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NRRF - New York's New Approach

New York's New Approach

By JAMES TRAUB
New York Times
August 3, 2003

James Traub, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine, is author of "Better by Design: A Consumer's Guide to Schoolwide Reform."

In the never-ending struggle waged between the forces of traditionalism and of progressive education over the soul of the American classroom, the former has been gaining a decisive advantage in recent years. Reading experts have coalesced around the principle that step-by-step phonics instruction works best, especially with children at risk of failure. Los Angeles, Houston and other major cities have adopted a highly structured, phonics-based system called Open Court. The No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's most prized achievement in domestic policy, restricts federal financing to classroom methods backed by scientific research, which in practice favors phonics.

And so when Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and an avowed traditionalist in matters of schooling, gained control over the city's famously fractious and diffusely organized school system, it appeared that one of the bastions of progressive thinking was about to fall.

But it hasn't -- quite the contrary. In January, Mayor Bloomberg's schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, announced that starting this fall all but the most successful schools in the city would adopt a uniform curriculum. The new math program, Everyday Mathematics, would emphasize understanding concepts rather than mastery of basic operations, and a "balanced literacy" approach to reading and writing would focus more on children working among themselves than on direct instruction. Reading experts swiftly criticized the phonics component, Month by Month Phonics, as sketchy and unsystematic. (Mr. Klein later added a more orthodox program.)

When I met with Chancellor Klein earlier this summer in the Tweed Courthouse, the splendidly refurbished marble building that serves as the headquarters of the newly fashioned Department of Education, he scoffed at the whole question of classroom doctrine. "I think it's a 'less filling/tastes great' debate," he said. "I don't believe curriculums are the key to education. I believe teachers are." Mr. Klein said that the more open-ended, loosely structured programs he has adopted would work fine so long as teachers have enough opportunity to learn how to use them, which he promises they will. Of course, the whole premise of contemporary educational research is that some practices are more effective than others, especially with the kind of impoverished children who fill New York City schools.

Mayor Bloomberg has said repeatedly that he wants to be held accountable for the performance of New York's schoolchildren; he is about to be held accountable for one of the greatest experiments ever attempted in progressive education.

In early June, a few weeks before the school year came to an end, 300 to 400 elementary-school teachers and in-school reading specialists gathered in a vaulted auditorium at Teachers College at Columbia University to receive instruction in the new balanced literacy program from Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and one of the leading gurus of literacy instruction in New York City schools. Chancellor Klein and Diana Lam, the deputy chancellor for instruction, have decreed a crash program of professional development to prepare teachers for the new curriculum, which is far more challenging than what many of them are used to.

Sessions like this had been going on since early in the spring. Ms. Calkins, who in years past has worked in several of the city's districts, is now offering instruction to 4,000 teachers over the course of the summer, and will be working during the year with just about a third of the city's 80,000 teachers.

"Balanced literacy" is usually understood as some combination of fundamentals and experiences of reading and writing meant to promote deeper understanding. In practice, it often involves a great deal of the latter, and not very much of the former.

Ms. Calkins's "writer's workshop" model is based on the idea that children are natural writers; the job of the teacher is to coax stories out and help them use language to push more deeply into their experience. Ms. Calkins is not an advocate of direct instruction; she believes that children develop language skills by being engaged in so-called authentic learning, learning that emerges from their own experience.

A small, energetic woman, Ms. Calkins strode rapidly in from the wings and began by asking the teachers to think of happy and unhappy memories of writing. One raised her hand and said that her happiest memory of writing was keeping a journal while her father was dying and her unhappiest was having to write term papers in college. Instead of making a case for analytic writing, Ms. Calkins seized on the woman's preference to make her central point: "What works for us is writing that is personal," she said. Ms. Calkins told inspiring stories about children who had used writing to surface buried hopes and fears. The audience drew pictures to illustrate a memorable experience -- an exercise for beginning writers. Even in the case of nonnarrative writing, she said, "it doesn't have to be a book report; it doesn't have to be about ancient Greece." That was her only reference to book reports. She never once used the words "vocabulary," "knowledge" or "analysis."

Writing is, of course, only part of a literacy program. All New York elementary and middle-school students will have lengthy "literacy blocks" each day to focus on reading as well as writing skills. Teachers will read books aloud, engage in "shared reading" with the whole class, "guided reading" with smaller groups and "independent reading" from classroom libraries whose books will be carefully calibrated by skill level.

