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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
Gotham’s Education Reform Is in Trouble
It’s time to jettison the much-touted new reading program—and the deputy chancellor who promoted it.
11 April 2003

At the annual meeting of the “Principal for a Day” program last week, New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein faced some unexpectedly tough questions about the new reading and math curriculums he had just chosen for all but 300 of the city’s 1,100 schools. Several of the Principals for a Day—businessmen and other civic leaders who fan out into the schools to see what the job of a Gotham principal is really like—reported that the real principals of their schools were upset about suddenly abandoning approaches they believed were working. They also worried that, come next September, there would be chaos in the classrooms, as teachers were forced to work with a completely new reading program without adequate preparation. “My principal said it took a year and a half to get the teachers up to snuff on the school’s current curriculum,” said one of the guest principals.

In response, Klein noted that the old methods were obviously not getting the job done—as witnessed by the fact that 70 percent of the children going into Grade 9 were not reading or doing math at grade level. Saying that change was always hard, Klein expressed confidence that the new curriculum would begin turning things around for all those children left behind. The problem is that Klein referred to his own reading program as “Day by Day Phonics” instead of its real name, “Month by Month Phonics.”

It was the perfect Freudian slip for an education administration that day by day and month by month is careening out of control. Even as Klein was publicly defending the new reading curriculum, his aides were leaking a story to the New York Times that Month by Month—in reality, a “whole language” program with but a tiny sprinkling of phonics—would now be supplemented in every classroom by yet another phonics program, this one developed by a Dallas company named Voyager Expanded Learning. According to Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam, the more heavily scripted program would  be used for “students who are finding it more difficult to learn to read,” while the presumably more advanced readers in the same classroom would make do with Month by Month. This is the same Diana Lam who announced at a triumphant press conference just two months earlier that Month by Month Phonics was proven to work for all children and then blithely dismissed warnings by some of the nation’s foremost reading researchers that the program would not qualify for federal reading funds (see “Bloomberg and Klein Rush In,” Spring 2003).

One of the theoretical advantages of giving the mayor control of the schools, as the state legislature did last June, was that the city’s chief executive would be able to make a quick course correction when his education department underlings screwed up. In this case, Mayor Bloomberg could have admitted that Diana Lam's choice of Month by Month Phonics was a blunder, gotten rid of it—and her—and started over from scratch. (No harm done, since nothing had been done anyway to prepare teachers for the new reading curriculum.) Instead, Bloomberg chose a fix that addressed his public relations and political problems rather than a solution that would benefit the children. Instead of the administration holding a press conference in which officials would have to answer embarrassing questions about how a reading program that was supposed to work for all children was now going to be used only for some children, news of the change was buried in the back pages of the Saturday edition of the New York Times.

On a month-by-month basis (pardon the pun), Bloomberg's face-saving solution will seem to work. The Voyager reading program is likely to be approved by the Bush administration’s education department: Voyager’s developer is a Texas friend and political supporter of the President’s, and the program was used by Education Secretary Rod Paige in Houston. The city will get its $68 million in reading funds, but a lot of that money will be wasted as teachers in the elementary schools will have to be trained to work with not one but two new reading programs. There are barely 50 days left in the current school year; then the teachers are off for the summer. Under their contract, they don't have to show up again until one or two days before the children arrive for classes next September. The chaos that the Principals for a Day reported that their real principals feared will be magnified, as untrained teachers juggle two new programs and try to figure out which students should get phonics lite and which should get the real McCoy. Meanwhile, much of the staff development for reading will be run by the likes of Columbia Teachers College’s Lucy Calkins, who opposes real phonics and will try to undermine it in the classroom.

Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s best intentions, the city’s education train is headed for a wreck—and all because he doesn’t want to admit that he picked the wrong motorwoman.

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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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