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If you live in Ohio’s Senate District 19, please vote for Louise Valentine and help Andrew Brenner return to private life.

He is chair of the Senate Education Committee. He thinks that public schools are “socialism.” He received nice payouts from the ECOT scam. He needs to leave public life and return to private pursuits.

Read about him here.

He likes the word “socialist” and uses it to smear anyone or anything he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like public schools. He doesn’t like Louise Valentine. Socialist! She is an Ohio native, a graduate of public schools, Ohio State University, and a businesswoman. Among many other endorsements, she was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and Columbus Firefighters, The Columbus Building Trades Council, also the Ohio Education Association and Emily’s List. Not known as socialists.

As Denis Smith, formerly of the Ohio Department of Education, writes:

“Radical. Socialist. Extremist. This from the guy whose top campaign contributor is still shown to be William Lager of ECOT on Votesmart, a popular campaign finance website. But he has no problem taking money derived from public funds that were diverted from those “socialist” public school districts. This from a guy who is the darling of the National Rifle Association, an extremist group that many believe fits the profile of a domestic terrorist organization through its indifference to the rising number of school shootings and promotion of a weapons culture in this country…

“We’ve read about his views of public schools as examples of socialism. We’ve read that he thinks cursive writing is the most important skill that the socialist schools aren’t currently teaching. We know that he hasn’t returned that socialist public money that was given to him by ECOT. And we know that he loves the Second Amendment while dishonoring the First Amendment by blocking constituents from commenting on his social media pages.

“Andrew Brenner must be willing to show up and answer these questions. He also needs to show his mettle and seeming command of the issues by debating Louise Valentine.

“But don’t hold your breath.

“A candidate who can hurl insults and tag his opponent as #LyinLouise but doesn’t have the courage to face her in front of an audience does not deserve your support. And like his hero, Donald Trump, there comes a time when you just run out of bullshit.

“Andrew Brenner has reached that point.

“On November 6, if you live in Senate District 19, please show up and be counted. Vote for Louise Valentine for Ohio Senate. By doing so, you’ll send Andrew Brenner to retirement so that he can have time to learn more about socialism, attend Jerry Falwell University, and work on becoming a realtor.

“Um, there is one more thing. If Brenner acquires a public pension due to his time in the legislature, he would be submitting to socialism.”

Please save Andrew Brenner from taking socialist government money.

Vote for Louise Valentine.

Robert Shepherd is a teacher, curriculum developer, author, and much more. Here is how he describes himself on his website:

“Interests: curriculum design, pedagogical approaches, assessment, educational technology, learning, open source and crowd sourced educational materials, linguistics (syntax, semantics, child language acquisition, history of writing systems), hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, theater, archaeology and cultural anthropology, prehistory, cultural history, history of ideas, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation.”

You can download the piece here.

On the Pseudoscience of Strategies-Based Reading Comprehension Instruction, or What Current Reading Comprehension Instruction Has in Common with Astrology

Bob Shepherd

Permit me to start with an analogy.

As a hobby, I make and repair guitars. This is exacting work, requiring
precise measurement. If the top (or soundboard) of a guitar is half a millimeter
too thin, the wood may crack along the grain. If the top is half a millimeter too
thick, the guitar will not properly resonate.  For a classical guitar
soundboard made of Engelmann spruce (the usual material), the ideal thickness is
between 1.5 and 2 mm, depending on the width of the woodgrain. However,
experienced luthiers typically dome their soundboards, adding thickness (about
half a millimeter) around the edges, at the joins, and in the area just around
the soundhole (to accommodate an inset, decorative rosette and to compensate
for the weakness introduced by cutting the hole).

To measure an object this precisely, one needs good measuring equipment. To measure around the soundhole, one might use a device like this, a Starrett micrometer that sells for about $450:


It probably goes without saying
that one doesn’t use an expensive, precision tool like this for a purpose for
which it was not designed. You could use it to tap in frets, but you
wouldn’t want to, obviously. It wouldn’t do the job properly, and you would
end up destroying both the work and the tool.

But that’s just what Reading
teachers and English teachers are now doing, almost universally, when they
teach “reading comprehension.” They are applying astonishingly sophisticated
tools—the minds of their students—in ways that they were not designed to work,
and in the process, they are doing significant damage.
To understand why
the default method for teaching reading comprehension now being implemented in
our classrooms fails, utterly, to work, one has to understand how the internal
mechanism for language is designed to operate.

Linguists, since Chomsky, use the
phrase Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, to refer to the
innate mechanism—hardwired into the human brain—for learning spoken language,
including grammar and vocabulary. The parts of the brain that carry out this learning
work coordinate with other parts of the brain that do pattern recognition (for
decoding) and long-term storage and retrieval of knowledge about the world (for
recognizing context and reference) to form the complex mental tool for
comprehending texts. Sadly, English teachers, reading teachers, curriculum
coordinators, education professors, test makers, the leaders of textbook
companies, and the bureaucrats and politicians who mandate state testing of
reading typically understand almost nothing of how the internal tools for
comprehending a text work,
for almost to a person, they know very little of
contemporary linguistic and cognitive science, and so instead of basing their
instruction and assessment on those sciences, they fall back on unexamined folk
ideas—established habits of the tribe—and implement instruction and
assessment that can most charitably be described as prescientific folk-theory
and superstition.
The internal tool—the language mechanism of the student
brain—is not designed to work in the ways in which “reading comprehension
specialists” are asking students to use it. Ironically, the person with the
doctorate in Reading Comprehension from an education school is the one most
likely to be wedded to prescientific techniques (pedagogy) and materials
(curricula and assessments). Such people direct reading instruction in our
schools, and the result is predictable: kids who don’t read on their own,
typically, for pleasure because they can’t—because for them reading is too
difficult to be enjoyable.

The Persistence of the

In the past fifty years, we have
had dramatic scientific revolutions in both linguistics and in cognitive
psychology. We now know a lot about how language and knowledge are acquired and
about how people make sense of texts, and almost none of this science
has made its way into instructional techniques and materials.
A digression
on the history of physics will provide an illuminating contrast to the current
state of reading instruction.

In their
brilliant and accessible little book The Evolution of Physics, Albert
Einstein and Leopold Infeld describe how Galileo used a thought experiment to
overturn the 1700 -year-old Aristotelian notion that objects in motion contain
a motive force that is used up until they come to rest. Galileo imagined using
oil to make the object travel further. Then he imagined using a perfect oil
that would perfectly reduce the friction acting on the object. The result was
the idea codified in Newton’s First Law of Motion: objects don’t move until
they use up their force; instead, they persevere indefinitely (forever) in
uniform motion until they are acted upon by an external force that changes
their motion. The Aristotelian notion is entirely intuitive. The Galilean/Newtonian
notion is quite counterintuitive. However, the Aristotelian notion is false,
and the Galilean/Newtonian one true. Aristotle’s was a prescientific folk
theory of motion. It made sense to people, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong, and
the development of modern technology and science was not possible until it was

Other folk and
pseudo-scientific theories of physics and astrophysics have held sway
throughout the centuries—the theory that fire is the release, during
combustion, of an element called phlogiston; the theory that light propagates
as waves in an invisible medium called the ether that fills space; the theory
that heavier objects fall faster than light ones do; the theory that the Earth
is flat; the theory that the sun travels across the sky; the theory that the
Earth is at the center of the universe and that planets revolve around it in
epicycles—spheres within spheres. All these notions made sense based on
people’s everyday observations and their intuitive thinking about those observations,
and all were absolutely wrong.

Now, imagine that
you go into a high school in the United States today (in 2016), pick up an
introductory physical science text, and find that it teaches the Aristotelian
theory of motion, the phlogiston theory of fire, and the waves-through-ether
theory of light propagation. Suppose the space science textbook in that school
teaches that a flat earth sits at the center of the universe and that planets
travel around it in epicycles. You would be shocked, appalled, scandalized.
But, of course, this would never happen. Our physics textbooks try to teach
elementary contemporary physics.

But walk into
almost any K-12 school in the United States today and you will find instructional
and assessment techniques and materials that are built upon prescientific, folk
theories of grammar, vocabulary acquisition, and reading comprehension that are
completely at odds with our contemporary scientific understandings of these. Walk
into teacher training institutions and you will find, typically, that the
prescientific, folk theories are the ones being taught. Pick up any state or
district interim reading assessment, and you will find that they were built on
these folk theories.

What Reading Comprehension

In order to read a text with
comprehension, one needs to be able to

1.     Interpret
automatically (unconsciously and fluidly) the symbols being used (the phonics
component of decoding). Note that this crucial precursor for reading
comprehension requires that the student be able to recognize, quickly and
without effort and, indeed, without conscious rehearsal of the fact that they
are doing so, the roughly 42 separate sound-symbol correspondences of written

2.     Parse
automatically (unconsciously and fluidly) the syntax of the sentences (the
grammar component of decoding). Note that this crucial precursor for reading
comprehension requires that the student be able to parse, quickly and without
effort and, indeed, without conscious rehearsal of the fact that they are doing
so, many thousands of syntactic forms.

3.     Interpret
the meanings of the words and phrases (based on what they refer to and how they
are used in relevant real-world contexts). Note that this crucial element of
reading comprehension depends, fundamentally, upon specific world knowledge in
the domain that the text treats. A contemporary philosophy text might use words
like defeasible, propositional calculus, modal operator, zombie, counterfactual,
supervenience, indexicality,
and grue, and one will have to know how
these words are used in contemporary philosophy and quite a bit about how they
are related to one another in order to understand the text at all.

4.     Recognize
the kairos, or total context, of the text (its who, what, where, when, why, and
how, including its genre, or type, the concerns of its author, and its literary
and rhetorical conventions). Note that this crucial element of reading
comprehension depends upon prior experience with similar extra-textual

Let’s look at each of these in turn
to learn what science now tells us about them and how our reading comprehension
instruction goes wrong.

Phonics and Reading

This is the one bright spot in our
reading instruction, an area where practice has caught up to scientific
understanding. However, it’s taken us a while to get there. In the middle of
the last century, we were using what is known as the “Look-Say” method for
teaching kids to decode texts. This method was enshrined in such curricula as
the Dick and Jane readers. The method was based on a now-discredited
Behaviorist theory that saw language learning as repeated exposure to
increasingly complex language stimuli paired with ostensive objects (in the
case of the Dick and Jane readers, with illustrations). See Dick run. Dick runs
fast. See, see, how fast Dick runs. The theory of language learning by mere
association of the stimulus and its object dates all the way back to St.
Augustine, who wrote in his Confessions:

When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards
it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound
they uttered, since they meant to point it out. . . . In this way, little by
little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in
their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my
tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes.[1]

It’s an intuitive theory, like the
theory that moving objects use up their force until they stop, but like that
theory, it’s wrong. Look-Say was a flawed approach because it was based on a
false theory of how language was acquired. The fullest exposition of that flawed
theory can be found in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957). In 1959,
Noam Chomsky, who has done more than anyone to create a true science of
language learning, delivered a devastating blow to behaviorist theories of
language learning in a seminal review of Skinner’s book.[2] Basically, Chomsky described
aspects of language, such as its embedded recursiveness and infinite
generativity, that, like jazz improvisation, cannot be explained solely on the
basis of responses to stimuli. More about the Chomskian revolution later.

Toward the end of the last century,
hundreds of thousands of educators around the country embraced something called
“Whole Language instruction.” Proponents argued that it wasn’t necessary to
teach kids sound-symbol correspondences because language was learned
automatically, in meaningful contexts. The idea was that one simply had to
expose kids to meaningful language at their level, and the decoding stuff would
take care of itself, in the absence of explicit decoding instruction. Those states
and school districts that adopted Whole Language approaches saw their students’
reading scores fall precipitously. Education is given to such fads and to such
disastrous results.

A little knowledge of linguistic
science would have prevented the debacle that was Whole Language. The best
current scientific thinking is that language emerged some 50,000-to-70,000
years ago. For many thousands of years, people learned to use spoken language
without explicit instruction. However, writing is a relatively recent
phenomenon. It’s been around for only about 5,000 years (It emerged in
Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE, in China around 1,200 BCE, and in Mesoamerica
around 600 BCE). Both the Look-Say and Whole Language proponents failed to
recognize that spoken language has been around long enough for brains to evolve
specific mechanisms for learning it automatically, in the absence of explicit
instruction, but that this is not true of writing. There is no evolved,
internal mechanism, in the brain, specifically wired for decoding of written
language, as there is for spoken language. Instead, decoding of written symbols
and associating them with speech sounds requires, usually, explicit
Such decoding appropriates general pattern recognition
abilities of the brain and puts them to this particular use. Some few children
are good enough at pattern recognition and get enough exposure to sound-symbol
correspondences to be able to learn to decode in the absence of explicit
instruction in interpretation of those correspondences, but those kids often
don’t develop the automaticity needed for truly fluent reading. There is now no
question about this: There is voluminous research showing that most students
have to be taught phonics (sound-symbol correspondences) explicitly if they are
to learn to decode fluently. For excellent reviews of this research, see Diane
McGuiness’s Early Reading Instruction: What
Science Really Tells
Us about How to
Teach Reading.
Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT P., 2004, and Why Our Children Cant Read
and What We
Can Do about It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading.
New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1999.

The Look-Say advocates got their
ideas from simplistic Behaviorist models of learning, but where did the Whole
Language people get theirs? Well, from listening at the keyholes of linguists.
As often happens in education, professional educators half heard and half
understood something being said by scientists and applied it in a crazy
fashion. What they half heard was that linguists were saying that language is
learned automatically. The part that they missed is that the linguists were
talking about spoken language, not written.

The upshot: In order to be able to
comprehend texts, there is a prerequisite: automaticity with regard to decoding
of sound-symbol correspondences. Where does one get this automaticity? From
explicit phonics instruction. This is a lesson that we have learned. The
science has caught up with classroom practice, and most elementary schools now
use, successfully, an explicit early phonics curriculum. That’s the good news.
Now for the rest, which is not so good.

Grammatical Fluency

In the last decade of the twentieth
century, the U.S. Department of Education committed billions of dollars to an
initiative called Reading First, with the aim of improving reading among
schoolchildren nationwide. It’s a mark of how scientifically backward and
benighted our professional reading establishment is that when the directors of
this program consulted with “experts” and outlined the areas of focus to be
addressed by Reading First (and assessed by reading examinations), they
included among items to be addressed by the program students’ decoding skills
(phonemic awareness and phonics), vocabulary, and comprehension but completely
ignored grammatical fluency. However, and this ought to be obvious, written
texts consist of sentences that have particular syntactic patterns. If students
cannot automatically—that is, fluently and unconsciously—parse the syntactic
patterns being used, then they might have some idea what the subject of the
text is, but they won’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding what the text
is saying
. Syntactic complexity is a significant determinant of complexity
and readability.
Consider the opening two sentences of the Declaration of

Sentence One:

When in the Course
of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political
bands which have connected them with one another and to assume among the powers
of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of
Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires
that they should declare which impel them to the separation.

Sentence Two:

We hold these
truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—that to secure these rights,
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed, —that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of
these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to
institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and
organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect
their Safety and Happiness.

