City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Sol Stern
Who Is Carmen Fariña? « Back to Story

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Ridiculous and false to say that Core Knowledge will help kids learn to read by teaching background knowledge. In my 30+ years of teaching, I have yet to encounter a 2nd grader whose failure to comprehend had to do with lack of knowledge about Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt, which is what 1st and 2nd graders learn about in Core Knowledge Schools.
We've been using "whole language" (also know as "whole word") for decades. They keep changing the name and keeping the disaster.

Remember "Why Johnny Can't Read"? That was about whole word/whole language. Remember "Why Johnny STILL Can't Read?" That was too.
I was a teachers' federation president for 15 years. My experienced teacher members came to me repeatedly and said: "Rick, this balanced literacy/whole language/no spelling books/let them invent their own math algorithms just is not working. The kids aren't learning anything." Test scores in our suburban district fell below those in the urban state capitol. But, the school system imposed a merit pay evaluation system, and teachers were intimidated into silence, just as Stern describes and often worse, by the central office curriculum leaders who were wedded to their theories. Progressives need to be concerned about the social justice of leaving students lacking in knowledge, given what we now know about the limits of working memory when dealing with non-memorized information. Conservatives had better think twice about merit pay schemes that take curriculum decisions out of the hands of classroom experts and put the power in the hands of an unaccountable bureaucracy that is out of touch with what works in classrooms.
NYC Mom, I suggest you take a look at the curriculums of schools like Horace Mann and Trinity, especially in Kindergarten. The public schools are teaching more reading and writing skills in Kindergarten than private schools these days - and giving far more homework, too! And what is more astonishing is that they are teaching those skills (and assigning homework) to students who range in age from 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 years old. Half the Kindergarten students in NYC publics would be deemed "too young" for private school Kindergarten! Private schools keep insisting Kindergarten students be older and older (kids who turn 5 in the "summer" are now too young- those students are told they should be 6 years and 2 months to start Kindergarten at Trinity!) And yet, most public school students with reasonably involved families do quite well despite not having the army of private tutors that students at Trinity have. Just because some students, like Sol Stern's children, may need a little more help with academics, does not mean that public school teachers or curriculums have failed, just like the fact that many students at Trinity and Horace Mann have private tutors doesn't mean that those schools are failures. A little common sense in these discussions would do wonders; too many people here have political agendas in which public schools are blamed for the ills of society as a reason to privatize public education. Thanks goodness that the DOE will hopefully be run by administrators with a little common sense. I don't argue that there aren't changes that could be made in the curriculum, but anyone who thinks a return to phonics is going to solve the problem of how to educate at-risk students in failing schools is simply naive or has another agenda. I would happily vote for my tax dollars to be spent on charter schools who took the most difficult students -- the ones who were assigned there by the public schools where they were failing out. Let those FAILING students by taught by the "core knowledge curriculum" and prove to us skeptics how much better that curriculum is. As a public school parent over the last decade, I have never seen my children "constructing their own knowledge", as Mr. Stern claims! I don't even know what that is! But I do know that my children are learning far more than I did many decades ago, when my public school education easily prepared me and my siblings for our ivy league educations. And we didn't even need tutors!
In response to Anonymous below who says that if the progressive model works for those paying a private school tuition of 40K a year, it should work for everyone. The reality is, students in private schools have scored high on an ERB entrance exam, have been interviewed, come from elite pre-schools that probably covered many of the reading basics, have parents who are highly educated and wealthy and can afford private tutors to fill in the gaps. Oh, and the kids have probably traveled the world, have visited renowned museums/theater, taken music lessons all by the age of 5. Its safe to say that these students are entering school with a deeper core knowledge than their disadvantaged peers in low income NYC districts. Moreover, not every top private school uses a progressive model. Some like Horace Mann and Trinity lean more tradition while Dalton uses a progressive approach, but a least its the parents who get to apply to which private school would better suite their child.
In the words of a great NYC mayor ," The people have spoken and now they must be punished " E I Koch
@ The Sage….: Got to agree with you on the dubiousness of the “endless standardized testing” regime. Way beyond the scope of a simple reader comment to explain why I agree. But in a nutshell – doing well on these tests has become the objective of education.

Re “….sour grapes when anything "progressive" is…”: I think the writer is calling for some very substantial changes. Eye of the beholder whether these would be termed “progressive”.

