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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
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Sol Stern
Joel Klein’s Figleaf
Chancellor Klein’s begrudging nod to phonics
9 January 2004

In the past six months, New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has drawn a line in the sand regarding the “whole language” or “balanced literacy” reading curriculum he imposed on virtually all city schools. He vowed that no amount of federal money could get him to drop this “progressive” approach to reading and adopt instead one of the rigorous, scientifically proven phonics programs approved for federal funding under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation. In public and private meetings, Klein repeatedly derided phonics as outmoded pedagogy that subjects children to boring and counter-productive “drill and kill” instruction. Yet even as Klein was defending the progressive-ed party line in end-of-the-year press interviews, his own Department of Education team was writing a grant proposal for a “drill and kill” program that might bring almost $40 million in No Child Left Behind money to the city.

Klein’s team chose a traditional phonics-based program called Harcourt Trophies to use in 49 low-performing city schools. (Under the federal legislation, a number of participating private and parochial schools will also get some of the money.) The application submitted to the state education department (which administers the federal grant) carries Klein’s signature, pledging that in the designated schools the city will now use instructional materials “that have been validated by scientifically based reading research.”

It must stick in Klein’s craw to have to admit that the phonics programs he hates actually have scientific validation. It must make him madder still that, under the state guidelines for the reading grants, he had to include UFT President Randi Weingarten on his design team and get her to sign off on the city’s proposal. Besides representing a humiliating retreat for Klein, the phonics grant proposal is something of a vindication for his arch-nemesis Weingarten. After all, the union president has been blasting Klein for abandoning successful phonics programs in the city’s neediest schools.

Even so, Klein might have salvaged something positive for himself and Mayor Bloomberg merely by remaining statesmanlike—for example, saying that there was now a chance to see which reading approach produces the best results for the city’s children. Instead, Klein went out of his way to bite the hand that he was asking to feed the schools. In justifying his 180-degree turnaround to the New York Times, Klein gratuitously attacked the Bush administration for its lack of “flexibility.” In fact, the federal education department offers school districts a wide choice of reading programs. The only thing the feds are inflexible about is their refusal to fund a program that has no scientifically valid research behind it. In any case, flexibility is hardly something Klein has offered to the schools he commands.

“Where’s the science” in support of phonics? Klein churlishly asked in the Times story. Chancellor Klein knows exactly where it is. He benefited from a two-hour personal briefing on the science of reading from Sally Shaywitz, a professor of pediatrics at Yale Medical School and one of the nation’s leading neuroscientists. Shaywitz, who served on the National Reading Panel created by Congress in 2000, explained to Klein that a broad consensus now exists among medical researchers, linguists, and cognitive psychologists that systematic phonics is the most effective approach for getting most kids to learn to read. I personally gave Chancellor Klein a study, commissioned by the American Psychological Association and published in Scientific American, which concluded that “teaching that makes the rules of phonics clear will ultimately be more successful than teaching that does not.”

Why Klein, a highly intelligent man, denies the existence of this robust scientific evidence only he can answer. Previously, it was possible to assume that Klein’s questionable pedagogical decisions resulted from his being a neophyte in education theory and practice and, of necessity, having to put too much trust in his deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, a partisan of progressive pedagogy. But Klein is a quick study. He has now made an informed decision to follow the progressive-ed party line on reading.

Yet Klein is also trying to have his cake and eat it too—holding on to the progressive reading curriculum while not creating a political firestorm by turning down $34 million from Washington for a cash-strapped city. Unfortunately, he has done this in the most inept and graceless manner by badmouthing the Bush education department.

This approach is bound to leave the White House fuming, which cannot be good news for Mayor Bloomberg. Moreover, it comes on top of two other recent Department of Education fiascoes that have embarrassed the mayor. First, Bloomberg had to admit that Klein and company were so busy with their brave new progressive curricular reforms that they forgot to pay attention to the little matter of school safety. Then, Deputy Chancellor Lam, afflicted with one of her regular bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, blabbed to reporters that the education department was considering eliminating or dumbing down the city’s gifted-and-talented programs. Both events outraged the mayor’s middle-class outer-borough supporters.

Someone who speaks for those outer-borough constituents, State Senator Frank Padovan, has now called for the firing of Diana Lam. Surely, for reasons big and small, Padovan is right—and Mayor Bloomberg should take his advice. But beyond this, the mayor has a bigger problem: to accomplish his signature mayoral initiative, school reform, he has chained himself to a “progressive” reading curriculum in most schools that is sure to torpedo all his other courageous and sensible changes.

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More by Sol Stern:
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch
More . . .
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