These sentences contain a few
vocabulary items that might be challenging to young people—impel, endowed,
and unalienable—but for the most part, the words used have high
frequency and present no great challenge. The most significant stumbling block
for comprehension of these sentences is their syntactic complexity. The first
sentence consists of a long adverbial clause, beginning with When in the
and ending with entitle them, that specifies the conditions
under which it is necessary to take the action described in a main clause that
follows it (a decent respect . . . requires). The second sentence
consists of a main clause that introduces a list in the form of five relative
clauses, each specifying a truth held to be self evident. Here’s the point: the
student who can’t follow the basic syntactic form of these sentences will be
completely lost. He or she won’t understand how a given idea in one of these
sentences relates to another idea in them (for that is what syntax does; it relates
ideas in particular ways). An automatic, fluid grasp of the syntax of a
sentence is critical to comprehending what it means.
What’s true of
complicated sentences like these from the Declaration of Independence is true
of sentences in general. One can’t comprehend them if one cannot parse their
syntax automatically (quickly and unconsciously). Grammatical competence is one
of the keys to decoding, and decoding is a prerequisite for comprehension.

So, are schools today ensuring via
their instructional methods and assessments that students are gaining the
automatic syntactic fluency necessary for decoding? Well, no. In fact, they
are implementing materials based on a folk theory of grammar that predates the
current scientific model of language acquisition.
Consider, for example,
this gem from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts,
which provide the outline for current instruction in English and reading.
According to the CCSS, an eighth-grade student should be able to

Explain the
function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their
function in particular sentences. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy-L.8.1a).

The other grammar-related
“standards” in the CCSS are similar. They all show that at the highest
levels in our educational establishment, there is a complete lack of
understanding of what science now tells us about how the grammar of a language
is acquired.
The standard instantiates a prescientific, folk theory of
grammar that assumes that it is explicitly acquired and is available for
explicit description by someone who knows it (“Explain the function”).

This standard tells us that
students are to be instructed in and assessed on the ability a) to explain the
function of verbals (gerunds, participles, and infinitives) in general and b)
their function in particular sentences. In order for students to be able to do
this, they will have to be taught how to identify gerunds, participles, and
infinitives and how to explain their functions generally and in particular
sentences. In order for the standard to be met, these bits of grammatical
taxonomy will have to be explicitly taught and explicitly learned, for the standard
requires students to be able to make explicit explanations. Now, there is a
difference between having learned an explicit grammatical taxonomy and having
acquired competence in using the grammatical forms listed in that taxonomy. The
authors of the standard seem not to have understood this.

Let’s think about the kind of
activity that this standard envisions our having students do. Identifying the
functions of verbals in sentences would require students to be able to do,
among other things, something like this:

Underline the
gerund phrases in the following sentences and tell whether each is functioning
as a subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition,
predicate nominative, retained object, subjective complement, objective
complement, or appositive of any of these.

That’s what’s entailed by PART of
the standard. And since the standard just mentions verbals generally and not
any of the many forms that these can take, one doesn’t know whether it covers,
for example, infintives used without the infinitive marker “to,” so-called
“bare infinitives,” as in “Let there be peace.” (Compare “John wanted there to
be peace.”) Obviously, meeting this ONE standard would require YEARS of
explicit, formal instruction in syntax, and what contemporary linguistic
science teaches us is that all of that instruction would be completely
irrelevant to students being able to formulate and comprehend sentences.

Contemporary linguistic science
teaches that the grammar of a language is learned not through explicit
instruction in grammatical forms but, rather, automatically (fluently and
unconsciously) via the operation of an internal mechanism dedicated to such
learning. Permit me an example. If you are a native speaker of English, you know

the green, great dragon

“sounds weird” (e.g., is
ungrammatical) and that

the great, green

“sounds fine” (e.g., is grammatical).

That’s because, based on the
ambient linguistic environment in which you came of age, you intuited,
automatically, without your being aware that you were doing so, a complex set
of rules governing the proper syntax of adjectives in a series. No one
taught you, explicitly, these rules governing the order of precedence of
adjectives in English, and the chances are that you cannot even state the rules
that you nonetheless know.
And what’s true of this set of rules is true of
all but a miniscule portion of the grammar of a language that a speaker “knows”—that
he or she can use. Knowledge of grammar is like knowledge of how to walk. It is
not conscious knowledge. The walker did not learn to do so by studying the
physics of motion and the operation of motor neurons, bones, and muscles. The
brain and body are designed in such a way as to do these things automatically.
The same is true, contemporary linguistic science teaches us, of the learning
of the grammar of a language. Speakers and writers of English follow hundreds
of thousands of rules, such as the C-command condition on the binding of
anaphors (a key component of the syntax of languages worldwide), that they know
nothing about explicitly. Following this rule, they will say that “The
president may blame himself” but will never say “Supporters of the president
may blame himself,”[3]
which violates the rule, even though they were never taught the rule explicitly
and could not explain, unless they have had an introductory Syntax course, what
the rule is that they have been following all their lives. Since the
ground-breaking work by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, we have over the past sixty
years developed a robust scientific model of how the grammar of a language is
acquired. It is acquired unconsciously and automatically by an internal
language acquisition mechanism.

Like many great thinkers, Chomsky
started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most
children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a
spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns,
within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to
communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate. This
learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence and
fails to occur only when there is a physical problem with the child’s brain or
in conditions of extreme deprivation in which the child has limited exposure to
language. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her
language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is
extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has
not been directly and explicitly taught. For example, long before going to
school and without being taught what direct objects and objects of prepositions
are, an English- speaking child understands that the first two sentences,
below, “sound right” and that the second two sentences do not.

Jose threw the

The football
landed in the neighbor’s yard.

* The football
threw Jose.

* Landed the
football the yard neighbor’s in.

In other words, on some level, the
English-speaking child “knows” that objects follow (and do not precede) the
verbs and prepositions that govern them, even though he or she has no clue what
objects, verbs, and prepositions are. The Japanese child, in contrast, “knows”
just as well that in Japanese objects precede (and do not follow) the verbs and
prepositions that govern them. So, imagine that the sentences, above, were
translated word-by-word into Japanese and that the word order were retained. To
a Japanese child, the word order of the first two sentences above would sound quite
strange, while the word order of the second two sentences would be
unexceptional—just the opposite from English. English is a head first language,
in which the head of a grammatical phrase precedes its objects and complements.
Japanese is a head-last language, in which the head of a grammatical phrase
follows its objects and complements. Kids are not taught this. They are born
with part of the grammar (the fact that there are heads, objects, and
complements, for example) already hard wired into their heads. Then, based on
their ambient linguistic environments, they automatically set certain
parameters of the hard-wired internal grammar, such as head position. Children
do not learn such rules by being taught them any more than a whale learns to
echolocate by attending echolocation classes.

Chomsky’s central insight was that
in order for a child to be able to learn a spoken language with such rapidity
and thoroughness, that child must be born with large portions of a universal
grammar of language already hardwired into his or her head. So, for example,
the neural mechanisms that provide for classification of items from the stream
of speech into verbs and prepositions and objects, and those mechanisms that
allow verbs and prepositions to govern their objects, are inborn. They are part
of the equipment with which human children come into the world. Then, when a
child hears a particular language, English or Japanese, for example, certain
parameters of the inborn language mechanism, such as the position of objects
with respect to their governors, are set by a completely unconscious, autonomic
process that is itself part of the innate neural machinery for language

Because the learning of a grammar
is done automatically and unconsciously by the brain, explicit instruction
in grammatical forms of the kind called for by the Common Core State Standard
quoted above is irrelevant. And, in fact, such instruction is most likely going
to get in the way,
much as if one tried to teach a child to walk by making
him or her memorize the names of the relevant muscles, nerves, and skeletal
structures or tried to teach a baseball player how to hit by teaching him or
her calculus to describe the aerodynamics of baseballs in motion. In other
words, the national standard is based on a prescientific understanding of how
grammar is acquired. This should be a national scandal. It’s as though we had
new standards for tactics for the U.S. Navy that warned against the possibility
of sailing off the edge of the earth.

To return to the main topic, we
have seen, above, that grammatical fluency and automaticity is an essential
prerequisite to reading comprehension. So, if such fluency and automaticity is
not gained via explicit instruction, how is it to be acquired? The answer is
quite simple: The child has to be exposed to an ambient linguistic
environment containing increasingly complex syntactic structures so that the
language acquisition device in the brain has the material on which to work to
put together a model of the language.

So, why do some kids have, early
on, a great deal of syntactic competence while other kids do not? The answer
should be obvious from the foregoing. Some were raised in syntactically rich
linguistic environments, and some were not. In 2003, Betty Hart and Todd R.
Risley of the University of Kansas published a study showing that students from
low-income families were exposed, before the age of three, to 30 million fewer
words (to a lot less language) than were students from high-income families,
and that the language to which they were exposed was extremely syntactically

Shockingly, however, what reading
comprehension people commonly do in their classrooms mirrors what happens to
kids from impoverished families and is precisely the opposite of what is
required by the language acquisition device, or LAD. Instead of providing
syntactically complex materials as part of the child’s ambient linguistic
environment so that the LAD can “learn” those forms automatically and
incorporate them into the child’s working syntax, reading “professionals” intentionally
use with children what are known as levelled readers. These intentionally
contain short (and thus, usually, syntactically impoverished) sentences that
will come out “at grade level” according to simplistic (and simple-minded)
“readability formulas” like Lexile and Flesch-Kincaid. The readability formulas
used to “level” the texts put before children vary in minor details, but almost
all are based on sentence length and word frequency (how frequently the words used
in the text occur in some language collection known as a corpus). Shorter
sentences are, of course, statistically likely to be syntactically simple. So,
as a direct result of the method of text selection, complex syntactic forms
are, de facto, banished from textbooks and other reading materials used
in reading classes. Teachers go off to education schools to take their master’s
degrees and doctorates in reading, where they learn to use such formulas to
ensure that reading is “on grade level,” and by using such formulas, they
inadvertently deprive kids of precisely the material that they need to be
exposed to in order for their LADs to do their work. After years of exposure to
nothing but texts that have been intentionally syntactically impoverished, the
students have not developed the necessary syntactic fluency for adult reading.

When confronted with real-world texts, with their embedded relative and
subordinate clauses, verbal phrases, appositives, absolute constructions,
correlative constructions, and so on, they can’t make heads or tails of what is
being said because the sentences are syntactically opaque. A sentence from the
Declaration of Independence, The Scarlet Letter, a legal document, or a
technical manual might as well be written in Swahili or Linear B.

What can be done to ensure that
students develop syntactic fluency? I am not suggesting that students be given
texts too difficult for them to comprehend, obviously. I am saying that they
must be given texts that are challenging syntactically—that present them with
syntactic forms that they cannot, at their stage of development, parse
automatically, for it is only by this means that the innate grammar-learning
mechanism can operate to expand the student’s syntactic range. Here are a few
techniques: In conversation with students, use syntactically complex language. Present
them with texts that are routinely just above their current level of syntactic
decoding ability. Have them listen to syntactically complex texts (because
syntactic decoding of spoken language outpaces syntactic decoding of written
language). Have them memorize passages containing complex syntactic constructions.
Have them do sentence combining and sentence expansion exercises. And most of
all, as soon as they can begin to do so, with difficulty, have them read
real-world materials—novels and essays and nonfiction books that have NOT been
leveled but that are high interest enough to repay their effort. That such
materials will contain difficult-to-parse constructions is precisely the point.
Those are the materials on which the LAD works to acquire internal grammatical

Vocabulary and World Knowledge

So, with regard to the grammatical
fluency component of reading comprehension, the state of our pedagogy is
abysmal. We have things precisely backward. In the whole language days, we
avoided explicit instruction in phonics when it was precisely explicit
instruction that was required by the inadequacy of the internal
language-learning mechanism with regard to the task of interpreting
sound-symbol correspondences. Today, we do explicit instruction in grammar,
when the internal language-learning mechanism is set up to learn grammar
automatically, without explicit instruction.

Are things any better with regard
to the vocabulary component of comprehension? Sadly, no. The most common way in
which vocabulary instruction is approached in the United States today is by
giving students a list of “difficult” (low-frequency) words taken from a
selection. So, for example, a student might be assigned the reading of Chapter
1 of Wuthering Heights and be given this list of words from the chapter:




















Students are then asked to look the
words up in the dictionary or in a glossary, define them, write sentences using
them, and memorize them for a vocabulary quiz. As with grammar, the preferred
approach involves explicit instruction.

Now, the thing that should strike
you, in looking at that list, taken, as it is, out of the context of the novel,
is that they might as well be words taken at random. The task facing the
student is quite similar to memorizing a random list of telephone numbers.

Other commonly used instructional
techniques include teaching students to do word analysis by having them
memorize Greek and Latin prefixes, suffixes and roots and teaching them to use
context clues such as examples, synonyms, antonyms, and definitions.

Again, these instructional approaches
fly in the face of the established science of language acquisition. We now
know, because linguists have studied this, that almost all of the vocabulary
that an adult uses (active vocabulary) and understands (passive vocabulary) is
learned unconsciously, without explicit instruction.
Far less than one
of adult vocabulary has been acquired by direct, explicit
instruction because direct, explicit instruction is not the means by which
vocabulary is acquired. As with grammar, there is a way in which the
language-learning mechanism in the brain is set up to learn vocabulary, and
that way is not via explicit instruction. So, how do people learn vocabulary? A
person takes a painting class at the Y. In the course of the coming weeks, the
people around him or her use, in that class, terms like gesso, chiaroscuro,
stippling, filbert brush, titanium white,
and so on, and, in the absence of
explicit instruction, the speaker picks the words up because people’s brains
are built to acquire vocabulary automatically in semantic networks in
meaningful contexts.
Vocabulary is a variety of world knowledge, and like
other world knowledge, it is added, incidentally, to the network of knowledge
that one has about a context in which it was actually used. For vocabulary to
be acquired and retained, it has to be learned in the context of other
vocabulary and world-knowledge having to do with a particular domain. Human
brains are connection machines. Knowledge is easily acquired and retained if
it is connected to existing knowledge.
The message for educators is clear: If
you want students to learn vocabulary, skip the explicit vocabulary instruction
and concentrate, instead, on extended exposure to knowledge in particular
domains and enable the students to acquire, in context, the vocabulary native
to that domain. The focus has to be on the knowledge domain—on turtles or Egypt
or 19th-century Romanticism or whatever—and
the vocabulary
has to be learned incidentally and in batches of semantically related terms
because that is how vocabulary is actually learned. It’s how the brain is set
up to learn new words
. As it stands now, students are subjected to many, many
thousands of hours of explicit instruction in random vocabulary items, with the
result that far less than one percent of the vocabulary that they actually
learn was acquired by this means. The opportunity cost of this heedless
approach is staggering.

My teachers should
have ridden with Jesse James

For all the time
they stole from me.


With regard to the vocabulary from Wuthering
teachers are well advised to read with the kids and stop, from
time to time, to clarify the meaning of a word in its immediate context but to
skip the list and its attendant fruitless pedagogical activities.

Kairos and World Knowledge

Texts exist in context. If someone
says, “We need to tie up the loose ends here,” it makes a difference whether
the speaker is a macramé instructor or Tony Soprano. Is the statement about
pieces of string or about a mob hit? The context matters. Comprehending the
sentence—understanding what it means—depends crucially on the context in which
it is uttered. The same is true of almost all language.

