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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
Bloomberg and Klein Rush In
Under these two, mayoral control of Gotham’s schools threatens disaster.
8 April 2003

With hardly any public notice, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has handed the progressive-education movement near-total power and influence in the biggest school district in the country. Unless Bloomberg and his handpicked schools chancellor, Joel Klein, admit to some monumental blunders, discredited progressive methods for the teaching of the three Rs such as “whole language,” “writing process,” and “fuzzy math” will soon be enforced in every single classroom in 1,000 New York City schools. This is a disaster in the making, not least because the children in the targeted schools are mainly poor and minority—the very population historically most damaged by such methods.

What’s all the more amazing about this palace coup is that it was made possible by mayoral control of the city’s schools—a governance reform originally pushed by conservatives like Rudy Giuliani but fiercely resisted by most progressive educators. School reformers hoped that a tough, goals-oriented mayor, knowing that the electorate would hold him accountable for the schools’ performance, might finally cut through the system’s bureaucratic inertia and create powerful new incentives for excellence in the classroom.

That hope still seemed very much alive when Mayor Bloomberg delivered a Rudy Giuliani–like, no-excuses speech on Martin Luther King Day, unveiling his long-awaited plans for overhauling the school system. Breaking with 50 years of liberal political rhetoric about “insufficient funding” of public education, Bloomberg owned up to the system’s dirty little secret—that $12 billion was more than enough to provide decent schools for the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. Bloomberg promised to push more of that money into the classrooms by dismantling the system’s costly “Byzantine administrative fiefdoms.” And even more significantly, he said that reading and writing instruction in the early grades would now “employ strategies proven to work,” including “a daily focus on phonics”—an all but explicit rejection of progressivism.

With the mayor promising an all-out assault on bureaucratic waste and a tested, back-to-basics reading program, I lauded his speech on the City Journal website. But as soon became clear, the speech was too good to be true. A week after Bloomberg spoke, his new Department of Education announced that Month by Month Phonics, a reading program authored by Patricia Cunningham and Dorothy Hall, would now be mandatory in 1,000 city schools, with only 200 “high-performing” schools granted waivers to opt out of it. Not only has this program never been “proven to work”—it isn’t even a phonics program, despite its name.

According to Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Diana Lam, the department chose Month by Month Phonics because it had worked wonders at schools such as P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, site of the press conference heralding the introduction of the new program. “In the last three years the percentage of students at P.S. 172 meeting or exceeding the English Language Arts standards has risen from 34 to 68 percent,” she enthused. In a later TV interview, Chancellor Klein likewise credited the program with boosting P.S. 172’s reading scores.

These assertions were bunk. In the first place, though improvements in P.S. 172’s reading scores are significant, Lam overestimated them considerably. According to the Department of Ed’s own website, while P.S. 172’s fourth-grade scores climbed from 34 percent to 66 percent (not 68 percent, as Lam cited) from 1999 to 2002, fifth-grade scores went up much less dramatically, from 65 percent to 74 percent, and third-grade scores increased by a still-smaller amount, from 59 percent to 64 percent. More important, Klein and Lam misled the public egregiously by implying that P.S. 172 used Month by Month Phonics throughout the period during which the school’s scores went up. As the New York Sun’s Andrew Wolf revealed, the school only introduced the program two years ago, in 2001. Before then, it used Open Court, a tightly scripted phonics program anathema to progressive educators. A significant portion of the gains that Klein and Lam celebrated, in other words, likely resulted from Open Court.

School officials chose Month by Month Phonics over the heated objections of seven of the nation’s foremost reading researchers, who sent Bloomberg, Klein, and Lam a memo blasting the curriculum as “woefully inadequate” and lacking “the ingredients of a systematic phonics program.” Since the National Reading Panel, created by the U.S. Congress, has concluded that a phonics-based instructional approach is essential for teaching reading to beginners, this memo should have set off alarms. Also alarming is that the No Child Left Behind education act requires a curriculum to be certified as “research based” before it qualifies for federal reading funds, and the Bush administration may well consult with some of these harsh critics when it seeks to determine whether Month by Month Phonics will allow New York City to claim tens of millions of dollars in school aid from Washington.