Kathleen Tolan, who works with Ms. Calkins, took the stage and explained that children need to be immersed in reading, and that the "leveled library" was crucial to learning to enjoy reading. Children who read books that are too difficult lose confidence and feel excluded from the "community of readers." Children experiencing problems reading need to be given easier books. Like Ms. Calkins, Ms. Tolan said nothing about explicit language instruction.

Here was a form of teaching that built on the child's innate knowledge and love of learning, required virtually no rote instruction and permitted children to acquire information and understanding as a painless byproduct of pleasurable activities. It sounded delightful. But would it be effective?

Of the teachers I spoke to during the session, the younger ones generally felt comfortable with this process-oriented, child-centered mode of teaching, since it was what they had learned in education school and what they practiced in their own classroom. Older teachers were more skeptical. When one school official underlined Ms. Calkins's point that teachers didn't need to assign book reports, the woman next to me expostulated, "That I don't agree with." A literacy supervisor from Staten Island told me during a break that schools she knew using a similar approach were failing at it. She worried about the absence of rigorous phonics instruction. "These kids first need to learn how to decode," she said. She also said -- and she covered her face in embarrassment when saying it -- that she didn't think most teachers were skilled enough for this constructivist pedagogy, in which teachers act as coaches to help children "construct" their own understanding.

Teachers and principals are bracing for radical change when schools open on Sept. 8. Some educators express real enthusiasm about the prospect of replacing a patchwork system in which teaching approaches varied by district, by school and even by classroom; others predict disaster either because the change is too sudden and the training too scanty, or because the chancellor and his chief deputy have chosen the wrong approach.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says that urban districts have increasingly adopted a single approach for all schools, especially in reading and writing. He adds that the four districts in the country that have reported the greatest growth in reading scores use either Open Court or Success for All, another of the highly scripted, phonics-based programs that progressively minded New York educators like Lucy Calkins scorn as "drill and kill."

Researchers have generally found that programs with explicit instruction are more effective than ones that assign teachers the role of coach. In "The Academic Achievement Challenge," a book that exhaustively compares studies of student-centered and teacher-centered models over the last 30 years, Jeanne S. Chall, a renowned reading expert at Harvard University who died in 1999, concluded that the teacher-centered approach had proved substantially more effective, especially with "children of average or low socioeconomic status." Middle-class children are far more likely to arrive at school with significant language skills; disadvantaged children, she noted, depend on school much more heavily to learn basic skills and benefit more from direct instruction.

Many of New York's most prominent school reformers have praised Mr. Klein for exerting strong control over what had been a hopelessly decentralized and incoherent system, but they accuse him, on pedagogical matters, of "deferring to the system's progressive-ed old guard," as Sol Stern, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, wrote in the spring issue of City Journal. Mr. Klein is sometimes described as an unwitting captive of the city's liberal consensus. Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association and a former deputy superintendent in East Harlem, says of the chancellor, "He is surrounded by progressive educators, though he doesn't know it." Mr. Fliegel adds, "I think he's straight, he's smart, but that's not enough if you don't get the right information."

Exhibit A, Mr. Fliegel says, is Diana Lam.

Ms. Lam, the former schools chief in San Antonio, Tex., and in Providence, R.I., is a strong advocate of the constructivist pedagogy that lies at the core of progressive philosophy. Mr. Klein, who was assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's antitrust division under President Bill Clinton, arrived in his job knowing something about management but virtually nothing about the classroom. He said he was aware of Ms. Lam's views. He chose her, he said, because she came highly recommended and because reading scores increased during her tenure in San Antonio, where she also used balanced literacy and Everyday Math. (Math scores rose, too, though when she left teachers voted overwhelmingly to get rid of the program because they said they had found it confusing and ineffective.)

Ms. Lam describes herself as a moderate in pedagogical matters. "Any extreme is a problem," she says. At the same time, she is a strong proponent of the proposition that children should be permitted to direct their own learning more than they typically do. "You need to have debate and arguing and discussing," she says. "It's in those kinds of circumstances that students actually get smarter." She says that the more scripted programs "treat students or the adults teaching the students as people who are incapable of thinking for themselves," and she worries about the prevalence of "mechanical learning." Ms. Lam says she believes in phonics but that its elements should be "embedded" in reading and writing exercises rather than explicitly taught. So does Ms. Calkins, who writes in "The Art of Teaching Reading" that children must be encouraged "to construct their own understanding of phonics."