The ancient Greeks used the term kairos
to refer to a speaker’s sensitivity to his or her audience, to the occasion,
and to the immediate context of the utterance. I’ll be using it, here, in a
slightly expanded sense to refer to all the extra-textual stuff that goes into
understanding a text. For years, reading comprehension teachers have been told
to begin the reading of a text by “activating their student’s prior knowledge.”
Millions of teachers dutifully learned this “strategy” and attempted to apply
it in their classrooms even though a moment’s reflection would have revealed it
to be completely absurd. If a student already has the relevant
background knowledge to understand a text, then it will not need to be
“activated.” It will simply be there. And if the student does NOT have the
relevant background knowledge, no amount of having students tell what they
already know will supply it. That said, and here we have yet another example of
educators half hearing what scientists have been saying, cognitive scientists
like Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia and the education theorist
E.D. Hirsch, Jr., have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that background
knowledge—what the writer assumes that the reader already knows—is one of the
great keys to reading comprehension. Let’s consider an example. My students’ eleventh-grade
literature textbook contains a passage about how Arthur Miller wrote The
in reaction to the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. The passage
mentions people being hauled before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations
and being accused of being Communists. It goes on to say that Miller was
concerned by the hysteria and guilt-by-association attendant to these hearings
and wrote the play to show how the same sort of thing occurred during the Salem
Witch Trials of 1692. Now, if the students reading that do not know the
background—what a Communist is; that the United States is a Capitalist country;
that Communism and Capitalism are antagonistic; that in the 1950s, the United
States was involved in a Cold War with the Communist Soviet Union; that the
Soviet Union had vowed to bring down the American system; that certain Senators
and Congressmen in the 1950s were concerned about Communist infiltration of the
media, the government, and the armed services; what a subcommittee is; what a
hearing is; and that the Subcommittee on Investigations attempted to identify
Communist sympathizers, then the passage in the text will be meaningless. In
short, comprehension depends critically on world knowledge. Without
the relevant background knowledge, comprehension cannot occur.
A student
cannot read Milton or Dante with comprehension if he or she is ignorant of the
Bible and won’t comprehend the title of George Bernard Shaw’s play about
Professor Higgins and Liza if he or she is ignorant of the Greek myth in which
Pygmalion falls in love with a statue. Consider this opaque text from Dylan

The twelve
triangles of the cherub wind

This impenetrable text becomes crystal
clear when one realizes that Thomas is referring to old maps that represented
the winds as cherubs whose breath—the winds—inscribed triangles across the
maps. One can’t begin to understand Plato’s allegory of the cave without
understanding that he was highly influenced by Greek mathematics, recognized
that perfect forms (like a point or a perfect triangle) did not exist in the
world but did exist in the mind, used a single word (psyche) for both
mind and spirit, and thus thought of anything perfect (and thus, he thought,
good) as existing in a separate, spiritual plane that could be accessed through
mental/spiritual activity. One has to have a lot of information about the
background—the concepts available to Plato and what he was concerned with—to
make any sense at all of his bizarre little story. Domains of knowledge, from
auto mechanics to the growing of orchids to theodicy and dirigible driving all
have their associated vocabulary—not just jargon but words and phrases that
appear with particular frequency and particular meaning within them. And
knowledge of this vocabulary is not a matter of possession of a bunch of
definitions taken in the abstract but, rather, possession of an understanding
of how those words and phrases are used and in what contexts within the
relevant domain. Life coaches and physicists use the word potential in
related but distinct ways and about different objects. Understanding what is
meant by the word, in a text, requires, in addition to knowledge of its
definition, knowledge of how it is used in the subset of the world that is the
knowledge domain of the text. Furthermore, the ability to use a term actively
involves mastering not only its definition but also its inflected and
derivative forms, something that is learned not through explicit, rote study
but through use in context. A student hasn’t really learned the word imply
unless he or she can properly use such inflected forms as implying, implied,
and implies as well as such derivative forms as implication,
and one learns those forms, really learns them, only through repeated use in a
context. Simply memorizing the definition for a test is a recipe for

A Summary of the Prerequisites
for Reading Comprehension

Decoding ability—phonics and
grammatical fluency—are, of course, prerequisites to comprehension. They must
be mastered before comprehension is possible. The same is true of
domain-specific world knowledge—knowledge about Communists, the Bible, Greek
myths, old maps, geometrical forms, or whatever it is that the author is taking
for granted that the reader knows, including the vocabulary used in that
context, or domain. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has written eloquently and persuasively
on precisely this subject in numerous works, including The Schools We Need
and The Knowledge Deficit. The reader is referred to those works for
further information. Suffice it to say that the teacher must ensure that
students have the relevant background knowledge, including domain-specific
vocabulary, to understand what they are being asked to read and that
instruction should be focused on extended time spent in particular knowledge
domains so that students can build the bodies of knowledge that they need for
comprehending texts in the future. New knowledge needs a hook to hang on. That
hook is other knowledge in the relevant knowledge domain.

That ought to be obvious. However,
today, reading instruction has devolved into isolated practice of
“comprehension strategies” using short texts taken absolutely at random
snippet of text here on invasive species, a snippet of text there on Harriet
Tubman. But brains are built to acquire knowledge in connected networks, and
the hundreds of thousands of hours spent doing this practice of strategies
applied to random, isolated texts is time completely wasted. More about that

So, knowledge is essential to
comprehension. But there are other extra-textual matters—other parts of the
overall kairos of the text—that are also essential. Among these are genre and a
whole raft of conventions of usage—idioms, transitional devices and turns, figures
of speech, rhetorical techniques, manuscript formatting, and so on. So, for
example, comprehending a text by Sir Phillip Sidney or one of William Blake’s Songs
of Innocence
may require knowledge of the conventions of the genre of
pastoral—that lambs represent innocence, that shepherds are uncorrupted by city
life, that spring represents youth and rebirth, and so on. The semantic
component of language is highly conventional. Understanding a poem often
requires familiarity with conventional symbol systems like that which relates
the cycles of the seasons to the life cycle (spring/youth, summer/maturity,
autumn/age, winter/death). One has to know the convention, or one is lost.

Given all this, one would expect
that reading comprehension instructors were devoting their time to a) ensuring
that students have automaticity in phonetic and grammatical decoding, building
vocabulary and world knowledge through extended work in critical knowledge
domains, and acquainting students with the conventions of various genres and
the primary literary and rhetorical conventions. After all, that’s what reading
comprehension requires. But if you made such an assumption, you would be wrong.
What reading comprehension teachers are doing, instead, is spending their time
teaching “reading strategies.”

The Devolution of Reading
Comprehension Instruction and Assessment

Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown
wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal
They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles
encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions,
clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an
enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education
community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by
Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a
definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique,
respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are
the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular,
embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction
became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies,
and an industry for
identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex
field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids

to identify the
main idea and supporting details,

to identify

to identify cause
and effect relationships,

to make

to make

to use context

to identify text

In the real world, outside school, a
strategy is a broad approach to accomplishing a goal. In EdSpeak,
weirdly, a strategy is any particular thing, whatsoever, that one might
do to advance toward a goal (what in the real world would be called a tactic). It’s
typical of people in education to use words imprecisely, like this—to borrow a
term and then use it improperly. Consider the term benchmark. In the
real world, a benchmark is a standard reflecting the highest performance
in a given industry. So, for example, the highest read-write time for a disc
drive achieved by any manufacturer is a benchmark, or goal, for other disc
drive manufacturers to meet. In education, a benchmark is any sort of
interim evaluation. Educators confused the goal (the benchmark) with the method
of evaluating achievement of the goal. Education schools are bastions of such
sloppy thinking—confusion of means and ends, misapplication of concepts, and so

Throughout American K-12 education,
in the late 1980s, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around
teaching some variant of the list of “reading comprehension strategies” given
above. Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on
Making Predictions, and any random snippet of text that contained some examples
of predictions, as long as it was “on grade level,” would be a worthy object of

One problem with working at such a
high level of abstraction—of having our lessons be about, say, “making
inferences,” is that the abstraction reifies, it hypostasizes. It combines
apples and shoelaces and football teams under a single term and creates a false
belief that some particular thing—not an enormous range of disparate
phenomena—is referred to by the abstraction. In the years after Palinscar and
Brown’s paper, educational publishers produced hundreds of thousands of lessons
on “Making Inferences,” and one can look through all of them, in vain, for any
sign of awareness on the part of the lessons’ creators that inference is
enormously varied and that “making proper inferences” involves an enormous
amount of learning that is specific to inferences of different kinds. There
are, in fact, whole sciences devoted to the various types of
inference—deduction, induction, and abduction—and whole sciences devoted to
specific problems within each. The question of how to “make an inference” is
extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it
over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of
Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading
strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is
actually known about this subject has found its way into our instruction. If
professional educators were really interested in teaching their students how to
“make inferences,” then they would, themselves, take the trouble to learn some
propositional and predicate logic so that they would understand what deductive
inference is about. They would have taken the trouble to learn some basic
probability and techniques for hypothesis testing so that they would understand
the tools of inductive and abductive inference. But they haven’t done this
because it’s difficult, and so, when they write their papers and create their
lessons about “making inferences,” they are doing this in blissful ignorance of
what making inferences really means and, importantly, of the key
concepts that would be useful for students to know about making inferences that
are reasonable. This is but one example of how, over the past few decades, a
façade, a veneer of scientific respectability has been erected in the field of
“English language arts” that has precious little real value.

I bring up the issue of instruction
in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional
education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself
with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing
in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension
instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading
strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. To
borrow Gertrude Stein’s phrase, is no there there. No kid walks away from his
or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world
knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order
to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that
inference is reasonable. A kid does not learn, for example, that some
approaches to making inductive inferences include looking at historical
frequency, analyzing propensities, making systematic observations and tallies,
calculating the probabilities, conducting a A/B split survey, holding a focus
group, and performing a Gedankenexperiment or an actual experiment
involving a control group and an experimental group. Why? Because one has to
learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all,
and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach
making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences
there are, how one can make them rationally, and how one evaluates the various

Though reading comprehension
instruction has now almost completely devolved into the teaching of “reading
comprehension strategies,” those strategies do not, themselves, hold up to
close inspection. They all exemplify a fundamental kind of error that
philosophers call a “category error”–a mistaken belief that one kind of thing
is like and so belongs in the same category as some completely different kind
of thing. Reading comprehension “specialists” now speak of “learning
comprehension strategies,” as though recognizing the main idea, making
inferences, and so on, were discrete, monolithic, invariant skills that one can
learn, akin to learning how to sew on a button or learning how to carry a
number when adding, but the “reading comprehension strategies” are nothing like
that. Being able to identify the main idea of a given piece of prose, poetry,
or drama is NOT a general, universally applicable procedural skill like being
able to carry out the standard algorithm for multiplying multi-digit numbers,
and placing them into the same category (“skill”) is an example of the logical
fallacy known as a category error.

When you see a list of the
skills to be tested for math and the skills to be tested in ELA–that is, when
you look at a list of “standards”–it
’s important that you understand
that there are very, very different KINDS of thing on those lists, the one for math
and the one for English. These are not only as different as are apples and
oranges, they are as different as an apple is from a hope for the future or the
pattern of freckles on Socrates’s forehead or the square root of negative one.
They are different sorts of thing ALTOGETHER because the math skills are
discrete, monolithic, and invariant, and those “reading strategies” are not.

Let me illustrate the point about
“the main idea.”

What is the main idea of the

The ready to hand
is encountered within the world. The Being of this entity, readiness to hand,
thus stands in some ontological relationship toward the world and toward
worldhood. In anything ready-to-hand, the world is always ‘there.’ Whenever we
encounter anything, the world has already been previously discovered, though
not thematically.[6]

Now, note that this
passage would have a pretty low Lexile level. It doesn’t contain a lot of
difficult (long, complicated, low-frequency) words, and the difficult words (ontological,
ready-to-hand, thematically
) can be explained. It doesn’t contain long or
syntactically complicated sentences. But the chances are good that unless you
are familiar with continental philosophy, you will have NO CLUE WHATSOEVER what
this passage is saying. In order for you to understand the main idea of this
passage, you would need, at a minimum, an introduction to the philosophical
problems that Heidegger is addressing in the passage. In other words, you would
have to have a lot of world knowledge about continental philosophy. Otherwise,
the passage will be impenetrable to you. No general “finding-the-main-idea
skill” will help you to make sense of the passage.

Now, what is the main idea of the

One of the limits
of reality

Presents itself in Oley when they hay,

Baked through long days, is piled in mows. It is

A land too ripe for enigmas, too serene.

There the distant fails the clairvoyant eye.

Things stop in
that direction and since they stop

The direction stops and we accept what is

As good. The utmost must be good and is

And is our fortune and honey hived in the trees

And mingling of colors at a festival.[7]

Again, the language is not that
difficult. One can easily define the less frequent words–enigmas, serene,
and utmost. But that’s not going to help you figure out
what the “main idea” here is. For that, the royal road is an introduction to
the kinds of concerns that Wallace Stevens took up in his poetry. If you know
from his other work that Stevens wrote, time and time again, about the failure
of our abstractions to account for the concrete facts of the world and about
our tendency to live in our abstractions rather than in the real world, if you
know that Stevens was distrustful of abstractions of all kinds—religious, political,
philosophical, and so on, then the passage will make sense to you. If you
don’t, well, good luck.

Now, notice that what is involved
in figuring out the main idea of each of these passages is entirely different. Oh,
sure, there are similarities between the passages. Both are passages in
English. Both deal with a philosophical idea. Actually, they both deal with the
same philosophical idea. But in the one case, to grasp the main idea, you have
to be familiar with a lot of Continental philosophy and with the kinds of
problems that such philosophy addresses. In the other, you need to be able to
recognize that Stevens is revisiting what is, for him, a recurring theme.

This is the key point: there is no
one procedure–no one finding the main idea procedure–that I can teach you that
will enable to you to determine what each passage, and any other passage taken
at random from a piece of writing, means.

In other words, no instruction in
some general finding-the-main-idea skill is going to help you, usually, to find
the main idea. There’s a reason for that: THERE IS NO “general finding the
main idea skill.” That such a thing exists is an UTTER FICTION. The “general
finding-the-main-idea skill” is as fictional as one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s

Finding the main idea is context
dependent in a way that adding multi-digit numbers isn’t. It makes no
difference whether you are adding 462 and 23 or 1842 and 748, you are going to
follow the same procedure and draw upon the same class of facts. Not so with
“finding the main idea.” There is no magical procedure for main idea finding
that applies to all texts and scoots around the necessity of engaging with a
particular text—decoding it, parsing it, applying world knowledge to understanding
it, recognizing its context and conventions, and then generalizing about it or
recognizing that some statement within it encapsulates that idea.
occasionally one will encounter, in the real world, a puerile piece of writing
of the five-paragraph theme variety that states its main idea in an
introduction or conclusion. One can teach students, for a few limited types of
texts, to do that. But most texts in the real world contain no such idea
readily identifiable using a particular procedure. Hedda Gabler contains
no thesis statement. Neither does the Gettysburg Address or The Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Determining what the main idea
of each text is a tall order and requires, for each, a unique procedure.
Schooling in reading comprehension should teach kids to make sense of
real-world writing, and writing in the real world does not take the form of
five-paragraph themes with the main idea neatly tucked in at the conclusion of
the introductory paragraph. And as long as we continue cooking up pieces of
fake writing for use in exercises on finding the main idea in those, we are
perpetuating a myth.

And, of course, attempting to test
for possession of this mythical general finding-the-main-idea faculty that is being
magically transmitted to students via “reading comprehension instruction” is
like requiring people to bag and bring home any other sort of mythical entity–a
unicorn, Pegasus, or the golden apples from the tree at the edge of the world.

Now, how is it that people have
come to believe that there is exists a “general finding-the-main-idea skill”?
Well, they have committed a category error. They’ve made the mistake of
thinking that figuring out what’s happening in a piece of poetry or prose is a
discrete, specific, universally applicable general skill like the ability to
carry out the algorithm for adding multi-digit numbers.

It’s not.

And, of course, since there exists
no “general finding-the-main-idea skill,” there can exist no valid test of
general finding-the-main-idea skill. The tests, like the curricula, have to be
cooked to contain passages that work with the formula that the reading
comprehension teachers teach—look for the thesis statement in the introduction
and in the conclusion or the topic sentence in the paragraph.  For
brevity, let’s look at just the latter.

