A revealing case study of academic dishonesty, capitalizing education, institutional and collegial collusion, and damage to children: The Ohio State University’s and Heinemann Publishing’s Fountas and Pinnell aka Reading Recovery
An asian boy reading GRAPHiC N0VEL in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in West Hartford, Connecticut

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Part One

It should surprise no one that in 21st  century United States, young children’s learning to read is a landmine within academic capitalism where sales profits trump diverse children’s basic learning and equitable, humane bases for their futures. Unknowledgeable governors and politicians weigh in, confusing the public and offending teachers. Recent articles and essays in national and local media overflow with this, as the References show.

Today, with more force than usual across states and cities, the episodic “reading wars” erupt with passion and ignorance, and large financial stakes. At their oversimplified base, the “reading wars” pit one of a number of different forms of “phonics” against various forms of “phonetics.”

It is rarely noted that the issues are at least two hundred years, not two decades old, and that they have to do with much more than different ways of teaching children to read—and less often mentioned, write, spell, and do arithmetic.

Even less often is it admitted that diverse children learn to read by building on their visual and oral development with both phonics and phonetics, all interacting, very seldom one or the other. Differently abled children (dyslexic, autistic, non-native-English speaking, deaf, or speechless, for example) learn differently. Together, those are the bases of literacy of which reading is only one part. (See Reference to Graff, Searching for Literacy, and also books by Dyson and Heath, guides and studies on dyslexia.)

No informed educator, board of education member, or concerned parent should be surprised to learn that one national and international center of damage to children’s human development, academic misconduct, dishonesty, and uncontrolled profiteering is the Reading Recovery program also known as Fountas and Pinnell. Developed within the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University and to a lesser extent the School of Education at Lesley University (until recently Lesley College) in Massachusetts. Reading Recovery colludes with their curriculum’s publisher Heinemann, affiliated OSU and external researchers in a “consortium” whose members are paid to play, and the International Literacy Association. (See references to Reading Recovery and critical reports on American Public Media (APM) for a beginning)

The paid membership Reading Recovery Council of North America maintains a misleading, uncontrolled self-promotional website. It also threatens all critics immediately with legal action for which they have no grounds. (For documentation, see the RRC website, studies by Cook and colleagues, dyslexia studies, and critiques by Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and APM) PBS, APM)

This is central to their business model. In this, Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell contrasts strikingly with their major phonetics for-profit rival, Columbia University Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins. Although late, in 2022, Calkins publicly admitted the failures of her “Units of Study” or “balanced literacy” curriculum. She committed to a major revision to include phonics. (See Calkins, Goldstein, Hanford references) Reading Recovery remains defensively but defiantly silent.

Reading Recovery/Fountas & Pinnell never admits any problems. They refuse to respond directly and with academic integrity to fact-based criticism with specific evidence-based, intellectual replies. Their modus operandi is to deny and threaten. (See references below examples)

This is especially clear with respect to dyslexia but also for children with other natural relatively common conditions, impoverished children, and non-native-English speakers. Reading Recovery purposely ignores the realities of young children’s lives. In contradiction to all health, medical, and scientific knowledge, they violated legitimacy, ethics, and basic humanity in an ignorant, insulting, and failing attempt to deny the very existence of dyslexia from 2017-2022. (See discussion below, and also Cook, Dykstra, PBS, Fountas &Pinnell, Heinemann.) An especially damning incident was Reading Recovery’s, Ohio State University’s, and the Ohio Board of Education’s responses to Ohio dyslexic student’s father’s--Dean Fadel—public testimony and formal complaint.

In this essay, I outline an unrecognized and underreported series of unethical and sometimes potentially illegal actions in historical and contemporary context. They demonstrate the capitalization and commercialization of children’s educational development, and university research and education. At the same time, they help to explain some of the reasons why so many young children test below expectations and standards (regardless of the standards’ questionable reliability).

There is no time in recorded history that “literacy”—however defined, if defined at all—has not been “in crisis.” This accelerates over time, reaching its continuing peak and commercialization in the last three-quarters of a century, that is, since the mid-twentieth century. What I named the “literacy myth” in 1979 runs uncontrollably through Reading Recovery “‘early’ literacy” (and also today in “financial literacy,” which is not a literacy at all). (See my books and articles, and the books by Dyson and Heath in the references)

Let me be clear: by myth, I do not mean false. A belief cannot become accepted as a myth unless it accords with some degree--however limited, incomplete, or misleading--of some peoples’ conceptions of “reality.” This is emphatically the case with Reading Recovery since the 1990s, and the history of “reading wars,” about which it seems to be ignorant.

