In 2022, Emily Hanford and the team at American Public Media released their podcast series, Sold a Story, which explored how corporate influencers led educators away from the best practices for reading instruction. This series has disrupted reading education in the best way and ignited a nationwide conversation about the best practices for teaching reading instruction, expanding the conversation around what has become known as the Reading Wars.
If you’re new to this conversation, here’s a quick rundown. Beginning in the late 1960’s, education researcher Marie Clay created a theory of reading instruction that deemphasized phonics in favor of other skills, such as sight words and a technique called prompting and cueing. These techniques became popularized through Marie Clay’s work with the Reading Recovery program and would later be picked up and expanded by Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, Lucy Calkins and the book publisher Heinemann. The problem is that these techniques have been consistently disputed by the larger research literature which tends to point to a collection of teaching techniques now called “the science of reading”.
Today, educators in the US are entangled in a complex battle that largely consists of philosophical turf wars, curriculum and resource preferences, and a lot of shouting into the void on social media. Unfortunately, these largely unproductive conversations miss the point entirely. The question should not be whether Clay’s framework is better or worse than the science of reading. The real question the education establishment should be asking is: How did we allow ourselves to get here in the first place?
The answer is a general lack of research use and research fluency within the education profession. Studies on this issue and have consistently found that access to research, time to review and think about research, and systems of support for research use are barriers to educators as they seek to provide high quality instruction. Our education system has placed educators in an unsustainable position by demanding the best of them without giving them the tools and time they need to actually determine what is best. We have left them in the hands of the educational industrial complex, who manipulates and cherry picks research findings to boost their own profit margins.
As a nation, we have been here before. In 1980, Jane Porter and Hershel Jick wrote a five sentence Letter to the Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine indicating their early belief that addiction was rare in patients treated with narcotics. Placed in the hands of unscrupulous salespeople, the now infamous “Porter-Jick Letter” was used to convince thousands of doctors to prescribe opioids for minor pain; laying the foundation for today’s opioid crisis and one of the largest legal settlements in our country’s history. Had more doctors taken time to vet the evidence, they would have quickly recognized that the so-called research had been manipulated to make a sale.
A decade after the Porter-Jick letter, the medical profession experienced an in-depth, field-wide shift towards evidence-based medicine. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a series of user guides on evidence-based medicine and universities began to include more courses on the creation and interpretation of evidence. Today, every doctor in the United States has a clear obligation to be an evidence-based practitioner enshrined in their professional code of ethics.
While the systemic errors that led to today’s Reading Wars have not resulted in mass deaths and incarceration, their long-term impact on our nation will likely be as great, if not greater, than the Porter-Jick letter. It will be another decade before enough students have entered adulthood for us to know the long term impact of this failure, but we don’t have to wait for that data to begin to act.
Just as the medical profession has intentionally evolved to become more evidence-based, the education profession must learn from current events and take steps to ensure that every educator has access to high quality research and the time and skill to use it to inform decisions. Policy makers at the local, state, and federal level have levers that can be pulled now to instigate a long-term and sustainable change to evidence-use in the education profession.
Local level leaders should begin by creating urgency and priority around evidence-informed decision-making at both the leadership and the classroom level. At present, the education profession largely lacks a sufficient infostructure to support meaningful research use. While resources such as the What Works Clearinghouse and the ERIC Database exist to support these efforts, inadequate federal funding and the sheer volume of education research that must be processed has left these resources insufficient. A 2015 report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation further demonstrated this point in its findings that classroom level educators often feel overwhelmed by the volume of information available to them and that they need support in accessing, processing, and applying it more quickly.
This isn’t the teacher’s problem to solve. It is up to local leaders to make evidence-use a priority by creating intentional space and support for its adoption. Teachers are thoughtful, highly trained professionals who want to do what is best for kids, but for them to do that, local leaders must be willing to loosen the reigns and give teachers the autonomy to engage with research, collaborate directly with researchers, and deviate from dictated curriculum programs in response to the research.
State leaders can further create a sense of urgency through their own policy and practices. States can start by creating a clear ethical responsibility for educators to use research to inform decision-making. While educator codes of conduct in most states include an ethical requirement that teachers deploy best practices, only eight states currently include an explicit expectation for the strategic use of research for decision-making. By setting this clear expectation, licensure boards can reinforce the importance of evidence-use to the professionals out in the field.
State Departments of Education should also consider ways to further promote evidence-use. They should seek to become research intermediary organizations; organizations that take in information and disburse it to the field in a digestible manner. State leaders should practice what they preach by being transparent in their own evidence-use by including annotated reference lists along with non-regulatory guidance and citing evidence in their public discussions of new statutes and regulations.
Federal leaders also have a role to play in reshaping evidence-use policy. With the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, commonly called ESSA, federal leaders gave educators more direction on the use of evidence-based instruction by providing the a clear definition of an evidence-based practice in education. While this definition was a step in the right direction, it didn’t go nearly far enough. The limiting framework ignores the full scope of knowledge available to educators by prioritizing randomized controlled trials or quasi-experimental studies and completely ignoring qualitative studies which help educators to fully understand the impact of a decision on a community. By expanding on this framework to provide a space for the full range of knowledge, federal leaders will prompt deeper conversations about best practices within our schools.
Finally, federal leaders should consider the implications of their regulatory and grant-making decisions. By expanding compliance requirements for the use of evidence or providing priority points to grant applications that appropriately incorporate multiple pieces of evidence in their requests, federal leaders can send a message out to the field that evidence-use matters.
It is unlikely that the education profession will declare a victor in the Reading War any time soon, but by acting now to establish policies that promote evidence use within the profession we can prevent the next Reading War from getting off the ground in the first place. Leaders at every level must rise above the superficial Reading War conversations and address the root cause of the problem. We must take steps to transform the education profession into a fully evidence-informed profession.