In 1866, Alexander Bain published his English
Composition and Rhetoric: a Manual,[8]
the great grandfather of the writing
textbooks of today. It was Bain who first characterized the paragraph
as school texts have ever since, as a group of sentences related to or supporting a single topic sentence and characterized by unity and coherence. Here we have a classic
categorical definition. The set of paragraphs has these essential, or defining, characteristics:


Possession of a topic sentence

Possession of a number of sentences related to or supporting the topic sentence



Building on this definition, a school text might provide the following
heuristic for writing a paragraph: “State a general idea. Then back it up with specific
details (or examples
or instances). Make sure not to include any unrelated ideas, and make sure to make the connections among your ideas clear by using transitions.”


Of course, individual paragraphs
in the real world simply do not fit the standard textbook
definition, though that definition has been repeated with only minor variation ever since Bain.

Most pieces of writing and, ipso facto, most paragraphs, are narrative, and rarely does a narrative
paragraph have a topic sentence. Narrative paragraphs are typically just one darned thing after another. Two of the most common types of paragraphs, those that make up newspaper
articles and those that present dialogue in stories,
typically contain only one or two sentences, and a paragraph in dialogue
can be as short as a grunt or an exhalation. And, of course,
it makes little sense to speak of a sentence or fragment
as being unified or coherent in the senses in which those terms are usually used when describing paragraphs.
Of all the types of writing that exist, only nonfiction academic prose contains
paragraphs that frequently contain topic sentences, and in such prose, only
about half the paragraphs do.[9]


The fact is that the traditional schoolroom definition of a paragraph describes the fairly rare case in which a single general
main idea is illustrated by specifics.
Of course, few paragraphs in the real world work that way. Throw a dart at a page in Harper’s
magazine. You will not hit a Bain-style paragraph. There are many, many other ways to put several sentences together sensibly. The narrative
way is the simplest: Present
one darned thing after another.
But one can also write quite an effective
paragraph that, for example, consists of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis; such a paragraph comes to a conclusion but has no overall
main idea in any reasonable sense of the term “main idea.” Many well-crafted nonnarrative paragraphs depart radically from the schoolbook model, having no overall,
organizational scheme but, rather,
only a part-by-part organization in which each sentence
is connected to the one before it and to the one after it in any of a myriad ways. In such cases, the writer often begins a new paragraph only because he or she has run out one head of steam. Whew! The study of these part-by-part connections that hold ideas together
is sometimes referred
to as discourse analysis.


of the variety of that exists in paragraphs in real-world writing, no general
finding-the-main-idea skill for paragraphs exists. The same is true for other
kinds of writing—for poems, essays, memoirs, oral histories, plays, technical
manuals, nonfiction books, sermons, and so on. Writing is too various, and the
reading comprehension strategy is far, far too specific, akin to determining
whether a given entity is a human being by asking if his or her name is Bob.

Teachers would be disabused of
their notion that paragraphs typically contain topic sentences that state “the
main idea” if they actually studied paragraphs in the wild, as linguists
sometimes do.

That there exists no general,
universally or even often applicable finding-the-main-idea skill does not mean,
of course, that there don’t exist some passages, in written works, that have
main ideas and some subset of those in which the main ideas are stated
explicitly. But it does mean that there is no essent
ial characteristic
that all main ideas or passages or paragraphs that have main ideas have and
that there is no general ability to find main ideas, the possession of which
can be tested for reliably across all texts at grade level.
One has to be
an educator, living in a world of cooked, formulaic, schoolroom writing, to
believe in such a mythical entity.

Again, treating basic mathematics
and ELA as though they were the same sort of thing, with skills that can be
similarly enumerated and tested, is a fundamental mistake of the kind that
philosophers call a category error. Worse yet, it’s a fundamental category
error on which our lists of standards, our summative standardized tests, and
our district-level interim standardized tests in ELA are all based!

Correcting this error would mean
completely redoing what we are doing in a way that operationalizes our very
vague, ill-formulated notions like “finding the mean idea” or “making
inferences/drawing conclusions.” But operationalizing them would be impossible
because no general set of operations can be delineated.

But that’s not the biggest problem
with the reading comprehension strategies approach to teaching reading. As we
saw above, comprehending a text requires being able to decode its symbols
(phonics); being able, automatically and fluently, to parse its syntax; having
knowledge of the vocabulary in the text and of the referents and uses of that
vocabulary in specific, real-world knowledge domains; having the requisite
background knowledge assumed by the author; and being familiar with the broad
range of extra-textual, contextual determinants of meaning that include
conventions of genre, particular interests and concerns that the author had,
the occasion and audience to which the text responds, and idiomatic,
figurative, and rhetorical usages. Ignoring all these in order to teach
“reading comprehension strategies,” day in and day out, is like teaching a
class in sailing that concentrates, entirely, on methods for polishing the
bright work and folding the sails. The important stuff isn’t even dealt with.

The current standards-and-testing
regime has acerbated this problem, for the new standards consist almost
entirely of vaguely conceived abstractions like the so-called “reading
strategies.” Our students spend their days doing test practice questions based
on isolated, random snippets of text and applying vaguely conceived strategies
to answer those questions, and the real determinants of reading comprehension are
not addressed. The opportunity cost of all this is, of course, quite high—our
students fail to learn to read well because the actual determinants of
comprehension have not, in their education, been addressed. There is no
magic bullet—no list of strategies and standards to be mastered via practice
exercises—that will substitute for learning to decode; internalizing a robust,
sophisticated grammar; acquiring specific domain knowledge; becoming familiar
with text conventions; and reading a lot of whole texts—the actual determinants
of the ability to comprehend what one reads.

What Reading Comprehension
Instruction and Astrology Have in Common

Permit me another analogy. Before
there was science, there was magic. Astrology preceded astronomy. The problem
with astrology, of course, is that it had no causal mechanism. It was
absolutely prescientific. Current approaches to reading comprehension instruction
are just like that. Both are performed in ignorance of what science teaches us
about causal mechanisms, in the one case with regard to the stars and to
determinants of human personality and fortunes, in the other with regard to how
children acquire the ability to comprehend texts. We now have actual sciences
dealing with human personality and fortunes—psychology and economics. We also
have actual sciences dealing with how people learn to comprehend
language—linguistics and cognitive science. These last two sciences have taught
us a lot about how kids actually learn to make sense of language, and one day,
perhaps, our reading teachers, curriculum designers, test designers, and policy
makers will learn some of what science has taught us, in the past sixty years,
about language. Until then, we shall be in the Dark Ages and might as well replace
our classwork—all those practice exercises on reading comprehension
skills–with drawing sigils and muttering magical incantations.


Augustine, Confessions. Quoted in Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical
Investigations. 4th ed. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and
Joachim Schulte. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Chomsky, Noam. “Verbal Behavior. By B.F. Skinner.” Language (1959)

The examples are from Radford, Andrew. Minimalist Syntax. New York:
Cambridge U.P., 2004.

Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Riseley, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word
Gap by Age 3.” American Educator, Spring 2003, 4-9.

[5] Palincsar, A. S., and A.L
Brown. “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and
Comprehension-Monitoring Activities. Cognition and Instruction (1984).
1:2, 117-175.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward
Robinson. New York: Harper, 2008. P. 114.

Stevens, Wallace. “Credences of Summer,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace
New York: Knopf, 1982, P. 372.

Bain, Alexander. English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual. New York:
Appleton, 1866.

See McCarthy, et al. “Identifying Topic Sentencehood. Behavior
Research and Methods.
40: 647-664 and Popken, R. I. A Study of Topic
Sentence Use in Academic Writing. Written Communication 4: 209-228.





Our faithful friend Laura Chapman writes:

“There is a hybrid model for charter school development. Real estate is only one part of it. It has multiple components.

The charter company has its own land acquisition arm, its own construction contracts, has a master architectural plan for the design of the school facility (K-8), has a “services” arm for front and back office operations, vendors for components of the preferred curriculum, managerial schemes for accountability and marketing, templates for outsourcing transportation, and a legal firm at the ready to draft very specific policies bearing on attendance, conduct of students and staff, and so on.

A school “district” for the charter school is informally defined by a specific recruiting area for students and by the availability of land for development. Development includes getting subcontractors for school construction, operation, and services such as meals and transportation. The charter school and its self-defined district may have more than one school and the charter district may overlap one or more regular public school districts (compete for those public school students).

Here is one example of the model, developed by Athlos Academies.

First, there is no special focus on low-income neighborhoods. The Athlos Leadership Academy operates in a north Minneapolis suburb that overlaps school districts for Maple Grove, Brooklyn Park, and Falcon Heights. All have relatively low poverty rates. In Falcon Heights the median home value is $323, 805. Maple Grove’s poverty rate is below 5%.

The governing board for the Athlos Leadership Academy is elected. The policy states: “Those eligible to vote for the governing board for the school are restricted to staff members, board members, and parents or legal guardians of children enrolled at the school. … Voters will need to show a photo ID in order to verify voting eligibility. ALA seeks school board nominees with professional experience in business, marketing, law, accounting, fundraising, education, and human resources. The ALA Board is comprised of community, parent, and teacher board members with professional expertise in one or more of the aforementioned categories.”

Second, the Athlos model clearly separates Management decisions from Governance. Governance for ALA means that board points to an issue and a law firm is contracted to write up a policy, citing any federal regulations or state statutes that may be relevant. “Thin” democracy works for the governance of the school. Management is everything else.

Third, in addition to marketing specific features of an Atlos curriculum (see below) the Atlos Model includes a full-service multi-stage package for starting a school.“ This includes everything from developing a charter application and building a facility, to school operations and educating students.”

A complete package of Athlos Academies services includes:<br />PRE-APPROVAL SERVICES: Charter application development; Authorizer approval assistance; Board governance training.

PRE-OPENING SERVICES: Site identification, Facility construction, Lease agreement, Board policy development, Board training and cultivation, Budget development, School launch, Staff professional training, Staff and student recruitment.

OPERATIONAL SERVICES: Bond market assistance; Research-based curriculum; Professional development; Website, email, social media, and marketing; Payroll processing and benefit management; Budgeting and financial management; Uniforms for purchase; Data reporting tools.

Fourth, the Athlos charter model appeals to parents/caregivers who want a school that offers a “three pillar” program with an explicit focus on character education, healthy living and physical fitness, and academics.

Pillar One. The Character Curriculum is present in every grade. “Athlos Character is part of a formal, year-long curriculum. Our proprietary lesson plans identify 12 essential performance traits.” (e.g., Grit, Self-control, Optimism, Leadership, Social Intelligence, Courage, Focus, Integrity, and Humility ). “These concepts become part of daily academic instruction and athletic activities.” The traits are taught through “Character Huddles” where “performance attributes” are discussed in relation to student goals and other real-life examples. “Reflections” are re-teaching exercises lead by students. “These are the strengths and skills that social researchers identify with success—far more so than an academic GPA. And they act as the foundation Athlos Leadership Academy uses to point our students toward success.”

Pillar Two. The Athletic Curriculum is a fitness and health program—not training for sports, although some team sports are included for “fun” and to teach the virtues of team play and competition. The program is intended to support the Academic Curriculum, reinforce the Character Curriculum, and ”create good habits, improve skills, and promote healthy bodies.” This aspect of the program is marketed as essential for mental, emotional, and social well-being, not just for physical fitness and health.

Pillar Three. The Academic Curriculum. This will vary by state, with non-standard components and topics developed as needed. So far, the Athlos Curriculum Model is for Pre-Kingergarten to grade eight. I analyzed the curriculum components.

The curriculum is keyed to college preparation with one target, high scores on PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests. The curriculum uses Common Core resources in language arts and mathematics, along with vocabulary exercises drawn from Core Knowledge. Science modules and hands-on kits of materials were developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California. Traditional skills in cursive writing are part of the program.

I estimated that the instructional resources—some with scripted lessons, posters, worksheets, online digital materials—would require contracts for at least twenty vendors, some of these very well known, including Pearson, Prentice Hall, and Scott Foresman.

You can see that the facilities are designed as if for a suburban community and to compete with schools that taxpayers have financed.

The founders of the Althos Model are claiming to be on a social mission. The mission is market-based education with a full-service operation that prevents public participation in anything except supplying funds to combine with those of venture capitalists.

Oklahoma has 29 charter schools. The charter law says that charters are not allowed to base enrollment “on a student’s past academic performance, income level or the abilities of their parents.

“However, on their applications, several charter schools in the state require parents to explain their child’s academic abilities in detail, pledge a commitment to volunteer at the school or have the student submit an essay…Oklahoma law prevents charter schools from limiting admissions based on ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disabling condition, proficiency in the English language, measures of achievement, aptitude or athletic ability.”

But some charters have found a way around the law.

“ASTEC Charter Schools in Oklahoma City requires that prospective students and parents fill out a 14-page application with over 80 questions, some that ask for short essay responses to questions about the student’s greatest strengths, what causes the student the most problems in life and why they are applying to ASTEC.

“ASTEC’s application also asks for a student’s discipline history, if they have ever received special education services and whether they can write in cursive…

“Some charter school applications are very simple, including Dove Science Academy in Oklahoma City, which only asks for the name and address of the student applying.

“KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory uses a one-page application that only asks for a student’s contact information.

“But Harding Fine Arts charter school in Oklahoma City asks students to submit three essays with their application, including one answering the question, “What makes you a good student?””

Professor Helen F. Ladd of Duke University and her husband Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, have written a comprehensive analysis that explains the politics of education in North Carolina in recent years. They have generously shared it with readers of this blog. Professor Ladd is one of the most distinguished economists of education in the United States. Fiske is editor of one of the most comprehensive guides to American colleges and universities (“Fiske Guide to Colleges, 2014”).






What’s Up with Education Policy in North Carolina?

By Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd;


Explanatory Note: The purpose of this document is to help people both outside and inside North Carolina understand what is currently happening to education policy in this state. The document is neither an academic paper nor an advocacy piece. Instead it is simply our best effort to describe and to put into context the significant policy changes affecting education in North Carolina. We write it as concerned citizens and hope it will be useful to others.

We have taken care to be faithful to the facts as we understand them. Whenever possible, we have checked them against relevant documents and with knowledgeable people. We welcome corrections and comments. Please send them to

One of us, Helen Ladd, The Edgar Thomson Professor of Public Policy and professor of economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, has published many empirical studies of education in North Carolina. The other, Edward Fiske, was the education editor of the New York Times during the 1970s and 1980s and is now an education writer and consultant. Together we have written books on education policy in New Zealand and in South Africa and articles on school finance in the Netherlands. In 2012, at the request of William Harrison, the then Chairman of the State Board of Education, we wrote a vision statement for public education in North Carolina.


Last year, in a seven-month frenzy of legislative hyper-activity, the Republican-controlled General Assembly of North Carolina, in concert with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, enacted a sweeping set of measures aimed at dramatically altering the face of public education in the Tar Heel state.

Flush from elections that gave them total control of the legislative process for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican lawmakers cut funding for K-12 public schools as part of a broader program to curtail overall government spending. North Carolina schools now have fewer teachers, fewer teaching assistants in classrooms, larger classes and less money for textbooks and other instructional materials than in the past. Despite five years of stagnant salary levels in the wake of the economic recession, the lawmakers continued a freeze on teacher salaries, which now rank 46th in the country, and ended salary increases for teachers who earn a master’s degree.

