Every few years, education bubbles up to the top of the political agenda in state capitols across the US and legislatures scramble to pass bills that seek to bind the state’s education policy to the prevailing political ideology. This is to be expected—education is often top of the political agenda for many voters, and it is also one of the key policy areas where states reign supreme over the federal government. States have to decide education budgets and often define curricula, but are policymakers, let alone voters, really qualified to decide on methodology—how teachers teach?
Delaware and Illinois have recently passed media literacy education mandates that specify curriculum changes, while New Jersey and Pennsylvania are considering similar provisions. And, in Illinois, the Right to Read Act has been divided up into three bills, one of which requires the State Board of Education to create a list of evidence-based reading programs but does not yet stipulate that they have to be used. The majority of states have passed legislation in the past few years that requires reading instruction to be evidence-based. Other states have gone further—Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Colorado have all passed laws requiring “science of reading” practices to be used in elementary literacy instruction.
As evidenced by the ongoing series of articles in this magazine, the science of reading is not a particular methodology, but policymakers are being selective in their interpretation of the science in order to promote the methodologies that they favor. Literacy experts have made it clear that the science of reading is not a single, specific component of instruction, such as phonics, nor is it a one-size-fits-all approach, but it is a “vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing” (Kurto, 2023). Therein lies the difficulty— attempting to frame legislation with mass appeal that can accommodate such a broad definition. Not only is it very difficult to legislate on education methodologies, it’s also dangerous. Voters and policymakers need to recognize that, despite having access to an organized body of research like the science of reading, they are not expert enough to interpret all of it, let alone to decide how it should be used in practice. Look what happened when a concerted campaign was run to outlaw bilingual education in California and so-called evidence was skewed to convince voters to pass Proposition 227. It took over ten years for the measure to be overturned, despite overwhelming research showing the inferiority of English-only instruction.
Critics of this recent spate of legislation stipulating that teachers use specific methodologies in their classroom say they limit what’s available to educators. Rachael Gabriel, a professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, has compared bans on “cueing”—teaching readers to use context and picture clues to identify unknown words—to laws that prohibit teaching about race and sexuality in schools.
“It’s that same notion of saying we are going to narrow what’s possible and control the heck out of it,” she says, adding that these laws come out of “a stream of authoritarianism,” with “this distrust of expertise and of universities and of science and the sort of traditional ways that we would authorize good science.”
Buying a different curriculum does not mean that reading levels will necessarily improve. The most influential indicator of student success is still the expertise of their teachers. And we must allow our highly trained educators the space and freedom to choose the (evidence-based) methodologies that they judge will best suit their particular students.