Reading the New York Times’ Confused Reading of Reading
There are plenty of alarming stories about crises affecting the world of education. In the age of Large Language Models such as ChatGPT, worry about everything from plagiarism to teachers’ job security is rife. As the now popular Global War on Disinformation proceeds apace, educators and parents might wonder about the kind of knowledge we teach and learn, or whether the very idea of knowledge retains any stable meaning.
The New York Times has its own concerns with education. It is now yanking the alarm cord on a crisis that has remained under the radar for too long. NYT’s education reporter, Sarah Mervosh reports that, like a tsunami, this new crisis is “sweeping” everything in its path. “A revolt over how children are taught to read, steadily building for years, is now sweeping school board meetings and statehouses around the country.”
We learn that the movement has a name, and one that we should take very seriously. “The movement, under the banner of ‘the science of reading,’ is targeting the education establishment: school districts, literacy gurus, publishers and colleges of education, which critics say have failed to embrace the cognitive science of how children learn to read.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Science of reading:
Principally in the United States, the name of a realm of human knowledge invented to allow researchers and campaigners to lobby for the adoption of specific methods they believe can be formalized to the point of standardization, the implicit ideal applied to everything in US education.
Mervosh provides no definition of the science. The remark cited above about what she refers to as “the movement” specifies not what it consists of, but who it is “targeting.” We should take this as a clear indication that the social phenomenon she is describing should be thought of as closer to a marketing operation than an area of intellectual inquiry. In other words, it doesn’t appear to be what we would traditionally categorize as a “science.” But in an age when people, and the media in particular, swear by the “science of marketing,” why shouldn’t we welcome a science of reading? So long as the traditional scientific community doesn’t rise in revolt against what Mervosh has describes as a “revolt,” it’s probably best to let ride the issue of whether the movement is a science or a sales campaign.
The closest the article gets to leaving the impression of its being a science appears in a sentence that alludes to a body of research, an activity we do generally associate with science. Here is how Mervosh explains, not so much the science itself as the need it addresses: “Research shows that most children need systematic, sound-it-out instruction — known as phonics — as well as other direct support, like building vocabulary and expanding students’ knowledge of the world.”
That sounds reasonable, but what does it mean in terms of educational practice? The article tells us, fatalistically, that: “Many children are not being correctly taught,” as if we should be surprised or even revolted. It also tells us triumphally, that after drawing “support across economic, racial and political lines” mobilizing a diversity of “champions,” success is nigh. “Together,” we learn, “they are getting results.”
In other words, the home team – let’s call them the “Scientists” – appear to be winning. At one point, Mervosh even reports the score. “Nearly 60 percent of third graders are now proficient in decoding words, up from about 30 percent at the beginning of the school year, progress Mr. Palazzo [the principal of a low-income school] hopes will translate to state tests this spring.”
The problem with the article is that by the time we get to this and a few other anecdotal instances of failure or success, we still don’t know anything about the science itself – its fundamental principles, its strategic orientation – and even less about how it works. For example, the case of Mr Palazzo begins with a bit of history. “His school had been using a reading program by the influential educators, Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, whose work has been questioned by science of reading advocates.” Fountas and Pinnell then seem to be on the bad team, since they have been critique by the “scientists.”
But we then learn that they too claim to be scientists. “Dr. Fountas and Dr. Pinnell pointed to research supporting their program and said ‘countless schools’ had achieved positive results.” “Countless” means that it was a rout. There’s no reason even to report the exact score.
In the following paragraph we learn that Palazzo’s school “used grants, donations and Covid relief money to buy a new phonics curriculum. The school also recently added 40 minutes of targeted, small-group phonics at the end of every day.” We can only deduce that Fountas and Pinnell were guilty of neglecting phonics and that their neglect prevents us from considering whatever they did – it is never described – as scientific.
Much later in the article – after more than 50 paragraphs – we receive a serious warning. “There is also the danger of overemphasizing phonics.” We still have no idea, despite the cascade of paragraphs, of what phonics is and how it works other than the idea that when it is employed, language is voiced out loud. Now, after being told it is the secret to scientific success, we must be careful not to overemphasize it.
The New York Times has historically cultivated its own particular type of “serious journalism” designed according to the dictates of US culture, where “big is better,” “size matters” and quantity can always serve as a substitute for quality. Throughout its history, NYT has produced numerous examples of solid, impactful and sometimes game-changing journalism that, in the best cases, has had the power to mold Americans’ perception of issues and events. The tradition continues, but a parallel tradition that relies on an accumulation of data to mask a dearth of insight has grown up alongside it.
The hallmarks of any of the great NYT articles of the past have been the engagement of the reporter present on the terrain as events play out and sufficiently immersed in the topic to produce a convincing thoroughness of treatment. The great articles are always lengthy in order to justify the claim of being comprehensive. The author expects the reader to leave with the impression that the journalist has left out nothing essential to understanding the issues.
Unfortunately, when the substance is lacking, the clever strategy designed to create the illusion of thoroughness risks producing an impression of chaotic confusion. The accumulation of factoids and random remarks produces an effect of dancing around an issue about which the journalist has no clear idea. This inevitably leaves an impression of overload and unnecessary complexity. Tolerant readers may blame themselves for not having the capacity to understand the subtle reasoning of the journalist and the multiple experts cited. But a closer examination reveals that, in these boilerplate “in depth” articles, the cumulative effect serves to hide not just the lack of an insightful message but also the journalist’s capacity to produce any.
Despite its length, this article that claims to address the serious issue of literacy never defines the nature of the problem that provoked the “revolt” it describes. Nor does it point even vaguely in the direction of solution. Paragraph after paragraph, it presents random observations and dissociated judgments. The consistent lack of any kind of logical or stylistic transition between paragraphs is endemic. It appears to be NYT’s way of saying we’re not leaving anything out, even if we have no idea how all these things connect.
This failure of journalistic strategy may, in the end, be a deliberate game of smoke and mirrors. The method now routinely infects an increasing number of NYT articles. In my analysis of articles related to Russiagate, Havana Syndrome and other purely political themes, I have regularly noted how NYT journalists often forget — but more likely hide — what any true investigator would signal as the basis of an original insight or an undiscovered truth. In the most cynical cases, the journalist will conveniently “bury” the most salient element in the story inside a trailing paragraph lost somewhere in a string of unconnected observations.
It is legitimate to wonder why the Gray Lady continues with this practice. The simple answer is that… it works! Readers expect it. It stands as a sign of the paper’s seriousness. Which leaves us with one more question to ask: What does this say about a society that considers such journalistic practices normal?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.
Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.