Gotham school officials express confidence that the federal government will fund the city’s new reading program, even though doing so would contradict the Bush administration’s stated goal of supporting only programs with a strong phonics content. Bloomberg’s officials have worked hard to promote the image of teachers and students happily embracing Month by Month Phonics as an effective new reading program. The New York Times has given them real help on this front. Though the Department of Education guards access to the schools as if they were military bases in Afghanistan, it recent allowed Times reporter Abby Goodnough to spend a week observing classes at P.S. 172. Goodnough’s article glowingly described all-around satisfaction with Month by Month Phonics at the school.

But you don’t need to be an investigative reporter to discover that Month by Month Phonics, despite its name, has little to do with phonics. Just pick up the $18 paperback at any ed-school bookstore. Sure, you will find a handful of suggestions to teachers about how to weave the occasional word- and letter-sounding cues into daily classroom reading activities. But right from the outset, the authors make it clear that they’re not enthusiastic about phonics.

Phonics “is an important part of beginning literary instruction,” they concede. But they immediately qualify that concession. “Children who are taught phonics only until they ‘get it’ don’t suddenly get transformed into eager, meaning-seeking, strategic readers,” they warn. And, they add, “Teaching all children to read is essential and can be done, but it will never happen with a ‘just teach ‘em phonics’ curriculum.” In the authors’ view, phonics is only “one-quarter of a well-balanced literary diet.” In fact, a reasonable observer will conclude that the real purpose of Month by Month Phonics is to add a dollop of phonics to an otherwise “whole-language” approach—a ploy to let progressive educators to look as if they are responding to growing pressure from lawmakers and parents for phonics instruction.

As it happens, there is a strong, research-proved, systematic phonics program already in use in 63 New York City schools. Called Success for All and developed by Johns Hopkins University reading specialist Robert Slavin, it has been cited for its effectiveness in more than a dozen controlled studies. (By contrast, Month by Month Phonics has not undergone a single independent study.) In 1999, school officials selected Success for All as the preferred reading program for the Chancellor’s District, which comprises the worst-performing schools in the city. As recently as a year ago, the old Board of Education and the teachers’ union were boasting of rising reading scores in many Chancellor’s District schools, and they credited the heavily scripted phonics program for a good part of the advance.

Indeed, if Joel Klein and Diana Lam had chosen a real phonics program like Success for All for city schools, instead of a phony one like Month by Month Phonics, they could have held a believable press conference—at P.S. 180 in Harlem. P.S. 180 started using Success for All in September 1999, when the school was on the state’s infamous Schools Under Registration Review list—schools whose performance is so dismal that they risk closure. At the time, only 10 percent of P.S. 180’s third-graders, 5 percent of its fourth-graders, and 11 percent of its fifth-graders read at grade level. After three years of Success for All, 40 percent of third-graders, 33 percent of fourth-graders, and 37 percent of fifth-graders read at grade level. Because of these dramatic improvements, P.S. 180 is no longer on the SURR list. Under the No Child Left Behind act, the state education department has even recognized P.S. 180 as an “improving” school—meaning that children from the city’s 300 “failing” schools may now transfer into it.

Yet despite the success of the program at P.S. 180 and at other schools, and despite the $27 million or so that the city invested in implementing it over five years, Mayor Bloomberg’s new education team has decided to junk it without so much as a hearing. Principals whose schools have used Success for All and have seen reading scores improve have reportedly heard from higher-ups that they should just shut up if they have any complaints about the curriculum shift. I tried to talk to several of the principals who have used Success for All but met with an almost blanket refusal to comment. One principal who did speak begged me not to mention his name or his school.

