Why politicians can never dictate educational programs & policies
People reading

The United States and Ohio commit relentlessly to limit children’s reading and literacy. Led by Ohio State University’s anti-academic, anti-children’s learning, and profiteering Reading Recovery—where there is nothing to “recover,” let alone reading--Ohio swings wildly from over-dependence on—you pick the misleading jargon name—phonetics, “balanced reading,” “whole word,” “look-see” to now tilting at the windmill of so-called phonics.

In this, Ohio follows a national shift. Despite DeWine’s constant refrain, Ohio is never a leader, especially in education where the needs of children never come first. (See, for example, my “State legislators and critical race theory,” Letter to the Editor,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 27, 2021; “Ohio Education Promotes Racism and Restricting Equity, Again,” Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2021; “DeWine whines about critical race theory,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 11, 2021; “The State of Ohio assaults its own children: The war on those least able to defend themselves,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 6, 2022;

“DeWine, AG Yost, State Department of Education all fail Ohio, Young, old, and in between,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press. Feb. 8, 2023)

State actions currently includes lack of support for public education; use of public funds for private education whose constitutionality is currently before the courts; allowing home schooling with a Nazi curriculum; attempting to block inclusive, honest, and popularly desired history and civics; attempting to outlaw “critical race theory” which is nowhere taught in K-12 schools; attacking transgender female athletes; and railing against anti-racism by ignoring both state and US constitutions.

The Governor and the right-wing dominated State Legislative move to all but abolish the already weak and partisan State Board of Education despite its right-wing majority. Revealingly, a former Board member, now in the State legislature demands that “both side of the Holocaust be taught” in part because “only 300,000 Jews died.” She was home-schooled and did not attend college. (See my “Ohio must act to stop Nazi indoctrination masquerading as homeschooling curriculum,” Letter to the Editor, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 2, 2023. This story was broken by Vice News, not Ohio media.)

Why is the governor newly interested in reading instruction in his 2023-2025 budget proposal? We can be certain that this is no new-found interest in children’s welfare, rights, and human development; broad and deep intellectual abilities; or the inclusive socio-cultural advancement of the state, all of which represent perceived threats to the dominant political elements.

In his final term, the lame-duck, increasingly right-governor wishes simultaneously to kowtow to the right-wing Republican majority who threaten to veto him on any issue, and to burnish his diminishing legacy. His advisors including his wife, a devoted fan of Dolly Parton’s “Imagination Library” that provides free copies of ideologically safe books to children, clearly point him toward promoting children’s reading—seemingly non-controversial despite rampant book banning and suppression of students’ and teachers’ constitutional rights—with the pseudo-undergirding of a fake “science” and the aura of what I defined as the “literacy myth” in the mid-to-late 1970s.

DeWine rails ignorantly, uncontrollably mixing his metaphors, “The jury has returned. The evidence is clear. The verdict is in.” So much for his misconception of science. So far, this is much more political rhetoric with less concern for serious research, evaluation of alternatives, investigation of actual needs and programs to confront them. This is our typical concern and conception of reading and literacy—and children’s development. The resemblance to his mishandling of the Covid pandemic is unmistakable.

Briefly, the centuries-old but reified in the last two hundred years “literacy myth” presumes that acquisition of some (undefined) degree of reading and/or writing by itself is independently transformative regardless of all other personal, contextual, or social factors. Despite fairy tales, atypical examples taken out of historical context, and myths that seem vaguely to accord with someone’s conception of a life lived, reading and writing by themselves are never independent variables, to play on the rhetoric of “science.”

Between Imagination Library’s imagined literacy campaign that presumes that reading follows directly from physical proximity to a book and failing Ohio’s search for the next Intel or Honda plant—lured by billions of public and private dollars not its home-grown workforce, DeWine now imagines that promoting his “science of reading” promotes economic growth and will lure corporate relocation. The disconnects are countless.

Now, as first and now education online site The 74 proclaim, following the politicians rather than knowledgeable researchers or educators: “Gov. Mike DeWine enters the ‘reading wars’” supposedly because “‘The Evidence is Clear’: Ohio Gov. Pushes for Science of Reading as Only Approach.” (“Gov. Mike DeWine enters the ‘reading wars” with budget proposal to fund change to ‘science of reading,’”, Feb. 14, 2023; Patrick O’Donnell, “‘The Evidence is Clear’: Ohio Gov. Pushes for Science of Reading as Only Approach.” The 74, Feb. 21, 2023)

In fact, none of this is true or with respect to early reading learning, reading instruction, and diverse patterns of child development. These are not synonymous as any one with children or familiar with these different topics should be well aware. The so-called “reading wars” go back to the pre-Civil War era and earlier.

I write as a scholar of the history of literacy including reading as one among other modes of accessing information across media and modes of communication; literacy studies more generally; children, youth, and education; and interdisciplinary studies across the humanities, social sciences, and education. I also observe children learning to read. (See among my books, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City, 1979, 1991, 2017; The Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present, 1995; Literacy Myths, Legacies, & Lessons: New Studies on Literacy, (2011), Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America.1995.)

