Reading & Literacy

With Moms for Liberty Endorsement, ‘Science of Reading’ Faces More Political Controversy

By Sarah Schwartz — October 09, 2023 5 min read
Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presides over a special state Board of Education meeting to discuss the U.S. Department of Education's "Proposed Change to its Title IX Regulations on Students' Eligibility for Athletic Teams" on April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City.
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The Oklahoma State Department of Education announced earlier this month that it would be signing onto a controversial group’s new literacy effort—joining forces with Moms for Liberty, the conservative political organization whose local chapters have fought to challenge or remove books in districts across the country.

The new announcement promises to further complicate the thorny political landscape of the “science of reading” movement, by linking what has been a bipartisan—if sometimes uneasy—movement nationwide for improved instruction in foundational literacy to an explicitly political group.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, a Republican, followed Moms for Liberty in declaring the first week of October “Teach Kids to Read Week.” The moniker is a response to Banned Books Week, an annual event to bring attention to challenged books put on by the American Library Association and a coalition of other groups.

“Two-third of our nation’s 4th graders are not reading at grade level, and instead of focusing on real literacy solutions for our students, the American Library Association and their partners choose [to] focus on their agenda of political indoctrination and so-called ‘banned books,’” Walters said, in a statement on Oct. 2.

Moms for Liberty, which some civil rights watchdogs have called an extremist group, has pushed to remove books and lessons from schools that focus on LGBTQ+ rights or the continuing legacy of racial discrimination. The group also promotes what co-founder Tiffany Justice has called a “back to basics approach” to literacy instruction, focusing on foundational reading skills. The group has highlighted the work of several state literacy leaders, including during its June summit.

A complex political history of reading instruction

Many states and districts have recently revamped their approaches to early reading instruction, in efforts to more closely align teaching practices with the available evidence base on how young children learn to read. The effort has been bipartisan, with traditionally conservative and traditionally progressive states all passing new laws introduced by legislators across the political spectrum.

Still, several components of this movement—explicit instruction in phonics, and a core foundation of knowledge taught in English/language arts classes—have long been associated with conservative political priorities, in part because they often come with curricular and instructional mandates, said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the relationship between education policy and equitable instruction.

Moms for Liberty has argued that a focus on diverse books in the classroom has crowded out basic skills as a priority.

“We’re failing kids everyday, and Moms for Liberty is calling it out,” said Justice, in an interview with Education Week. “The idea that there’s more emphasis placed on diversity in the classroom, rather than teaching kids to read, is alarming at best. That’s criminal.”

But pitting basic skills against culturally responsive practices is a false dichotomy, say some advocates for evidence-based reading instruction.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us who have been fighting for high-quality literacy instruction as a lever for equity to say, we have nothing to do with these folks,” said Callie Patton Lowenstein, an educator who most recently worked as a bilingual elementary teacher in the District of Columbia school system. “What are we doing all of this reading for if we’re going to be pulling books off the shelves that kids should have access to?

“Fundamentally what they’re doing is trying to launder their reputation, and co-opt a movement that’s not their real motivation,” she said.

Justice said that students’ reading proficiency and the way the subject is taught “has always been a priority for Moms for Liberty.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did major Oklahoma English/language arts groups.

Politics go beyond phonics to the canon

The politics of the science of reading movement have created some strange bedfellows.

Some Republican politicians have echoed this “back to basics” framing in advocating for stronger foundational skills instruction.

But other groups, such as the NAACP, also endorse explicit instruction in how to read words as a racial equity issue—a way to ensure that all students are receiving the kind of instruction that is most likely to help them be successful in schools.

It’s not just foundational skills that are politicized, though. Many science of reading advocates also support the idea of a knowledge-building curriculum—using a series of materials that work together to systematically introduce students to certain topics. This focus derives from research that has found that students’ background knowledge is a key component of their comprehension abilities.

Reading well is a complex process, and teaching students to do so requires much more than just phonics, said Patton Lowenstein. Those who frame the movement as a “back to basics” approach are misrepresenting that fact, she said.

Still, developing a set of core knowledge that all students should learn is an inherently subjective, often political endeavor. It means prioritizing some knowledge and some authors above others to fit into the limited amount of class time students have.

For some proponents of knowledge-building curricula, this means “back to the canon,” said Rachael Gabriel, a professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

Patton Lowenstein thinks that some popular knowledge-building programs don’t include varied enough perspectives—and that this is a legitimate critique from the left. Debates about just how to analyze whether a reading program is sufficiently diverse—or even what an ideal one would look like—continue.

“I think what’s not legitimate is saying that there’s something fundamentally conservative about holding our literacy instruction to higher standards, or being careful about the ways that our instruction aligns to research,” Patton Lowenstein said.

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