There are powerful but incomplete and misleading notions that literacy—or even only one element of literacy such as basic reading ability, however defined—is an independently transformative factor or in the language of (often pseudo-) science an “independent variable.” Literacy, including basic reading ability, by itself is never completely determinative. Literacy’s importance depends on the actual circumstances of its acquisition and use.

Similarly, no competent researcher or program conceptualizes either early or later reading provision and practice apart from both acquisition and use, on one hand, and independently of children’s and their households’ well-being and the physical and intellectual condition of children, on the other hand. Reading Recovery willfully self-segregates from the realities of children’s lives, and literacy and reading studies, “early” or otherwise. This is debilitating.

At the same time, definitions and measures of literacy constantly conflict, even contradicting each other. Efforts at clarification are rare. Today’s over-emphasis on third grade reading test scores is incomplete, misleading, and distorting. No single age is magical, determinative, or highly predictive of future learning; no one measure, or test provides a complete perspective.

Children develop and learn at different paces and in different ways. None of the standard “achievement” metrics allows for natural, physical and intellectual, and socio-differences among children and, in fact, all ages.

Remarkably, by the 2020s neither the self-promoting, often marketing-based “science of reading,” or “SoR” as it almost self-mockingly bills itself, nor Fountas and Pinnell/Reading Recovery or its complements and opponents, recognizes those long persisting fundamentals. None of their publications or reports shows any familiarity with reading, writing, arithmetic, or literacy studies, all well-established fields of studies with shelves of publications. Even a glance at their reference lists confirms this. It is shocking for professors of education, among others who claim to be experts.

This is unscholarly and should be grounds for disqualification by itself. These self-described “scientists” and curriculum promoters are unable to walk across the hallways of their buildings to talk to their colleagues, let alone go to the library or search online.

But no, at OSU, Reading Research is part of an ungainly Department of Teaching and Learning. In fact, it is not located physically within the College of Education. It is housed in a support area on the far western edge of the large campus like a separate business or support center.

An ungainly, uncoordinated collection of often poorly conducted numerical analyses, overwhelmingly based on weak data of very short duration with almost no expected statistical or numerical checks and safeguards, SoR is not a “science.” It is a quest for attention, recognition, and funding—and  of course marketing. A review of SoR’s own promotions, the few critiques, and representations by APM show this. They bear no relationship to the basics of modern science as presented by Thomas Kuhn in is classic book on scientific revolutions.

Since the mid-20th century, “science” became a marketing as much as a research term. In fact, both Reading Recovery and its critics claim the support of “science.” Reading Recovery differs, however, because they use their curricula’s royalties to pay directly or indirectly for flawed, unprofessional support.

At OSU, this includes their faculty colleagues. Jerome D’Augustino and Emily Rodgers stand out. This is not acceptable practice in reputable universities. (See in the references, studies by D’Augustino and Rodgers, Compare them to the criticisms of Cook et al, earlier Denton, and later Somers)

Reading Recovery/Fountas & Pinnell is an especially egregious case in point. Extraordinarily successful commercially for both the authors and their universities, and their international publisher, it is falsely marketed, contested, unproved, and damaging to many children in need of knowledgeable assistance. These characteristics stand out among its many unadmitted contradictions, Reading Recovery clashes with all we know about child development, the wide range of reading “problems,” and the variable paths children take to both reading and literacy (which are not the same),

Against all evidence, and its own promotion, Reading Recovery perpetuates the dangerous notion that “one size”—a very small one at that--or approach, “fits all,” despite its inability to specify what ages count for “early reading.” There is no doubt that Reading Recovery is first and last a for-profit, marketing venue for sales. (Compare Peak, APM, Tobin, with s Fountas and Pinnell, and Heinemann website).

Reading Recovering stemmed metaphorically and rhetorically—but not empirically--from and by personal association with the limited 1970s work of New Zealand education professor Marie Clay. This was later summarized in her 1993 An Observation Study of Early Literacy Achievement (revised edition 2005) published by Heinemann, the curricula’s publisher. Reading Recovery migrated to the United States via the College of Education at The Ohio State University in 1984.

Beginning in 1984-1985, with its OSU reinvention, branding, institutionalization, and promotion of Marie Clay “observation study” reading instruction by Professors Charlotte Huck and Gay Su Pinnell and later in association with Pinnell’s collaborator Irene Fountas of Lesley University, Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell began.