I’m not sold on the charter school idea either. The idea only comes into play when large, entrenched, failing systems are under consideration. I really don’t what to do about these systems.

One last thing: “skill and drill which turns most students off”. A lot of things in life are not all that entertaining.
Mr. Stern sounds like sour grapes when anything "progressive" is implemented in education, like trying to get as many kids as we can up to snuff--rather then ship "the gifted" off to Charter schools on tax money; abandon the rest and close the school.

We finally have a veteran teacher from the public schools in charge, rather than a Joel Klein, a corporate raider/data mining type mentality , who advocates endless standardized testing and skill and drill which turns most students off and very few on.

But this is the type of critique we have come to expect from the Manhattan Instituters--toot toot.

The Sage of Wake Forest
I believe Ms. Calkins penned a "foreword" not a "forward for Ms. Farina's book...
There appears to be across the board failure. See this article by a college lit professor regarding his students:

http://orthosphere.org/2014/01/08/post-literacy-and-the-refusal-to-read

An extract:
Increasingly students tell me that they “can’t understand” the reading. If they referred to Plato’s Symposium, the confession would be easy to interpret. Abstract argument, syllogisms, and the refutation of syllogisms pose difficulties for inexperienced readers. However, the texts that students tell me they “can’t understand” are The Odyssey or a novel by Hawthorne or Melville or a short story by Ray Bradbury. In the case of The Odyssey, I assign Palmer’s WWI-era prose translation, so as not to traumatize the readership by confronting it with narrative in verse. Students are telling me that they can’t understand stories, where one thing happens which leads to another and so forth. Students give voice to a different, a radical species of incomprehension that bodes ill for the culture, the society, and the polity that they will constitute. Their bafflement harbingers the age of post-literacy.
The lad, a father a bookie, has the system down. Itis the establishment that does not understand children learn by observation and doing. Reading is an acquired skill that take time to build a vocabulary and ability to use the language. Once able to read, a child will read.
For those with reading dyslexia and other problems, the Monitossri method works wonders.
Columbia Teachers College, from John Dewey onward, has been at the forefront of pushing ignorance and calling it learning.
Farina and the crack team at Columbia do not like it that their view of how and what to teach is challenged. So be it. The results speak loudly. Only the educational deaf do not wish to hear.
Spending $40,000 on edu-quacks on the assumption that if you pay more you get more is hardly a convincing defense of "balanced literacy". Balanced literacy is merely a name change for whole language which, for those of us with a memory, is what drove California kids' reading abilities into the basement.

Fortunately, the voters of California grew sufficiently alarmed at the collapse of reading scores to wrench that responsibility out of the hands of the people who were responsible for the disaster.

But a name change, a couple of decades and a different state and whole language, which is a guarantee of a 35% illiteracy rate, is once again fashionable.

You want to guess what methodology adult literacy outfits use to repair the damage done by whole language/blended literacy? Phonics.
Watch and see. My money is on an effort to prevent this natural experiment from going forward. The simplest way to prevent it would be to insist that forthwith, all 71 offending principles switch back to "balanced literacy" or whatever the code words of the day are for the same old nostrum.
The irony is that the so-called "progressive" balanced literacy approach that Mr. Stern criticizes here is exactly the approach that almost every top private school in NYC takes. Top Wall Street bankers pay upwards of $40,000 tuition each year for what Mr. Stern dismisses as "progressive" education. Obviously, Mr. Stern believes those top private schools require their elementary school students to sit in desks in rows and do phonics! Newsflash: They don't!

In fact, no one approach works for every child. Every method, including balanced literacy, has strengths and weaknesses. But until expensive private schools start teaching in the kill and drill fashion that Mr. Stern thinks is so wonderful, he will have a hard time convincing public school parents their kids will suffer without it. Hypocrisy abounds among those, like Mr. Stern, who seek to have corporations run "public" schools.
I am not sure if you are right. After viewing videos on engage nyc with Klein and King, I am sure the approach is let readers at every reading level tackle books over their reading level without any instruction. The teacher allows them to grapple with the text and as a guide on the side fills in any allusions where content knowledge is missing. I am not sure what you would call this approach? But if social justice is served this way, there will be just as many students disenfranchised as when they " dumb down" the text.