compromise, could be effectively leveled on the vast United States. The primary ways of generating federal revenue, he said, would be excise taxes and import duties, which would tax the North more than the South; therefore, the taxation provision was irrelevant, and the compromise would only increase the number of pro-slavery legislators.

Unfortunately, the choices had now been reduced to either accepting the compromise and preserving the union that they had just won a devastating war over or rejecting the compromise and allowing the union to dissolve into individual entities. Either choice was fraught with negative outcomes. To put it bluntly, representatives were presented with two shitty decisions and they chose the one that made today’s debate possible.

The majority of historians recognize both the deplorable consequences of the “three-fifths compromise”, and that it preserved the country. It’s this context that is essential to how we teach history. I believe that our Founding Fathers acted out of loyalty to what they were building as opposed to loyalty to the white race.

The Constitutional Accountability Center raises this argument,

Using the logic of the promoters of the “three-fifths of a person” interpretation, think of the constitutional ramification had the position of the Northern states and abolitionists prevailed. The three-fifths clause would have been omitted and possibly replaced with wording that stated “other Persons” would not be counted for apportionment. The Constitution, then, would be proclaiming slaves were not human at all (zero-fifths). This is an illogical conclusion and was certainly not the position of Northern delegates and abolitionists.

Counting the whole number of slaves benefited the Southern states and reinforced the institution of slavery. Minimizing the percentage of the slave population counted for apportionment reduced the political power of slaveholding states.

Yes, the Founders of the United States were primarily white and wealthy. That has as much to do with the times, as anything. Other than slaves, who were brought here by force, most of America’s early settlers were of European origin. And let’s face it, much like today, poor people ain’t out starting countries and creating new forms of government.

I think it is 100% appropriate, and in fact necessary, to talk about the outcomes of governance decisions. Without a robust discussion around these outcomes, we run the risk of recreating past mistakes.

However, I chafe at the idea of assuming these decisions are indicative of a fundamental flaw in the country. Last year the NY Times was forced to correct it’s famed 1619 Project which painted the revolutionary war as being fought primarily to protect slavery. A supposition that most historians believe lacks substance. It is easier to substantiate outcomes than it is motivations.

America is far from perfect, but in its short history, it has done more to promote the ideals of personal freedom, equity, and basic human rights than any other country in the world. No other country allows an individual to jump social classes in as short a period as America. I believe those ideals are worth defending.

I do agree with author Marcus Johnson when he writes, “At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard.” That is a fight that has been going on since the country’s founding.

I would argue that the majority of Americans believe that all voices need to be heard in equal proportion. But there are those on both sides of the debate that believe otherwise. In this light, the conversation shouldn’t be shuttered, nor should it go unchallenged. despite those actors that would demand both, often while trying to cloak their demands in the noblest, and supposedly purest, of intentions.

I often find myself reflecting on an interview that I read several years ago with former rap star turned business mogul Jay-Z. The interviewer was asking how he was preparing his young daughter for life. Specifically, he was asking if Jay intended to help her become as tough as he.

Jay dismissed the assertion, basically saying that being tough was his job, not hers. That he had to be hard all those years in order to carve out a world where she could be something more. Being hard was not something he envisioned for her.

Jay-Z is the quintessential American success story. He was born Shawn Corey Carter in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on December 4, 1969. Per Wikipedia, he was raised in Marcy Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood. After their father, Adnis Reeves, abandoned the family, Jay-Z and his three siblings were raised by their mother, Gloria Carter. Jay-Z claims in his lyrics that in 1982, at age 12, he shot his older brother in the shoulder for stealing his jewelry. Along with rapper AZ, he attended Eli Whitney High School in Brooklyn until it was closed. He then attended nearby George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High Schoolwith rappers The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, followed by a stint at Trenton Central High School in Trenton, New Jersey, though he did not graduate. According to his interviews and lyrics, he sold crack cocaine and was shot at three times during this period.

I seriously doubt that young Shawn Carter’s primary aspiration in life was to sling dope and shoot at people. It’s more likely that he had higher aspirations. His early life provided him with few good choices in order to reach those aspirations. But he didn’t let those choices define him. He used them to get to a place where the choices became a whole lot better. When his daughter reaches an age where she can evaluate those decisions, hopefully, she’ll take context into that evaluation.

She’ll be in a place where she can either reject her father as a former criminal, or she can grasp his vision and use the opportunities supplied to reach a higher plane. Not unlike where we as a country are right now. We can completely reject the actions of those who became before us, or we can use the space and resources they created to push their vision further.

We find ourselves at a point where we have the clout and the wealth to bring the vision inherent in our founding to fruition if we chose. We can continue to move forward and increase the number of seats at the table or we can give in to our worse angels and find new ways to exclude. We are no longer at a place where our only choices are bad ones, we just have to be brave enough to take the good one.

Before I close, I want to draw attention to one last paragraph in the Johnson piece for Newsweek,

Most students have heard the mainstream narrative about the founding of the United States, slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. But many students have not been given the opportunity to hear how scholars of color perceive and interpret these events. Doing so is not indoctrination, as CRT opponents allege; teaching students that there are many different interpretations of events shows them how to be critical thinkers. It gives them the chance to compare and contrast different perspectives, which is key for high level learning.

This paragraph lives above and beyond the argument over CRT. In order to fully seize the future, we have to recognize this need. Fortunately, I think most of us do. Again in order to have a robust conversation, there must be more than one voice.

Critical RaceTheory has been presented as an all-or-nothing proposition. It doesn’t have to be. Facts are facts, but we can explore motivations together.

I believe that Tennessee’s recently passed CRT legislation will become another one of those mostly ignored laws. Enforcement would prove quite difficult. This is probably a good thing, as long as we don’t ignore the needed conversation.

Essential to that conversation are history and science. And our understanding of both.

f you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. For those readers who are interested in learning more behind the science of reading in the dyslexic brain, here is a recent presentation from Harvard’s Dr. Gaab who has studied the neuroscience of reading.

    fMRI shows that even infants exhibit dyslexic differences in the brain. The only way to build neural pathways in these 10% of children, is through explicit systematic phonics.

    On some things, science agrees. For 10% of our most struggling readers, we know what they need and when they need it. It is not a financial racket, it is a way to help students with disabilities.

    • No different than what’s been done for the last 2 decades in Tennessee. You can ignore the evidence all you want, but the state’s adoption process was rigged and the commissioner’s husband was hired by TNTP, who was awarded an 8 million dollar contract to train teacher in the “Science of Reading, while the grant funding was being crafted. Just bc they dyslexia, doesn’t mean it’s not crooked. As Joseph demonstrated during his short tenure at MNPS, sticking your fingers in your ears doesn’t change anything either.

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