Other changes took aim at teacher job security and working conditions. The new laws abolish career status by 2018 and pit teachers against one another within schools in a competition for $500 per year salary increases for four years. Still other legislation moved the state education system in the direction of choice and privatization, including a new school voucher program that diverts taxpayer funds from public schools to private and religious schools. The legislation does not require those private schools to be accountable for producing gains in student achievement, as the state requires of public schools. Initial efforts to make substantial cuts in pre-K spending were unsuccessful, but significant cuts were made in funding for higher education.

These changes were enacted in shock and awe fashion, often with little or no public discussion and sometimes in the early morning hours, and their scope and boldness would be noteworthy anywhere. But they are particularly striking given North Carolina’s longstanding reputation as a “progressive” Southern state. In a matter of months, Republican lawmakers managed to reverse decades of progressive educational policies crafted by politicians of both parties. The sweeping nature of the changes in education and other areas has drawn national attention and made the state the butt of jokes by Jon Stewart and other late-night comedians. In a July 9, 2013 editorial entitled “The Decline of North Carolina,” the New York Times likened the Republican agenda to a “demolition derby” and observed, “North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”

The short-term damage to the public education system in North Carolina is palpable, and the possibility of long-term damage is strong.

So what in the world is going on in North Carolina?

A Far-Reaching Agenda

Dramatic as it may be, the Republican assault on public schools in general and teachers in particular is only one part of a much broader effort to reduce the role of government, roll back half a century of progressive social legislation and alter the political system of North Carolina so as to consolidate and perpetuate Republican control for the foreseeable future. The overall agenda flows directly from the playbooks of the billionaire Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other well-funded organizations seeking to promote corporate and right wing values throughout the country. Whereas other states have pursued various elements of this agenda in piecemeal fashion, Republicans in North Carolina opted to implement the entire package all at once.

Central to the Republican agenda was a restructuring of the state’s tax code that, while not formally enacted until late in the 2013 legislative session, drove many of the changes. The General Assembly cut corporate and individual tax rates, replaced the 91-year old graduated income tax with a 5.8 percent flat rate, and extended the range of goods and services subject to the sales tax. The N.C. Budget and Tax Center estimated that these changes will eventually cost the state $1 billion per year – with 75 percent of the tax savings going to the top five percent of taxpayers. Little attention was apparently paid in the heady early days of newly-acquired power to the impact that these cuts would have on education and other government-funded services.

With the pending tax reforms a given, legislators began enacting a social agenda rooted not in mainstream Republican values but in those of the Tea Party and the Koch brothers. Gov. McCrory announced that the state would turn down Federal funds to extend Medicaid even though doing so would cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of Federal dollars and deprive an estimated 500,000 state residents of health care. Republican leaders also declined to extend unemployment benefits at the end of the year, despite the fact that at 9.2 percent the state’s unemployment rate was fifth highest in the country. .

Well aware that such changes were unlikely to survive a popular vote, they pushed through a 57-page election reform bill that is by all accounts is one of the most restrictive in the country. The legislation, which reversed changes by the previous Democratic-controlled General Assembly to expand voting in North Carolina, made it more difficult for groups that tended to favor Democratic candidates – the poor, minorities, the elderly and college students– to exercise their right to vote. The changes included a strict voter ID requirement, reduction in the number of days of early voting from 17 to 10, an end to Sunday voting, same-day registration, straight ticket party voting and paid voter registration drives. Republicans argued that the voter ID requirement is merely a sensible safeguard against fraud – which is virtually non-existent in the state – and that any disproportionate negative impact of the other restrictions on Democratic-leaning groups is strictly coincidental.

Other elements of the social agenda resemble a Tea Party wish list. These include new restrictions on abortion clinics, eased environmental regulations and repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which allowed convicted murderers to have their death sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove that racial bias influenced their conviction. Holders of handgun permit holders may now carry their revolvers and semi-automatic pistols into restaurants, parks and other public places, including the parking lots of schools and universities. Some new legislation borders on the comical, including the law outlawing the use of Sharia law in a state where Muslims make up less than a quarter of one percent of the population. The lawmakers also saw fit to require the teaching of cursive writing and the memorization of multiplication tables in primary schools. Fortunately, a proposal to make Christianity the official state religion never gained traction.

How did such monumental social changes come about?

The Elections of 2010

The short answer starts with the mid-term elections of 2010 in which Republicans won control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in nearly 100 years (Republicans controlled the House briefly in the mid-1990s). Their victory was the result of a well-organized political strategy orchestrated by Art Pope, a billionaire North Carolina businessman, and other donors, many from outside North Carolina, that was part of a national effort to move the country to the right by gaining control of state legislatures. They spent $2.2 million seeking to defeat 22 Democratic incumbents in the Legislature, only four of whom survived.

The new Republican majority immediately began pushing long-standing legislative goals that they had not been able to realize while Democrats were in control. For example, in 2011 they passed the Excellent Public Schools Act which among other things ended social promotion for third graders. They also managed to lift the cap on charter schools, albeit because the state had promised to do so to obtain $400 million in Race to the Top funds from the U.S. Department of Education, and they set up a charter advisory board. Lacking a veto-proof majority, however, they were somewhat restrained by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. She vetoed 19 bills, but with help from House Democrats, Republicans overrode 11 of them. One was a law barring the North Carolina Association of Educators from collecting dues from teachers’ paychecks via payroll deduction – an action taken at a special post-midnight session. Republican leaders used the next two years to craft a far-reaching agenda that would be ready for implementation in the event that the next governor would be a Republican.

Republicans also had a critical weapon at their disposal that was to dramatically change the political balance of power in North Carolina. Having taken control of the legislature in a year in which political lines were set to be redrawn to reflect results of the 2010 census, they were in a position to gerrymander districts so as to assure overwhelming Republican majorities in both houses. In doing so, they were aided by the Supreme Court’s decision that effectively struck down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with previous records of voter discrimination to receive permission before changing their voting procedures. The gerrymandering efforts, reportedly assisted by experts from the national Republican Party and reflecting the active hand of Art Pope, paid off immediately and handsomely. In the November 2012 mid-term Republicans gained super-majorities in both houses – a 77-43 advantage in the House and a 33-17 edge in the Senate despite far more even outcomes in the popular vote. Republicans won 51 percent of the popular vote for the House and 53 percent for the Senate. Total control of the legislative process was assured when Pat McCrory, the Republican mayor of Charlotte who had lost to Gov. Perdue four years before, won the race for Governor. Thus for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans had total control of the legislative process in North Carolina.

When the gavel came down to open the 2013 legislative session, Republican leaders wasted little time pushing the ideas that they had been nurturing. New bills, many of them calling for drastic changes, came one after another in rapid succession. Debate was often brief or even non-existent, and relatively little attention was paid to testimony from experts. The fact that a particular policy had been enacted by Democrats appears to have been sufficient reason to reverse it.

North Carolina’s Progressive Reputation

North Carolina’s reputation as a “progressive” Southern state developed over the second half of the 20th century largely because of far-sighted leaders who pursued what Rob Christenson, a veteran political reporter for the Raleigh-based News & Observer, described as a “middle way, spending more on roads, universities and culture, and later on community colleges and research parks, as a way to modernize.” This so-called “North Carolina Way” – characterized by Southern historian V.O. Key as “progressive plutocracy” – was embraced by forward-looking business leaders as an alternative to the low-tax, low-regulation strategies of other Southern states. It also benefited from a succession of strong governors from both parties. These included Democrats Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford, who set the tone in the 1950s and early 1960’s, and Republicans James Holshouser Jr. in the 1970s and James Martin in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Teachers were attracted to North Carolina by its relatively low cost of living and a bipartisan commitment to public education. In 1997 the state ranked 43rd in teacher pay level, but by 2001 Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., working with Republican House speaker Harold Brubaker and with strong support from the business community, had ratcheted teacher salaries up to the national average, As recently as 2008 North Carolina was paying teachers better than half the country.

We must be careful, however, not to overstate the “progressive” nature of North Carolina. Much of the state is rural, poor, deeply religious and conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and race relations are always just under the surface of public policy issues, including education. North Carolina successfully delayed implementation of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregated schools until the late 1960s and early 1970s, and when it did come many whites moved their children to private schools. Gov. Sanford once observed in an interview that North Carolina was often within “just a few percentage points” of going in the direction of Virginia and other Southern states that took a hard line approach on matters such as school desegregation. The current push to balkanize the statewide public education system through charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools and home schooling is viewed by many observers as a 21st century form of white flight and segregation academies. The trend has been reinforced by a growing number of evangelicals who regard public schools as bastions of secular values.

While the Republicans’ sweep of the 2012 elections was the proximate cause of their successful assault on the state’s progressive traditions, the longer answer to the question of what’s happening to education in North Carolina is, of course, more complex.

The Republican legislative triumphs were the result of sophisticated strategic thinking and substantial financial resources, both from inside and outside the state, over a period of years. Frustrated at efforts to reclaim the White House, Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and other forces on the right have effectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars to win control of state governments and pursue their political goals with a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” strategy. Parallel efforts to systematically undermine public education in North Carolina can be found in other Republican-controlled states, including Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.


Moreover the North Carolina political landscape was changing. Although Democrats as late as 2009 had controlled the executive and legislative branches, the coalition of corporate, educational and other leaders built by Gov. Hunt had already run its course. Barack Obama in 2008 had become the first Democrat to capture North Carolina’s electoral votes since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Mitt Romney put the state back in red category four years later. The Democratic National Committee offered minimal help to local candidates, while the Obama campaign maintained its own campaign funds and organizational structure and drew some of the best volunteers away from local campaigns.


The North Carolina Democratic Party, weakened by the illness and subsequent resignation in 2011 of Senate Leader Marc Basnight, became complacent, marked by in-fighting and division, and, in extreme cases, corruption. Gov. Mike Easley, who served from 2001 to 2009, became ensnared in controversies involving campaign finance infractions, the use of taxpayer funds for personal travel expenses and an ill-advised state job for his wife. His Democratic successor, Bev Perdue, had earned her stripes in the state House and State Senate and subsequently as lieutenant governor, but she struggled as governor, especially during the last two years when she was battling a Republican-controlled Legislature. Perdue was handicapped by scandals involving persons in her administration, and Democrats of all kinds were affected by fallout from the scandal involving former Senator John Edwards. In January 2012 she announced that she would not seek re-election.

In addition to being handed an opportunity to walk into a political vacuum, Republicans also benefited from an economic situation described by East Carolina University political scientist Tom Eamon as “the meanest economic crisis and revenue shortfall since World War II.” North Carolina, which had been watching manufacturing and textile industry jobs move overseas for many years, was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008, especially the collapse of the housing market. Unemployment soared above 11 percent, and voters were frustrated and fearful. Perdue’s enacting of a temporary .075 percentage point increase in the state sales tax to help schools became a lightning rod in the election, and Republicans sounded the theme of “jobs, jobs, jobs” without offering any specifics. Republicans also whipped up anti-immigrant sentiments that played well in rural areas.

When votes were counted in the 2012 gubernatorial election, Pat McCrory, reversing his loss to Perdue four years earlier, easily defeated Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, the Democratic nominee. For Democrats in 2012, observed Eamon, “the recession and partisan wrangling had created the perfect storm.”

The nature of the North Carolina business community has also been changing. While major corporations based in Charlotte such as Bank of America and Lowes had traditionally taken a strong interest in state and local politics and the nurturing of effective leaders, many of them now have headquarters outside the state and are increasingly likely to view their primary interests as global. In 2000, corporate leaders had worked hard to push through a $3.2 billion bond issue to benefit the University of North Carolina and community colleges, but current leadership seems less inclined to put their weight behind education as the state’s economic engine of North Carolina. In 2006, Phil Kirk, a strong advocate of public education, stepped down as head of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, now the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and was replaced by leadership for which education is a lesser priority. Moreover, whereas corporations were once the dominant force in political donations, much of the balance has now shifted to wealthy individuals, such as Art Pope and the Koch brothers.


The current Republican leaders have also departed from the state’s hitherto progressive brand of conservatism in other ways. None of them were born in North Carolina and none are graduates of the University of North Carolina, the longstanding breeding ground of state political leadership. Gov. McCrory was born in Columbus, Ohio, Sen. Berger in New Rochelle, NY and Speaker Tillis in Jacksonville, FL. Perhaps more important, a large number of the legislators swept into office in 2012 are novices with little or no experience as office holders at lower levels of government and little sense of how the legislative process has traditionally operated. The General Assembly Leaders, especially Sen Berger, knew what they wanted to do and ran a tight ship. They had control of funds that could be used to support primary challenges and did not shy away from using them. Anecdotes regarding political retribution against perceived enemies such as the North Carolina Association of Educators abound.

The Tax Reform as a Driving Force

It is difficult to overstate the direct and indirect importance of the tax restructuring that was a major priority for Republicans as they took control of the state government. Smaller government is, of course, a traditional Republican mantra, and it was their dominant theme during the 2012 election campaigns – reduced corporate taxes as a means to make North Carolina business friendly. Once in power, they did exactly what they said they would do. The first step was to decline to renew the temporary increase in the sales tax that Gov. Perdue has pushed through in support of education. Then they reduced corporate and individual taxes by 28 percent and eliminated the state inheritance tax, which already exempted all estates under $5.1 million. In a move that was widely regarded as simply mean-spirited, they abolished the Earned Income Tax Credit Program for the state’s poorest residents. Taken as a whole, the Republican package of tax changes represented a major shift of the tax burden from wealthy North Carolinians to their middle class and poor fellow citizens.

The wider implications of the tax cuts for education in North Carolina were huge. In their rush to reduce taxes, Republican leaders either gave little prior thought to the implications for the spending side of the ledger or saw reduced revenues as a means of justifying spending cuts that were already on their agenda. Whether all of the inexperienced legislators in the Republican ranks understood what was going on is an interesting question. In any case, once the decision to reduce revenue was taken, budget cuts were inevitable; and given that take such a large share of the state budget, they were an obvious target.

North Carolina had already experienced a downward trend in teacher salaries, with average pay dropping nearly 16 percent between 2002 and 2012 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The average pay for teachers in North Carolina in 2011-12 was $45,947, well below the national average of $55,418 and 46th in the country. As she struggled with the state budget during a recession Gov. Perdue was unable to change this trajectory even with the help of federal stimulus aid. Over the previous five years teachers had received only one raise – 1.2 percent in 2012. Teachers in North Carolina routinely take second jobs, and many of those with children qualify for Medicaid and food assistance.

Republicans at first showed no interest in addressing the decline in teacher compensation. Teachers were, after all, the most visible face of a bloated state government that, in their view, needed to become smaller. Moreover, Sen. Berger and other Republican leaders viewed the North Carolina Association of Educators, while not a union, as the face of the Democratic Party and hence a political enemy. Although public schools were serving 33,000 more students in 2013-2014 than in 2008-2009, the Republican budget called for $293 million less in state funding than five years earlier. Gov. McCrory and Sen. Berger made claims that they had enacted a 5 percent increase from 2012-13 to 2013-14, but the claim is based on invalid comparisons of spending during the two years.


Republican legislators also looked for savings by ending the practice of salary bumps to teachers who obtain master’s degrees, thereby removing the major opportunity for teachers to improve their salaries beyond lockstep formulas based on seniority. The General Assembly eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teaching assistants. In light of the budget crunch, funding for textbooks has been cut by 80 percent in the past four years by both political parties, just as the state has been switching to the new content standards in all subject areas, including the new Common Core, State Standards for mathematics and English Language Arts. School districts now receive $14.26 for instructional materials for each student, down from $67.15 in 2008-09, an amount that is insufficient to purchase a single textbook. North Carolina teachers routinely dip into their own pockets for school supplies.