In summary, here are some of my principal conclusions from one-half century of research, teaching, and writing. (For a general overview, see my Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies, 2022).

First, moving away a near total dependence on phonetics—in the Ohio context, Ohio State University-based (and enormously profitable through Heinemann Publishers) Reading Recovery or Fountas-Pinnell, is a positive and large first step. It is not founded on reliable scholarship and has unacceptably high failure rates especially for differently abled children (dyslexic, autistic, “slow learners,” English as second-language learners, and other vulnerable young people. None of these problems make any provision for pre-K or first grade and critically important out of school learning, itself so varied.

The Governor and others following him reduces phonetics to “three cueing” methods, only one cluster of its many forms. Broadly integrated phonetics, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, and Reading Recovery—all marketing terms—are not the same approach.

In addition, it is not clear that the state has the power to ban any one approach, especially when they appear in diverse forms and formats. Regardless, the state does not enforce any curricular provisions. But as it all other proposed legislation, Ohio copies other red states, never pausing—or able—to read their bills.

We regularly rediscover that the far greatest number of youngsters do not--indeed cannot--learn to read effectively—that is, begin to build a foundation on which to develop farther, based on first, second, or third grade very limited instruction by teachers following a thin handbook based on any one of the varieties--like Heinz’s 57--of phonetics alone. This holds true for Reading Recovery.

At the same time, we forget at children’s great loss what the politicians and journalists never learned: phonetics has claimed the mantel of the “science of reading” as repeatedly as phonics. Reading Recovery still does. There are major lessons in that.

More honest researchers, like the long-standing and best-selling champion of phonetic, Columbia University Teachers College Lucy Calkins, finally admitted the well-documented limits of phonetics or whole word or “balanced reading,” which was always unbalanced in the direction of phonetics. She apologized publicly and is revising her best-selling line of school texts and teacher guides.

Second and especially significant, there is no “science of reading.” That is recent, self-promoting, marketing language, revealingly shared by professors of education and psychology (including much hyped but equally nonexistent “brain science” of physically changing the developing brain); educational administrators who are often taught by these “experts” if they have any relevant preparation for local, state, or federal offices; textbook publishers seeking their share of the billions of dollars spent on school textbooks; and ignorant praise-seeking politician like Mike DeWine.

Yes, we have numerous studies of education including reading. Among contemporary research, these are not strong fields of scholarship. But the existence of a large number of often flawed studies with weak methods and untrustworthy short-term data. Far too little attention is paid to developing hypotheses, verifying data, and replicating findings, the very stuff of both social and natural sciences. A body of knowledge does not develop from a pool of extremely limited exercises in confirmation or refutation.

Is it ironic or downright contradictory that the references in virtually all “science of reading” studies show no awareness of the well-established body of writings about reading and literacy over time and especially the so-called “new literacy studies” that began primarily in the 1970s?

Often interdisciplinary, novel, and ground-breaking, history and anthropology with some out-of-the ordinary research in cognitive psychology and elements of rhetoric and composition were the leaders. As my new book Searching for Literacy shows, this is not the kind of small sample, narrow questions, limited time span, completely quantitative, and very limited interpretatively and comparatively article-length writings that constitute the supposed “science of reading.” (See, for example, Ontario Human Rights Commission, Right to Read: Public Inquiry into Human Rights Issues Affecting Students with Reading Disabilities, 2019; Sarah Schwartz, “New Curriculum Review Gives Failing Marks to Two Popular Reading Programs,” Education Week. Nov. 9, 2022)

Perhaps the most dramatic omissions in this body of studies are the absence of real life context, social and other environments, difference and diversity, patterns of advantage and disadvantage, and relevance of relationship of individuals, families, residential areas, and qualities of schools and teachers. In other words, human circumstances and human agency. Ethnographies and histories are generally the most revealing and powerfully insightful studies. Those approaches in no are contrary to actual science.

Third, the Ohio politics underscore the narrow and ignorant institutional and official pattern over decades of regularly but unacknowledgedly shifting from a nearly complete reliance on one version of dominating approach or cluster of “methods” to the purported opposite, not the strengths of each one working together with the other(s). In public, political, and publishers’ shorthand, this translates—misleadingly—from emphasis on phonetic to phonics and then back again every decade or two—not over one decade but at least two centuries or more.

Fourth, we know a great deal about how most, if not all, young people learn, including reading and literacy. Neither phonics nor phonetics alone captures that. Children do not come to kindergarten nor first grade as blank slates ready to be inscribed by one method of another.

To different degrees and with different abilities and dis-abilities, they recognize pictures, letters and sometimes single or multiple words, and sounds, in various combinations. The “read,” “interpret,” reproduce sounds and visual images. Sole dependence on one of two approaches ignores the variable needs of diverse children. It also ignores everything we have learned from human history over centuries.

Why is that?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.