None of the principals are trained scholarly researchers despite their public misrepresentations. Huck studied and wrote children’s literature, not reading or literacy. Her younger OSU doctoral graduate Pinnell is labelled an “educational theorist” in her Wikipedia entry. She is not. Nor is she a “field-based researcher,” as Heinemann advertises. (See resumes on university and Reading Recovery websites)

Irene C. Fountas is the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair for Early Literacy and Reading Recovery at Lesley University, Massachusetts, and director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative in the Graduate School of Education. Both are branches of OSU’s and Heinemann’s Reading Recovery enterprise. Like Pinnell, Fountas is not an educational theorist or an academic researcher. Lesley is not a research university; until recently, it was titled Lesley College. Fountas’ terminal degree is an Ed.D. from Boston University, not a Ph.D.

Neither has a record of peer-reviewed scholarly research publications. Their positions are endowed and supported by revenue from Fountas and Pinnell curriculum materials sold worldwide by Heinemann.

Basically, they are not university academic teachers and researchers. They operate self-supporting, capitalized, and commercialized enterprises. Neither they nor their Reading Recovery Centers are governed by or conducted in accord with basic academic practices. This raises fundamental questions about scholarly professionalism, integrity, ethics, and conflicts of interests.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Their publishers, universities, Reading Recovery Council of North America “non-profit”-paid membership group, and Heinemann Publishers collude in unchecked self-promotion which does not stand up to scrutiny. Reading Recovery is an insulated, accept no criticism, deny all credible examinations, self-funded, and promoter of efforts—legitimate or not--to support the program’s success. Those efforts are conducted by in-house colleagues and “collaborators” who manipulate data that are not always relevant.

Multiple reviews agree that this is a well-documented case of unethical academic research activity and misconduct. None of this disturbs Fountas and Pinnell, Heinemann Publishers, or the watch-dog Reading Recovery Council replete with attack-dog attorneys who threaten action without any grounds. They are supported regularly by the semi-professional ideologically driven International Literacy Association. (See Reading Recovery Council website and publications)

This amounts to a house of cards that is now collapsing. To careful observers, the decline commenced at least two decades ago as the curriculum’s results were tested; its claims refuted. (See references) On one hand, there is the well-documented and increasingly widely known failure of Reading Recovery. On the other hand, predictably, there is the periodic pendulum swing of the “reading wars” with the shift to the somewhat stronger but by itself still incomplete phonics, replacing phonetics in one or another of their many forms and formats.

Profits from Heinemann Publishing’s sale of the program’s texts and guides are one of the OSU College of Education’s “cash cows.” This is a major reason why documented complaints and charges of academic misconduct from parents and experts on the challenges of dyslexic children to learn to read are always dismissed by OSU self-protective Office of Compliance and Office of Legal Affairs. OSU has a documented history of refusal to respond to complaints and even legitimate Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) requests.

Royalty proceeds from Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell go to Gay Su Pinnell’s own foundation based in Dublin, Ohio, where she reportedly lives in a mansion on the fringe of a private golf course, unlike a retired professor. In her name, the foundation disperses money to OSU for the non-tenure track, non-scholarly Mary D. Fried Endowed Clinical Assistant Professor (Jamie Lipp) and Marie Clay Endowed Chair in Reading Recovery and Early Literacy (Lisa Pinkerton).

It is highly unusual for private profits to be used to endow nontenure-track positions in a college of a major university whose sole purpose is to work until retirement for former professors and dissertations supervisors on their commercial, for-profit projects. (Medical schools are a partial exception)

With Ohio’s governor now leading a campaign against phonetics-first reading, Pinnell’s foundation donated $1 million to Texas Women’s University. TWU has no special standing in the field. According to OSU’s press release, Pinnell “donated . . . to help expand the reach of the program she helped create.” (OSU student newspaper The Lantern, Feb. 18, 2023) In other words, to continue the quest for profits.

The holders of these endowed nontenure track positions are Jamie Lipp and Lisa Pinkerton. Both are former graduate students of Pinnell and other OSU professors who work for Reading Research, and are officers and members of Reading Recovery Council of North America and its set of collaborating colleges of education. Lipp and Pinkerton are “trainers” and co-authors of RR materials. They are not scholarly researchers.

Reading Recovery is an unusual self-funded, self-perpetuating business. Very rare in the arts and sciences or colleges of education, they occasionally appear in colleges of medicine, business, and engineering. The principals are not scholars; they do not function as independent researchers in the accepted meaning of that term.


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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. The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. “Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” in in progress.