As chief policy adviser, Ms. Lam hired Michelle Cahill, a highly regarded figure from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who largely shares her philosophy; she brought in consultants with a similar bent. When it came time to hire the 10 regional superintendents who would replace the old district superintendents, and who now report directly to the chancellor, Ms. Lam turned largely, though not wholly, to administrators who had served in District 2, the city's most liberal region, which includes Greenwich Village, TriBeCa and the Upper West Side.

And so here was a paradox: a mayor who had publicly called for a return to educational traditionalism had gained control over the schools and seemed to be presiding over a system with strong doubts about those principles.

Mr. Klein is impatient with the idea that he has thrown in his lot with one particular party of educators. "It's a curriculum war that creates a lot of energy but focuses on the wrong thing," he said as we sat in one of the lounges of the Tweed building. Mr. Klein's own office was unsuitable for an interview, because he presides over the school system from an airy bullpen much like the one Mayor Bloomberg occupies in City Hall. Mr. Klein himself is an informal figure with a native New Yorker's high-revving metabolism. He is, like the mayor, a pragmatist who makes what he says are commonsense decisions. "It's meaningless not to use phonics for children who need phonics," he said. "By the same token, it's meaningless to use phonics for children who are reading already. So I'm not going to have a phonics curriculum without classroom libraries" -- that is, the opportunity for children to read books they enjoy.

Mr. Klein echoed Ms. Lam's view that an extensive focus on basic skills tends to destroy a child's love of learning. "So many people want to have that very very basic instruction in math," he said, "and yet how many people do we know who have come out of school who don't like math, who don't have a well-grounded education even though they do know their multiplication tables?" Mr. Klein pointed out that in some cities, like Sacramento, the phonics-heavy Open Court reading program had provided "a couple of years' bump, and then it went flat." (More commonly, however, gains from Open Court have been sustained.)

Phonics experts say that many children must be explicitly, systematically and sometimes even wearisomely taught the sounds that words are made of, known as phonemes; the correspondence between these sounds and the letters that represent them; and the way in which sounds blend to form words. The reading expert Jeanne Chall, for example, concluded that "classic approaches to beginning reading instruction" -- that is, phonics taught in a clearly defined sequence -- "were more effective than the various innovative approaches with which they were compared," including embedded forms of instruction, and that they led to "higher achievement in both word recognition and reading comprehension." Phonics, however, is less appealing than many of those innovative approaches; and educators are reluctant to abandon methods of teaching they enjoy and that they think children enjoy.

In January, Mr. Klein announced with great fanfare that the city's phonics component would be provided by Month by Month Phonics. The reaction from reading authorities, both in New York and elsewhere, was one of bewilderment. Scarcely any of them had ever heard of the program, which was developed by two reading specialists, Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall. When they began looking it up on the Web, or studying one of the published teacher's guides, they found that the curriculum chosen by the city to satisfy a mayor who demanded "a daily focus on phonics" was not, despite the name, a phonics program at all but rather a set of activities and exercises. For example, the authors suggest promoting "phonemic awareness" not by teaching phonemes but by teaching children to rhyme words or practice tongue twisters.

Robert Slavin, who founded the Success for All reading program (and thus one of the losers of the city's curriculum sweepstakes), says that Month by Month Phonics "goes as far back to whole language as you could possibly go." It is, he says, "beyond imagining" that such a program could be chosen at a time when "the feds are strongly pushing phonics."

The decision created some embarrassment for the Bloomberg administration. G. Reid Lyon, the Bush administration's chief reading expert, said that the program lacked any discernible research base, thus holding out the alarming possibility that the city could lose about $70 million in federal money earmarked for reading instruction. And in early February, seven prominent reading researchers wrote to Chancellor Klein to say that Month by Month Phonics was "woefully inadequate" and implored him to reconsider.

One of the experts, Sally Shaywitz, a professor at Yale and chairman of the president's No Child Left Behind "Reading First revie"w panel, says that the decision shows a failure to "understand that there really is scientific evidence of what works and what's effective."

I was never able to learn who in the school system put forward Month by Month Phonics. Diana Lam told me it had been suggested by Beth Lief, director of the literacy task force that had deliberated throughout the fall on curriculum options for the city. But Ms. Lief says she had never heard of the program, and recalls that it came from Ms. Lam or her staff. The program has been used in several cities as well as two New York school districts. Mr. Klein often cites the example of one Brooklyn school that saw its reading scores shoot up after adopting Month by Month Phonics (since the program had been in place for only one year when the school was tested, the improvement appears traceable to the orthodox program previously used).