The Attack on Teachers and the Teaching Profession

While Republican lawmakers may have justified budget cuts for public schools on budgetary grounds, other aspects of their education agenda seemed rooted in a desire to discredit and dismantle teaching as a profession in a state where there is no teacher’s union. Since 1971 teachers with four years on the job have qualified for “career status,” which in this state does not mean a guarantee of lifetime employment but rather gives them certain rights, including the right to a hearing in the event of dismissal.

The General Assembly voted to eliminate career status by July 1, 2018 and to replace it with a system whereby all teachers would lose job protection and be offered contracts ranging from one- to four years at the discretion of school administrators. It also eliminated the potential for career status for all teachers who have not yet achieved it. In addition, districts will now be required to identify the top quarter of their teachers and offer them four-year contracts with cumulative increases of $500 each year in return for giving up their rights to job protection immediately. Lawmakers set aside $10 million in the budget to pay for these salary boosts during the first year. Whether they increases will be sustained after the four-year contracts expire is unclear. Critics scratch their heads at a policy that seeks to strengthen the teaching profession by removing job security for top teachers while leaving it in place, at least temporarily, for others.

Citing data that only 17 North Carolina teachers were dismissed in 2011-12, Sen. Berger, who led the effort to phase out career status, argued that the practice is an impediment to removing bad teachers and that the phase out provides meaningful education reform by basing job security and pay on performance. However, his figure of 17 dismissals not take account of teachers who are counseled out of the profession before facing formal charges.

Professional development is essentially a thing of the past in North Carolina. Professional development programs were gutted at the same time that $5 million found to hire novice teachers through Teach for America, a majority of whom can be expected to leave after two or three years and will not be hanging around to collect pensions down the road. The state’s nationally-acclaimed Teaching Fellows program, a tool designed to steer bright young people into teaching and keep them for at least four years, was ended.

Other changes had the effect of making the classroom climate more difficult and strenuous, including the lifting of restrictions on class size and, of course, fewer teaching assistants. Critics charge that some of these changes smack of political retribution against those who had resisted their new agenda. The Teaching Fellows program, for example, was a creation of Gov. Hunt and run by the Public School Forum, a progressive advocacy group. Likewise the legislation rescinding direct dues payments seemed designed to make it more difficult for the NCAE, whom leaders view as an arm of the Democratic Party, to engage and sustain members. Teachers in North Carolina can thus look forward to a professional situation characterized by mediocre pay, increased stress and little professional respect – at least from policy makers in the state government.

In another move, the General Assembly adopted a policy, already in place in Florida, under which all public schools, including charters, will be graded on an A to F scale based on student test scores and, in the case of high schools, criteria such as four-year graduation rates. The grading system is widely expected to have the effect of discrediting public schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students. In looking to Florida’s original plan for inspiration, lawmakers ignored the fact that Florida had by then recognized serious flaws in this rigid rating system.


Charters and Vouchers


Another set of educational changes – the subject of at least 20 bills during the legislative session – were designed to introduce more parental choice and privatization into the state education system. Charter schools were first authorized in North Carolina by Democrats in 1996, partly as a political strategy to head off vouchers, with a provision that the number be capped at 100. The General Assembly removed the cap in order to comply with requirements of receiving Race to the Top funds. There are now 127 charter schools in North Carolina, compared to approximately 2,500 traditional public schools, but 26 more have been approved to open this fall, with 71 others hoping to open in 2015. By that year, the state could have more than 200 charter schools operating – double the number before the cap was lifted. Charters need not operate on a non-profit basis.

Republican legislators also moved to reduce accountability standards for charter schools by lowering the number of certified teachers they must have and allowing them to expand by one grade level each year without seeking state approval. Language specifying that the population of charter schools “shall reflect” the population as a whole was replaced by language saying that operators need only “make efforts” to achieve this goal. The General Assembly backed away from a plan to set up a separate governance system for charter schools over which the State Board of Education would have no control. Instead they created the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board to advise the State Board on which new applications to approve and renew. Significantly, they specified that members of the new advisory board must have demonstrated “a commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.” Thus, advisory board members include charter school operators who are, for all practical purposes, governing themselves. Moreover, some charters are run by for-profit companies that, while obligated to set up non-profit boards, have incentives to ensure profitability by hiring low-wage teachers who are mostly uncertified. The new legislation also eliminated the right of local school boards to submit impact statements to the chartering authority explaining how a proposed new charter school would affect existing schools.

Charter advocates argue that the proliferation of charters gives parents more choice in deciding where to send their children to school and promotes healthy competition that will redound to the overall benefit of the education system. Critics argue, however, that many charter operators demonstrate little or no interest in economic or racial diversity and lack a commitment to serve the full range of students in the district. Critics also maintain that charters undermine the ability of school districts to plan for the future. “It’s difficult to accurately predict what the elementary school population will be in the district in the next five years,” said Heidi Carter, chairwoman of the school board in Durham, where officials say they are losing $14 million a year for schools they operate because of students attending charter schools. An editorial in the News & Observer suggested that the rapid expansion of charters is a sign that “some want charters to become some sort of publicly funded private system.”

In addition to encouraging a proliferation of charters, the General Assembly enacted a voucher program – billed as “Opportunity Scholarships” – that will provide up to $4,200 in taxpayer dollars for low-income students to attend largely unaccountable private schools, a majority of which are religious, starting in the fall of 2014. While cutting funding for traditional public schools, legislators nevertheless found $10 million from public education funds to support the voucher program for the first year. Legislative leaders tout vouchers as a way to come to the assistance of poor students and disparage critics as socially irresponsible. As Sen. Berger explained in a statement, “Not only are these lift-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers. Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state.” Critics, however, question the motives behind Republicans’ newly-discovered concern for poor children. A recent News & Observer editorial charged that that they are being used as “ideological cover for a broader movement toward vouchers” that would endanger “the entire edifice of public schools.”


Voucher critics point out that North Carolina does not enforce academic standards or accountability measures for non-public schools, which can also choose which students to admit and need not admit special education students. Private schools receiving vouchers will only be required to administer a nationally-recognized standardized tests of their choosing to students in grades three and higher each year. Critics also view the voucher measure as a tax break for families who would have sent their children to private schools anyway.


Early Childhood Programs


The situation regarding early childhood education in North Carolina is complicated. Evidence demonstrates the success of both the highly touted Smart Start program for 0-5 year olds, introduced by Governor Hunt in the early 1990s, and the More at Four pre-school program for four year olds, introduced by Governor Easley in the early 2000s. In 2011 the General Assembly transferred the More at Four program from the Department of Public Instruction to the Division of Child Development and renamed it NC Pre-K. Although Republican lawmakers introduced legislation early in 2013 to reduce the number of pre-K slots by 10,000 and to tighten eligibility requirements, these were not adopted. The 2013 budget provides for 2,500 NC Pre-K spots to expire but does not call for funding decreases for Smart Start.

The Broader Right-Wing Agenda

The Republican education agenda in North Carolina is familiar to anyone who has seen parallel efforts in other states. Former Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush has visited North Carolina trumpeting his now-familiar package of reforms that include testing, charter schools and an A-F grading system. While visiting Hendersonville, NC to talk about pending legislation, Sen. Berger was quoted as saying that, contrary to evidence, the proposed policies have worked well in Florida for several years: “We don’t need a pilot in this state to see if it’s going to work – we know it will work.”


Much of the architecture of the Republican education agenda in North Carolina can be traced to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate non-profit that produces model legislation designed to further conservative and corporate interests. The News & Observer reported on Dec. 5, 2013 that roughly a third of North Carolina legislators – 54 of 170 – are members of ALEC. House Speaker Tillis was named ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” in 2011, and he and Asheville Rep. Tim Moffitt serve on the ALEC board of directors, where they are regarded as key fundraisers. The language of many of the Republican education bills mirrors ALEC priorities (voter ID, private school vouchers) and some has been taken directly from ALEC documents. ALEC praised North Carolina’s new tax structure as a “monumental tax reform.”

The major driving force behind the Republican takeover of North Carolina has been Art Pope, a conservative multimillionaire who inherited and then expanded his father’s chain of 400 low-wage discount stores, scattered over 13 states, that sell low-priced goods to poor people. Pope invested more than $40 million in building an infrastructure of tax-exempt right-wing think tanks, including the Civitas Institute, the John Locke Foundation, Real Jobs NC and the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law. The Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court liberated them from legal restraints and public disclosure. He gradually built up the Republican Party in North Carolina by funding conservative challengers to moderate incumbents of both parties. He is close to ALEC, and Gov. McCrory named him to be his Budget Director. Pope was famously featured in Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article, ‘State for Sale.” (Oct. 10, 2011)


The Republican assault on public education in North Carolina is all the more disturbing because there is no validity to claims that the system is “broken” and needs to be “fixed,” as Republicans are wont to claim. By all accounts, North Carolina students do well on measures of academic performance, and high school graduation rates have increased consistently over the last decade. The four-year high school graduation rate is at all-time high of 82.5 percent, up by 14 percentage points since 2006. The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, popularly known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” show that North Carolina eighth graders perform well above the national average in science and math and just as well as all but six of 47 developed countries.


The system is not perfect and needs to evolve, but many of the persistent problems are related to the fact that North Carolina is a state with high levels of poverty. In 2013, the state’s overall poverty rate was 16.8 percent, well above the 14.9 percent in the U.S. As of 2011, more than one of four children in North Carolina were growing up in poverty, an increase from one in five in 2008.

No one seriously disputes the fact that levels of poverty are closely associated with academic achievement. Even in countries such as Finland and Singapore with highly successful school systems, poor children achieve at lower rates than their more privileged peers. Educators are not in a position to eliminate poverty itself, but they are in a position to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds deal with the special physical, educational, social and other challenges they bring with them when they come through the schoolhouse door. Numerous efforts are underway in North Carolina and elsewhere to address this issue through early childhood education, health clinics in schools, extended school day, vacation feeding programs and other means. The Republican education agenda makes no mention of any such policies, which are routine in countries with high performing students. Virtually the only time that Republicans discuss disadvantaged children is when they are used as an argument for expanding parental choice through vouchers.

Impact of the Republican Agenda

Teachers in North Carolina have reacted as one might expect to signals from the General Assembly that North Carolina does not really value their work. The News & Observer reported on Feb. 9, 2013, “North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends. Public school teachers are leaving in bigger numbers, while fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s universities.” Teacher turnover in 2012-13 reached the second highest rate in a decade; early retirements are up; and enrollment in teacher training programs at the University of North Carolina institution declined by nearly 7 percent in 2013. School officials in Wake County, which hires more than 1,000 new teachers annually, have expressed concern that they will not be able to recruit enough high-quality teachers this coming fall. There are widespread, if anecdotal, reports of teachers planning to leave their positions at the end of the current school year or to seek more remunerative jobs in neighboring states. Teachers moving to Georgia can expect an immediate increase of $7,000 , and Virginia has launched an explicit campaign to lure North Carolina teachers. The Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh in February featured a panel of former North Carolina teachers who have either left the classroom or sought employment in a nearby states. They cited as reasons not only the absence of enough income to support their families but a growing lack of professional autonomy and respect for them and their profession. Sharon Boxley, who moved to Maryland, where she expects to earn at least $15,000 more, told the News & Observer, “I decided I needed to be paid my worth, and North Carolina couldn’t do that.” Vivian Connell, who left her job in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system out of frustration at constant testing and other mandates, explained, “I was tired of not having a voice. No one listens to teachers.”

A survey of practicing 630 teachers and administrators in the summer of 2013 by Scott Imig and Robert Smith of UNC-Wilmington found, among other things, that 97 percent think that the legislative changes have had a “negative effect on teacher morale, 66 percent believe think they have done likewise to the quality of teaching and learning in their own school, and 74 percent are now “less likely to continue working as a teacher/administrator in North Carolina.” The researchers concluded that “these findings indicate that we may well be at a tipping point with regard to the quality of education in North Carolina.”

Some of the practical impacts of the Republican agenda are already being felt. Local school boards are struggling with their new obligation to offer four-year contracts to 25 percent of their teachers based on the average scores on the state evaluation system for the prior two years. They argue that since the selection process is based on classroom observations by principals and assistant principals, it will be a challenge to find ways to assure objectivity and to avoid hurting school morale and complicating efforts to recruit new teachers. They also worry that retroactively rescinding career status from vested teachers constitutes a violation of basic property rights. Some districts are reportedly using a lottery to identify the top quarter of teachers because of concerns about legal issues and morale. On February 12, 2014 the school board in Guilford County voted unanimously to seek relief from the provision, which it claims is unconstitutional, vaguely worded and “represents yet another thinly veiled attack on public education and educators.”

Since funding is only guaranteed for the first year, some school board members also question whether teachers will actually receive the promised $500 annual raises. ”It’s a leap of faith that the General Assembly will continue to fund this,” Kevin Hill, a member of the Wake County school board, told the News & Observer. The N.C. Association of Educators is urging members not to accept the new contracts with the $500 salary supplements.

Facing a public backlash in an election year and nervous about the reports of teachers leaving either the state or the profession, Republicans have begun making promises to do something about teacher salaries in the short session of the Legislative that convenes in May 2014. Gov. McCrory, who acknowledged that teachers have a “legitimate gripe,” has begun talking about making modest increases in teacher salaries. “I don’t think we have any choice,” he told the Charlotte Observer editorial board. “Being 48th in the country is unacceptable.” In February he announced a plan, worked out with Sen. Berger and Rep. Tillis, to raise the base pay for early-career teachers from $30,800 to $35,000 by 2015-16 – with additional changes to come. Critics immediately noted that the raises would apply to only the minority of relatively new teachers, not to the majority of the experienced teachers. McCrory repeatedly refused to endorse a plan to move North Carolina toward the national average – a goal that former Democratic Gov. Hunt, whom McCrory has described as “a hero of mine” and “a great adviser to me” – has been pitching in recent weeks. Gov. McCrory said that the state had $200 million to pay for the increases in basic pay without raising taxes. He also backtracked slightly on the decision to end supplemental pay for teachers who earn masters degrees by announcing that the legislature would continue these supplements for teachers who had completed their coursework by July 2013.

Pushback in the Courts and Elsewhere

The courts are dealing with a series of lawsuits challenging several aspects of the Republican agenda, starting with the new restrictions on voting. The U.S. Dept. of Justice filed a lawsuit in September alleging that the new voting laws are a deliberate violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Not trusting Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to defend the law, Republican leaders have hired an outside law firm with strong Republican ties to do so using public funds.

The new voucher program faces two lawsuits from residents and organizations. A group of 25 plaintiffs, backed by the NCAE and the N.C. Justice Center, have challenged the voucher legislation in Wake County Superior Court on the ground that it violates the provision of the state Constitution stating that public funds “are to be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” The N.C. Association of School Boards, joined by 40 local school boards, has filed a similar suit

The North Carolina Association of Educators, smarting under the loss of its automatic dues payments, has also gone to court to challenge new legislation eliminating tenure. It argues, among other things, that rescinding tenure from vested teachers is a violation of fundamental property rights guaranteed by the state and U.S. Constitutions.

Some of the state’s most influential business figures, apparently disappointed at lack of leadership from the State Chamber of Commerce regarding the education legislation, have begun pushing for a rebalancing of priorities. They have formed Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina (BEST NC). Its 65 members include Ann Goodnight of SAS, Jim Goodmon of Capital Broadcasting, former UNC system president C.D. Spangler Jr., and Brad Wilson, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C and former head of the UNC Board of Governors. Also involved is Walter McDowell, retired regional CEO for what is now Wells Fargo. BEST NC recently hired an executive director.

Several grass roots organizations have been formed to resist the General Assembly’s assault on public education. The most active are the Raleigh-based Public Schools First NC, a nonpartisan group organizing opposition across the state, and MomsRising, the NC chapter of a national group working for a more family-friendly environment. Scholars at major universities in the state have formed Progressive Scholars of North Carolina to conduct and publicize research on what is happening to public education and other public services in North Carolina. A group of wealthy Democratic fund raisers have organized under the banner Aim Higher NC with a special focus on voter turnout.

The drastic nature of the Republican attack on the social fabric of the state has precipitated a social movement reminiscent of the civil rights and anti-poverty movements in the 1960s and 1970s. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, began organizing weekly Moral Monday rallies outside the legislature and, when the legislative session concluded, these were extended across the state with rallies drawing thousands of person. These have continued, and at least 945 persons were arrested and charged with trespassing. Prosecutors have been stymied in their efforts to win convictions, however, in part because, as the crowds grew larger, it became difficult to build narrow cases against individuals. Trials thus far have yielded mixed verdicts, with at least 26 demonstrators convicted on at least one charge but charges against many others being dismisses. The Moral Mondays framed the issues in terms of fundamental human rights, economic justice, and an assault on the poor. Gov. McCrory, who declined to meet with Barber and other leaders, and other Republican leaders have been universally dismissive of the protests – describing protestors as “outsiders” – and have never attempted to rebut allegations that the General Assembly’s actions have been fundamentally immoral.

On Saturday Feb. 8, tens of thousands of protestors from North Carolina and beyond converged on Raleigh for a Moral March on Raleigh, billed as “the largest civil rights demonstration in the South since Selma,” to push back against the legislative Republican legislative agenda on issues ranging from voter suppression and the failure to expand Medicaid to the cuts in public education. The rally was led by Barber, who described the occasion as “a movement, not a moment” and promised to continue the protests throughout the state as long as they were needed. As with the Moral Monday protests, Republican leaders dismissed the protests out of hand. Art Pope commented, “Barber’s ‘moral march’ is nothing more than a partisan political rally endorsed by the Democratic Party and fringe far-left groups like and Planned Parenthood, which have recruited liberal activists from other states to attend.” .

What’s Next?

Many North Carolinians are pinning their hopes for a bit of political relief on the race for governor in 2016. Pat McCrory’s popularity ratings are low, and he is increasingly perceived as a weak leader more interested in being Governor than in pushing a legislative agenda of his own. Gene Nichol, UNC law professor, described him as “hapless Pat” in an Oct. 14, 2013 op ed in the News & Observer. Republican leaders in the Legislature have seemingly abandoned their initial strategy of trying to assure McCrory’s re-election by shielding him from reaction against their controversial policies. Considerable support is mobilizing around Roy Cooper, the Democratic Attorney General who has begun taking strong public stands on issues. He has been particularly critical of the voting rights legislation, which his office is charged with defending in court


The fact remains, though, that Republicans are positioned to retain power in the Legislature for years to come. Perhaps the General Assembly elections of 2014 6 will send strong signals of discontent. A big question is what role the business community will choose to play going forward.

What’s Ultimately at Stake: the Future of Public Education in North Carolina

Two years ago we had the privilege of working with the State Board of Education to craft a “Vision of Public Education in North Carolina” affirming the importance of a strong public education system in our state and laying out the basic features of such a system. The document was formally adopted by the State Board in October 2012.

The Vision Statement begins with the assertion that “great states have great public education systems,” and it points out that such a system generates both private and public benefits – providing individuals with knowledge and cultural capital while promoting public purposes such as workforce development and an informed citizenry. It notes that the North Carolina Constitution requires maintenance of “a general and uniform system of free public schools,” but adds that while a strong public education system must be coherent, it need not be monolithic. It allows for diverse approaches to the delivery of teaching and learning – including charter schools and virtual schools – so long as they embrace “the central values of the public school system of which they are a part.” In practice, this means that they are accessible to all students and adhere to the same high academic and fiscal standards as regular public schools receiving taxpayer funds.

To fully understand the radical nature of the General Assembly’s recent actions with regard to schooling in North Carolina, one need only to examine the Republicans’ program against the fundamental values laid out in the Vision Statement. It is clear that it has rejected these values in at least four ways.

First, members of the General Assembly have distanced themselves from the fundamental premise that North Carolina needs a strong public education system by undermining two of the basic bedrocks of such as system: adequate funding and a strong teaching force.

Second, the Republican education agenda violates the constitutional mandate for a “uniform system of free public schools” through its enactment of vouchers and its push for untrammeled expansion of charters with little concern for their impact on existing schools and with minimum standards of accountability for how they spend public funds.

Third, Republicans have aggressively sought to upset the traditional balance of private and public interests in education by privileging the former. The charter expansion has already put millions of public funds in the pockets of entrepreneurs whose ultimate responsibility is to a bottom line rather than to quality education, while vouchers divert much-needed funds from traditional public schools to largely unaccountable private schools, a majority of which are religious.

Fourth, the Republican actions with regard to education demonstrate little or no concern for the fundamental obligation of public schools to serve each and every child in North Carolina, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs.

If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like the following: Repeat over and over again that schools are failing and that the system needs to be replaced. Then seek to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession, balkanizing the system to make coherent planning impossible, putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests, and abandoning any pretense that diversity and equal opportunity are fundamental values.

We do not know what motives have driven Gov. McCrory and Republican leaders of the General Assembly to enact their education agenda. We do know that their actions look a lot like a systematic effort to destroy a public education system that took more than a century to build and that, once destroyed, could take decades to restore.


This reader shares memories of a different time. I can vouch for what he or she writes. I remember those days too. The time after school was spent riding bikes or playing pick-up games of baseball or playing in someone’s backyard. Homework was for after dinner. There was always time for play with friends. The family ate dinner together. I went to a high school with about 1,200 students. None of the girls got pregnant. There were no drugs (but some alcohol and lots of fast driving). All teachers were Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. Were they the good old days? In some ways, yes, in some ways, no. But there was not the same degree of pressure on students to perform that there is today. No one committed suicide; the only deaths among youth were the result of reckless driving. We had childhoods.

What is sad is kids are no longer kids but little carbon copies of adults. When I grew up after dinner everyone went outdoors to play all kinds of games. It was all, clean good fun. We’d come home exhausted, sweaty and sleep like logs.
Drive down any residential street and no kids playing outdoors. Each having computers, texting, little islands unto themselves, and families not eating together. So sad.
I cannot remember anything I learned in first or second grade. Cursive writing in third only. Some Viking history in 4th. Frankly, what I would have liked to learn throughout school was about finances, saving money, investing, balancing a check book, raising kids, and more about communicating my needs to my mate.
I am 77 and I have a young friend who has been a second grade teacher for 23 years. I was absolutely APPALLED at the strict learning program for her second graders this year.
I am appalled also at these programs teaching babies to read at some ridiculous age, 13 months is it?
the whole world is upside down and so is the purpose of kids going to school. To learn social graces, share, abide by rules, respect self and others. All of life is about rules and that what we learn in school, but kids are meant to have fun, create, play,and not be stressed to the max and suffer anxiety.
When I was in high school, NO ONE became pregnant. NO drugs. Girls wore skirts, boys pants. If you were sick you were sent home. teachers were called Mr.or Mrs. etc. You wrote 5,000 essays if you talked back, or marred your desk. Later homework was neat
and thrown away to do over if messy.
No one freaked out. We loved our years at highschool.
Gee, Ben Franklin left school at second grade. Many great writers, people left early.
No one had died in my high school.
When my sons were in high school they were pall bearers 6x by the time they graduated.
And, even when younger, I told my sons, as you get older you will see more and more
suicides amongst your peers. This came to pass.
We must begin to see that something is radically wrong in education for so many deaths, suicides, pills, meds, etc. Something is TERRIBLY wrong.

In an unusual statement, 132 Catholic scholars wrote a statement highly critical of the Common Core, which they sent to every bishop in the nation. They urged the bishops not to adopt Common Core in Catholic schools and to withdraw it where it had been adopted. They conclude that the Common Core standards are designed as standardized workforce training, doing nothing to shape and inspire the hearts and minds of children.



Their statement says:

Gerard V. Bradley, Professor of Law
c/o University of Notre Dame, The Law School
3156 Eck Hall of Law, PO Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556


October 16, 2013
This letter was sent individually to each Catholic bishop in the United States. 132 Catholic professors signed the letter.


Your Excellency:

We are Catholic scholars who have taught for years in America’s colleges and universities. Most of us have done so for decades. A few of us have completed our time in the classroom; we are professors “emeriti.” We have all tried throughout our careers to put our intellectual gifts at the service of Christ and His Church. Most of us are parents, too, who have seen to our children’s education, much of it in Catholic schools. We are all personally and professionally devoted to Catholic education in America.

For these reasons we take this extraordinary step of addressing each of America’s Catholic bishops about the “Common Core” national reform of K-12 schooling. Over one hundred dioceses and archdioceses have decided since 2010 to implement the Common Core. We believe that, notwithstanding the good intentions of those who made these decisions, Common Core was approved too hastily and with inadequate consideration of how it would change the character and curriculum of our nation’s Catholic schools. We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America.

In fact, we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.

Why – upon what evidence and reasoning – do we take such a decisive stand against a reform that so many Catholic educators have endorsed, or at least have acquiesced in?

In this brief letter we can only summarize our evidence and sketch our reasoning. We stand ready, however, to develop these brief points as you wish. We also invite you to view the video recording of a comprehensive conference critically examining Common Core, held at the University of Notre Dame on September 9, 2013. (For a copy of the video, please contact Professor Gerard Bradley at the address above.)

News reports each day show that a lively national debate about Common Core is upon us. The early rush to adopt Common Core has been displaced by sober second looks, and widespread regrets. Several states have decided to “pause” implementation.

Others have opted out of the testing consortia associated with Common Core. Prominent educators and political leaders have declared their opposition. The national momentum behind Common Core has, quite simply, stopped. A wave of reform which recently was thought to be inevitable now isn’t. Parents of K- 12 children are leading today’s resistance to the Common Core. A great number of these parents are Catholics whose children attend Catholic schools.

Much of today’s vigorous debate focuses upon particular standards in English and math. Supporters say that Common Core will “raise academic standards.” But we find persuasive the critiques of educational experts (such as James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas) who have studied Common Core, and who judge it to be a step backwards. We endorse their judgment that this “reform” is really a radical shift in emphasis, goals, and expectations for K-12 education, with the result that Common Core-educated children will not be prepared to do authentic college work. Even supporters of Common Core admit that it is geared to prepare children only for community-college-level studies.

No doubt many of America’s Catholic children will study in community colleges. Some will not attend college at all. This is not by itself lamentable; it all depends upon the personal vocations of those children, and what they need to learn and do in order to carry out the unique set of good works entrusted to them by Jesus. But none of that means that our Catholic grade schools and high schools should give up on maximizing the intellectual potential of every student. And every student deserves to be prepared for a life of the imagination, of the spirit, and of a deep appreciation for beauty, goodness, truth, and faith.

The judgments of Stotsky and Milgram (among many others) are supported by a host of particulars. These particulars include when algebra is to be taught, whether advanced mathematics coursework should be taught in high school, the misalignment of writing and reading standards, and whether cursive writing is to be taught.

We do not write to you, however, to start an argument about particulars. At least, that is a discussion for another occasion and venue. We write to you instead because of what the particular deficiencies of Common Core reveal about the philosophy and the basic aims of the reform. We write to you because we think that this philosophy and these aims will undermine Catholic education, and dramatically diminish our children’s horizons.

Promoters of Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children “college and career ready.” We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.

Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.

Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.

The sad facts about Common Core are most visible in its reduction in the study of classic, narrative fiction in favor of “informational texts.” This is a dramatic change. It is contrary to tradition and academic studies on reading and human formation. Proponents of Common Core do not disguise their intention to transform “literacy” into a “critical” skill set, at the expense of sustained and heartfelt encounters with great works of literature.

Professor Stotsky was the chief architect of the universally-praised Massachusetts English language arts standards, which contributed greatly to that state’s educational success. She describes Common Core as an incubator of “empty skill sets . . . [that] weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” Rather than explore the creativity of man, the great lessons of life, tragedy, love, good and evil, the rich textures of history that underlie great works of fiction, and the tales of self-sacrifice and mercy in the works of the great writers that have shaped our cultural literacy over the centuries, Common Core reduces reading to a servile activity.

Professor Anthony Esolen, now at Providence College, has taught literature and poetry to college students for two decades. He provided testimony to a South Carolina legislative committee on the Common Core, lamenting its “cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form.” He further declared: “We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.”

Thus far Common Core standards have been published for mathematics and English language arts. Related science standards have been recently released by Achieve, Inc. History standards have also been prepared by another organization. No diocese (for that matter, no state) is bound to implement these standards just by dint of having signed onto Common Core’s English and math standards. We nonetheless believe that the same financial inducements, political pressure, and misguided reforming zeal that rushed those standards towards acceptance will conspire to make acceptance of the history and science standards equally speedy – and unreflective and unfortunate.

These new standards will very likely lower expectations for students, just as the Common Core math and English standards have done. More important, however, is the likelihood that they will promote the prevailing philosophical orthodoxies in those disciplines. In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted, and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with, the spiritual realities –soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God– which Catholic faith presupposes. We fear, too, that the history standards will promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.

Common Core is innocent of America’s Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds. In that tradition, education brings children to the Word of God. It provides students with a sound foundation of knowledge and sharpens their faculties of reason. It nurtures the child’s natural openness to truth and beauty, his moral goodness, and his longing for the infinite and happiness. It equips students to understand the laws of nature and to recognize the face of God in their fellow man. Education in this tradition forms men and women capable of discerning and pursuing their path in life and who stand ready to defend truth, their church, their families, and their country.

The history of Catholic education is rich in tradition and excellence. It embraces the academic inheritance of St. Anselm, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Blessed John Henry Newman. In contrast to such academic rigor, the Common Core standards lack an empirical evidentiary basis and have not been field-tested anywhere. Sadly, over one hundred Catholic dioceses have set aside our teaching tradition in favor of these secular standards.

America’s bishops have compiled a remarkable record of success directing Catholic education in America, perhaps most notably St. John Neumann and the Plenary Councils of Baltimore. Parents embrace that tradition and long for adherence to it – indeed, for its renaissance. That longing reflects itself in the growing Catholic homeschool and classical-education movements and, now, in the burgeoning desire among Catholic parents for their dioceses to reject the Common Core.

Because we believe that this moment in history again calls for the intercession of each bishop, we have been made bold to impose upon your time with our judgments of Common Core.

Faithfully in Christ, we are:

Institutional Affiliations Are for Identification Purposes Only

Gerard Bradley
Professor of Law
University of Notre Dame

Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
Princeton University

Anthony M. Esolen
Professor of English
Providence College

Anne Hendershott
Professor of Sociology
Franciscan University of Steubenville

Kevin Doak
Georgetown University

Joseph A. Varacalli
S.U.N.Y. Distinguished Service Professor
Nassau Community College-S.U.N.Y.