This was plainly not what the Bush administration had intended by the phrase "research-based pedagogy." Still, after the criticism from Mr. Lyon and reading experts, Ms. Lam and her staff looked at Month by Month Phonics and concluded that it was, as Ms. Lam says, "explicit and comprehensive."

Ms. Shaywitz says this willingness to overlook clear evidence is "not reassuring, to say the least."

Do Mr. Klein's chief instructional aides simply not believe in phonics or, more broadly, in explicit instruction in basic skills? Do they, as Ms. Shaywitz fears, take a dim view of the findings of educational research? Michelle Cahill insists that she and her colleagues are "not ambivalent about the idea of phonics instruction." On the other hand, Beth Lief told me that many members of the literacy task force, and many teachers and principals, believe that the phonics emphasis of President Bush's reading initiative will kill children's pleasure in reading. "There would have been a bloodbath if we had mandated Open Court," she says. In the aftermath of the uproar, Mr. Klein added a more orthodox program, developed by Voyager Expanded Learning in Dallas, for those who need such instruction. Ms. Shaywitz calls Voyager "a wonderful program with real data" supporting its effectiveness; she hopes it is widely used.

The city says children will be tested and those deemed to be falling behind will get 10 to 20 minutes of Voyager instruction a day, depending on grade. Though reading experts say that teaching phonics requires extensive preparation, a department spokesman, Kevin B. Ortiz, says that training in Voyager and Month by Month Phonics will be "much more modest" than for the rest of the literacy program during the summer -- fewer teachers and less time. Coaches are being trained to help teachers during the school year, he says.

The choice of Everyday Mathematics, developed at the University of Chicago, has provoked a less sulfurous response, though parent groups, researchers and professional mathematicians have criticized the curriculum as fuzzy math.

Thomas Loveless, a curriculum expert at the Brookings Institution, says that Everyday Math is "weak on basic skills," though he adds that it is "the most sensible" of the constructivist math programs. The program's Web site describes its approach: "Mathematics is more meaningful when it is rooted in real-life contexts and situations, and when children are given the opportunity to become actively involved in learning." Children come to understand the idea of measurement, for example, by tracing the outline of their foot rather than only through calculations.

A critical evaluation by a mathematician affiliated with Mathematically Correct, a back-to-basics advocacy group, notes that while Everyday Math does not, like some programs, entirely shun the teaching of algorithms -- formulas for, say, long division -- it "does not see the need to master any particular algorithm," which can make it difficult to master basic calculations, just as whole language instruction, for all its focus on a child's innate knowledge and love of learning, can leave children stranded in the shallows of language.

About a week after I attended the literacy training session at Teachers College, I went to Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a high-poverty neighborhood in Brooklyn, where local principals were being taught the basics of the new math curriculum. One of the district's curriculum officials dutifully touted the merits of balanced literacy and Everyday Math, but when I said, "Is it good for your kids?" she immediately shot back, "Our children need the structure. Maybe it's good for District 2, but in this kind of setting you need the basics." This was a conservatively minded district, and most, though not all, principals were inclined to agree with her. One was disgusted that children would be permitted to use calculators in Everyday Math. Almost all were worried that their teachers just weren't ready for this ambitious curriculum. As a training exercise, one group of administrators explained that "the big idea" they had learned so far was "the importance of a knowledgeable staff," "the big surprise" was "the dearth of qualified math teachers throughout the system" and "the big question" was "where are the qualified math teachers?"

When I saw Diana Lam not long afterward, she said that she was well aware of the widespread anxiety but considered it defeatist. "I think we need to have high expectations for our teachers, too," she said. "We think that our teachers can do it."

But Joel Klein conceded that "there's not enough content knowledge" among teachers, "especially in the high elementary grades." For that, he said, he needs reform in the teachers' colleges and a system of differential pay that will allow him to attract more qualified teachers in areas like math and science -- a proposal that the teachers' union resolutely opposes.

Every new chancellor in recent years has come into office with a message of salvation for the schools. Once it was "school-based management," then it was "curriculum frameworks," and then data-driven instruction. None of it really mattered in the end, because chancellors couldn't impose their will on the system. Now, at long last, they can. Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Klein have the power to reshape New York City schools.

But they have imposed a curriculum that scants content knowledge for personal experience and direct instruction for self-directed learning. With almost half of the city's fourth graders and two-thirds of its eighth graders reading below grade level, is this the direction they should go?


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