Patrick McKinley Brennan
John F. Scarpa Chair in Catholic Legal Studies
Villanova University School of Law

Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Detroit, MI

Duncan Stroik
Professor of Architecture
University of Notre Dame

Thomas F. Farr
Director, Religious Freedom Project and
Visiting Associate Professor
Georgetown University

Matthew J. Franck, Ph.D.
Director, Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution
Witherspoon Institute

Ronald J. Rychlak
Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law
University of Mississippi, School of Law

V. Bradley Lewis
Associate Professor of Philosophy
The Catholic University of America

Patrick J. Deneen
David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate
Professor of Political Science
University of Notre Dame

E. Christian Brugger, D.Phil.
J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology
Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary, Denver

Kenneth L. Grasso
Professor of Political Science
Texas State University

James Hitchcock
Professor of History
Saint Louis University

Maria Sophia Aguirre, Ph.D.
Director of Economics Programs and Academic Chair
The Catholic University of America

Fr. Joseph Koterski SJ
President, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
Fordham University

Francis J. Beckwith
Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies
Baylor University

Thomas V. Svogun
Professor of Philosophy and Administration of Justice and
Chairman of the Department of Philosophy
Salve Regina University

Scott W Hahn
Professor of Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville

Eduardo J. Echeverria, Ph.D., S.T.L.
Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology
Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Ryan J. Barilleaux, Ph.D.
Paul Rejai Professor of Political Science
Miami University (Ohio)

Brian Simboli, Ph.D.
Science Librarian
Lehigh University

John A. Gueguen
Emeritus Professor, Political Philosophy
Illinois State University

G. Alexander Ross
Institute for the Psychological Sciences

Suzanne Carpenter, Ph.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing

Patrick Lee
McAleer Professor of Bioethics
Franciscan University of Steubenville

Peter J. Colosi, PhD
Associate Professor of Moral Theology
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary

Dr. Robert Hunt
Professor of Political Science
Kean University

Matthew Cuddeback, PhD
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Providence College

Dr. Joseph H. Hagan
President Emeritus
Assumption College

John A. Cuddeback, PhD
Professor of Philosophy
Christendom College

Dr. Michael J. Healy
Professor and Chair of Philosophy
Franciscan University of Steubenville

Thomas Hibbs
Dean of the Honors College
Baylor University

Susan Orr Traffas
Co-Director, Honors Program
Benedictine College

Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biological Sciences
Lehigh University

Thomas R. Rourke
Professor of Politics
Clarion University

Robert H Holden
Professor, Dept. of History
Old Dominion University

Philip J. Harold
Associate Dean, School of Education and Social Sciences
Robert Morris University

David T. Murphy, Ph.D.
Dept. of Modern & Classical Languages
Saint Louis University

W. H. Marshner
Professor of Theology
Christendom College

David W. Fagerberg
Associate Professor, Theology
University of Notre Dame

Melissa Moschella
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Catholic University of America

Daniel J. Costello, Jr.
Bettex Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus
University of Notre Dame

Brian Scarnecchia,
Associate Professor of Law
Ave Maria School of Law

Thomas Behr
Assistant Professor of Comparative Cultural Studies
University of Houston

Bernard Dobranski
Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law
Ave Maria School of Law

Daniel Philpott
Professor, Political Science and Peace Studies
University of Notre Dame

Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Professor emerita, Dept of English
John Jay College, CUNY

C.C. Pecknold
Assistant Professor of Theology
The Catholic University of America

Anthony Low
Professor Emeritus of English
New York University

Heather Voccola
Adjunct Professor of Church History
Holy Apostles College and Seminary

Raymond F. Hain, PhD
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Providence College

Catherine Abbott
Professor of Mathematics
Keuka College

Thérèse Bonin
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Duquesne University

Dr. Francis P. Kessler
Prof. Political Science
Benedictine College

Christopher Wolfe
Co-Director, Thomas International Center
Emeritus Professor, Marquette University

Carson Holloway
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Stephen M. Krason, J.D., Ph.D.
Society of Catholic Social Scientists

Laura Hirschfeld Hollis
Associate Professional Specialist and
Concurrent Associate Professor of Law
University of Notre Dame

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C.,
Professor of History
University of Notre Dame

Stephen M. Barr
Professor of Physics
University of Delaware

D.C. Schindler
Associate Professor of Metaphysics and Anthropology
The John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family

Jeanne Heffernan Schindler
Senior Research Fellow
Center for Cultural and Pastoral Concerns

David L. Schindler
Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Catholic University of America

Rev. Edward Krause, C.C.C.
Professor of Social Sciences, Emeritus
Gannon University

Christopher O. Tollefsen
Professor of Philosophy
University of South Carolina

Paige E. Hochschild
Assistant Professor of Theology
Mount St. Mary’s University

Robert C. Jeffrey
Professor of Government
Wofford College

Rev. Anthony E. Giampietro, CSB
Executive Vice President and Academic Dean
Saint Patrick’s Seminary & University

Dr. Roger Loucks
Associate Prof. of Physics
Alfred University

J. Daniel Hammond
Professor of Economics
Wake Forest University

Kenneth R. Hoffmann, Ph.D.
Professor of Neurosurgery
SUNY at Buffalo

Timothy T. O’Donnell, STD, KGCHS
President Christendom College

Thomas W. Jodziewicz
Department of History
University of Dallas

Sr J. Sheila Galligan IHM
Professor of Theology
Immaculata University

Maura Hearden
Assistant Professor of Theology
DeSales University

Robert Gorman
University Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Texas State University

Steven Justice
Professor of English
University of California, Berkeley and
University of Mississippi

Carol Nevin (Sue) Abromaitis
Professor of English
Loyola University Maryland

Dr. Sean Innerst
Theology Cycle Director,
St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Robert A. Destro
Professor of Law & Director
The Catholic University of America

Richard Sherlock
Prof. of Philosophy
Utah State University

Adrian J. Reimers
Adjunct Assistant Professor in Philosophy
University of Notre Dame

Dr. Jessica M. Murdoch
Assistant Professor of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology
Villanova University

Mary Shivanandan, S.T.L., S.T.D.
Professor of Theology Retired
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family
at the Catholic University of America

Alice M. Ramos
Professor of Philosophy
St. John’s University

Dennis J. Marshall, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology
Aquinas College

Dennis D. Martin
Associate Professor of Theology
Loyola University Chicago

Janet E. Smith
Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics
Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Leonard J. Nelson,III
Retired Professor of Law
Samford University

Charles D. Presberg, PhD
Associate Professor of Spanish
University of Missouri-Columbia

Brian T. Kelly
Thomas Aquinas College

Michael F. McLean
Thomas Aquinas College

Philip T. Crotty
Professor of Management (Emeritus)
Northeastern University

James Matthew Wilson
Assistant Professor of Literature
Villanova University

R. E. Houser
Bishop Wendelin J. Nold Chair in Graduate Philosophy
University of St. Thomas (TX)

Gary D. Glenn
Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus
Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University

Cynthia Toolin, Ph.D.
Professor of Dogmatic and Moral Theology
Holy Apostles College and Seminary

Virginia L. Arbery, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Humanities
Wyoming Catholic College

Maryanne M. Linkes, Esquire
Adjunct Professor
University of Pittsburgh & Community College of Allegheny County

James Likoudis, M.S.Ed.
Education writer
Montour Falls, NY 14865

Dr. Emil Berendt
Assistant Professor of Economics
Mount St. Mary’s University

David F. Forte
Professor of Law
Cleveland State University

Anthony W. Zumpetta, Ed.D.
Professor Emeritus
West Chester University (PA)

Thomas D. Watts
Professor Emeritus
University of Texas, Arlington

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, PhD
Assistant Professor of Economics
Ave Maria University

Craig S. Lent
Freimann Professor of Electrical Engineering
University of Notre Dame

Christina Jeffrey, Ph.D.
Lecturer on the Foundations of American Government
Wofford College

Robert G Kennedy
Professor of Catholic Studies
University of St Thomas (MN)

Holly Taylor Coolman
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Theology
Providence College

Raymond F. Hain, PhD
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Providence College

David Whalen
Hillsdale College

David M. Wagner
Professor of Law
Regent University School of Law

John G. Trapani, Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Walsh University

Tina Holland, Ph.D.
South Bend, Indiana

James F. Papillo, J.D., Ph.D
Former Vice President of Administrative
Affairs and Associate Professor in the Humanities
Holy Apostles College and Seminary

Dr. J. Marianne Siegmund
Theo. Department and SCSS member
University of Dallas

Dr. Daniel Hauser
Professor of Theology
University of St. Francis

Joshua Hochschild
Mount St. Mary’s University

William Edmund Fahey, Ph.D.
Fellow and President
The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

John C. McCarthy
Dean, School of Philosophy
The Catholic University of America

Christopher O. Blum
Academic Dean
Augustine Institute

Chiyuma Elliott
Assistant Professor of English and African-American Studies
University of Mississippi

Mark C. Henrie
Senior V.P., Chief Academic Officer
Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Jeffrey Tranzillo, Ph.D.
Professor, Systematic Theology

Craig Steven Titus, S.Th.D/Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Director of Integrative Studies
Institute of the Psychological Sciences

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Executive Director
Catholic Education Foundation

William W. Kirk
Vice President for Student Affairs and General Counsel
Ave Maria University

Curt H. Stiles, Ph.D.
Professor of Business Policy
Cameron School of Business
University of North Carolina


Up next

The ‘congenital optimist’

Matt Bruenig has written in many journals. He also has
a blog, where this post appeared. He analyzes a fairly
straightforward question: Can schools end poverty? The column is a
commentary on the “reformers” who say that we can’t end poverty
until we fix schools, or something to that effect. We have heard
the same statement from Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein,
Bill Gates, and others. Duncan says that even the President agrees.
Bruenig analyzes these three statements:

  1. Education is a way to end
  2. Education is the best
    to end poverty.
  3. Education
    is the only way to end

He starts his short analysis with
this statement: These are all false, but since number
three is the one Rhee and Duncan and the education reformer crowd
pushes, let’s start there. It is flatly not the case that to end
poverty you need to alter education. Americans should know this.
Starting from the 1960s, we
as a society cut outrageously high rates of elderly poverty by
. We did that by sending old people checks called
Social Security. We also know from international data that
low-poverty countries get that way through tax and transfer
schemes, not unlike Social Security (I, II).
If you are saying nothing but education will dramatically cut
poverty, when things other than education absolutely will and have,
you are an enemy of the poor. You are contributing to a discursive
world where people ignore the easiest, most proven ways to cut
If this is true, and I think it is, all the
energy and billions expended on school reforms that are totally
lacking in evidence–like VAM and merit pay and privatization of
public funds–is a handy distraction from meaningful ways to end

This is a good summary of the debate about high school graduation requirements in the Texas House of Representatives.

I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience in Texas public schools many years ago (to be exact, I graduated from San Jacinto High School in 1956). To the best of my knowledge, the Legislature set minimum requirements and left the details to educators.

These days, legislators in Congress and the states seem to think they must decide everything in education and tell educators what to do. When I was in North Carolina last week, the dean of the UNC education school told me that the legislature passed laws requiring that students learn cursive writing and memorize the multiplication tables.

It is a good thing the legislators are not telling doctors how to make their diagnoses and conduct surgical procedures.

Vic Smith sends out bulletins about statehouse politics in Indiana. This is his latest, which includes a good summary about the current plan to expand vouchers in Indiana.


Dear Friends,
The Senate Education Committee will vote on the voucher expansion bill, Senate Bill 184, on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 16th.  Please contact the Senators on the committee before the vote to express your
The hearing on Senate Bill 184 sponsored by Senator Yoder revealed a division within the committee.  Even before public testimony on the bill began, Senator Kenley expressed his continued support of the position the Senate took when the voucher bill was passed, that is, that students should try public schools first.  Eligibility for vouchers required a year in public schools for that reason.  Then if students move to a private school, there is a cost savings. Under Senate Bill 184, the cost savings disappear when siblings who have not been in public schools receive a voucher and a new fiscal cost must be funded in the budget.
Senator Kenley, as quoted in Scott Elliott’s story in the January 12th Star, said it well:  “We passed the original bill on the assumption that you go to public school first.  This changes the premise.  It’s a pretty fundamental change.”
Fiscal Cost for Indiana Taxpayers
Scott Elliott’s story also quoted the testimony of ICPE lobbyist Joel Hand citing the extra fiscal costs that a sibling voucher expansion would bring: “Based on the $3932 average voucher, he said, if just one in 10 of the 9,130 students in the program had a sibling not in public school who used a voucher next year it would cost Indiana about $3.5 million annually. If a quarter of the students had a sibling who used a voucher it would cost Indiana nearly $9 million a year.”
The extra fiscal cost in the millions of dollars is clear and substantial, in a state that in the last budget zeroed out state funding for professional development, which in the previous budget was given $5.5 million a year.  Is helping private school parents pay tuition a higher priority than professional development?
Financial Relief for Private School Parents
Keep in mind that the biggest impact of SB 184 would be financial relief for private school parents.  With the exception of incoming kindergarten and first graders, it would allow no new students to go to a private school.  The older students covered by this bill are already in private schools.
Instead for all older siblings, this bill is about giving financial relief to the parents of current private school students, parents who happen to have another younger child who has qualified for a voucher.
Giving a voucher to an older sibling who is already in a private school does nothing to expand school choice.  The choice was already made. Now this bill helps parents pay for their previous choice with your tax money.
Giving financial relief to parents of private school students would be a generous thing for the state to do, but other parents would wonder why they aren’t being favored by the state with financial relief as well.  Public school parents have been asking for financial relief for school textbook rental for over a decade.  Why, they should ask, are private school parents getting relief when we are not?
Testimony on the Bill
In public testimony on Senate Bill 184 last Wednesday, five speakers spoke in favor of the bill followed by eight speaking against the bill.  Karen Combs of Lafayette in her testimony against the bill gave a timely reminder to the Senators that Gov. Daniels himself in a speech given at Harvard explained to his audience how Indiana did it right by having families go to public school first before they are eligible for a voucher.
No additional testimony will be taken, but the committee vote on SB 184 is scheduled for this Wednesday, January 16th in the Senate Chamber, along with votes on three other bills, including the cursive writing bill.  Then the rest of the afternoon is scheduled for testimony on SB 193, the Common Core bill.  Apparently a large crowd is expected which accounts for scheduling the hearing in the Senate Chamber.
As of Monday evening, no meeting has yet been scheduled for the House Education Committee.
Contact the Committee Members
It is time to contact Senators on the committee on Tuesday and Wednesday before the vote to express your opposition to expanding the voucher program in a way that will for the first time add new and expensive fiscal costs to the program.  That this bill was taken up first in the session shows the wrong priority.  The Senators to contact are as follows:
Chair:  Sen. Kruse
Republican Members:  Senators Yoder, Banks, Buck, Kenley, Pete Miller, Leising and Schneider
Democrat Members: Senators Rogers, Broden, Mrvan, Taylor
You should also add your own Senator to the contact list.  If you made contacts last week, it would not hurt to send another email or note before the vote.  They need to know that public school advocates are watching every step of the way.  One strong advocate opposing Senate Bill 184, Patricia Logan, had an excellent letter to the editor printed in the Indianapolis Star just this morning, January 14th.  Thanks, Trish!  Let’s all turn up the volume!
Thank you for speaking up for public education!
Vic Smith
ICPE is working to promote public education in the Statehouse as efforts are made to take public money away from public schools through an expansion of vouchers.  We are well represented by our lobbyist Joel Hand, but to keep him in place we need all members from last year to renew and we need new members who support public education.
Go to for membership and renewal information.
Some readers have asked about my background in Indiana public schools.  Thanks for asking!  Here is a brief bio:
I am a lifelong Hoosier and began teaching in 1969.  I served as a social studies teacher, curriculum developer, state research and evaluation consultant, state social studies consultant, district social studies supervisor, assistant principal, principal, educational association staff member, and adjunct university professor.   I worked for Garrett-Keyser-Butler Schools, the Indiana University Social Studies Development Center, the Indiana Department of Education, the Indianapolis Public Schools, IUPUI, and the Indiana Urban Schools Association, from which I retired as Associate Director in 2009.  I hold three degrees: B.A. in Ed., Ball State University, 1969; M.S. in Ed., Indiana University, 1972; and Ed.D., Indiana University, 1977, along with a Teacher’s Life License and a Superintendent’s License, 1998.