By scanting phonics, the city has actually put minority kids at double risk. For at the same time the school bosses picked Month by Month Phonics to teach reading in the schools, they also selected Everyday Mathematics to teach math—a “fuzzy math” curriculum emphasizing mathematical concepts and problem solving over “drill-and-kill” memorization of times tables and other old-fashioned instructional approaches. The text-heavy Everyday Math presumes that kids already possess sufficient reading fluency to grasp complex word problems, which is unlikely in inner-city schools and which the new reading program will make even more unlikely. As former teacher Matthew Clavel discovered when his district forced him to use Everyday Mathematics in his South Bronx third-grade class, the students who were behind in language acquisition found the word problems simply baffling (see “How Not to Teach Math,” www.city-journal.org), and, as a result, tuned out of math too. The combination of fuzzy math and phonics-lite is a toxic educational mix.

Bloomberg and Klein have shrouded their approach to reorganizing the school system and to picking the new standard curriculum in almost total secrecy. Still, it’s possible to guess how the mayor’s promise on Martin Luther King Day to put a back-to-basics reading program into almost every school has morphed into its very opposite. The mayor is a successful businessman; his schools chancellor is a former federal prosecutor who recently served as CEO of a publishing conglomerate. They have moved quickly and decisively on the Management-101 part of the school system’s overhaul. The 32 wasteful and patronage-dispensing community school districts are out, for example, replaced with ten “learning regions,” each with a superintendent answerable directly to the chancellor’s office. Dismantling the musty old Board of Education bureaucracy piece by piece, Bloomberg and Klein have recruited a cadre of corporate-sector whiz kids, who will now run school divisions such as transportation, food services, school construction, and maintenance. So far, so good.

But in the area of classroom instruction, Bloomberg and Klein obviously feel less confident. Looking for guidance from experts, they made the mistake of deferring to the system’s progressive-ed old guard. A telling decision was Klein’s hiring of Diana Lam as Deputy Chancellor for instruction. On the classroom side, Lam has emerged as something like a co-chancellor—her salary of $250,000 is the same as Klein’s. Lam arrived from the Providence, Rhode Island, superintendent’s job—her fourth such post—with a reputation for quickly raising test scores and then moving on to bigger districts.

But in actuality—and largely unreported in the New York media—the academic performance of the Providence schools, uniformly dismal when Lam got there, was scarcely better when she left. From the results of the standardized state tests taken at the end of 2001 (a year and a half after Lam became superintendent), the Rhode Island Education Department deemed all but one of Providence’s 54 schools “low performing.” By the time Lam left at the end of 2002, only one of those schools had moved from the low-performing to the moderate-performing category. The only high-performing Providence school is a largely white, middle-class magnet school affiliated with Brown University. Providence’s fourth-grade reading scores dropped throughout most of Lam’s tenure.

The “balanced-literacy” reading program (whole language plus a dollop of phonics) that Lam and most other progressive educators favor had little positive effect on Providence’s disadvantaged students, who were fully marinated in it. Yet Lam appears determined to carry on the experiment in virtually all of Gotham’s poor and minority schools. Johns Hopkins reading specialist Slavin complains that Lam never responded to his letters and phone calls when he tried to get a hearing for the continued use of his Success for All or other strong phonics programs in at least some city schools. “She decided on the first day not to listen to other voices,” says Slavin.

Lam’s progressive-ed ideology is also evident in her and Klein’s picks for the ten new regional superintendents (sometimes referred to as “super” superintendents), who will actually run the city’s 1,200 schools on a day-to-day basis. Each superintendent will be responsible for twice as many schools as Diana Lam administered in Providence, yet there was no open national search for the best possible candidates. I wouldn’t call the ten selected a cabal, but one can’t help noticing the extraordinary degree of ideological affinity and the intertwined career connections among them. Six of the regional superintendents have had some sort of relationship with District 2, the most progressive district in the city, where “whole language” and fuzzy math have reigned for years. And three have already imposed Month by Month Phonics on the schools in the districts they currently oversee.

Another point of intersection for some of the new superintendents, and a likely one in the future for all of them, is the Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University’s Teachers College. The project’s director, Lucy Calkins, is a doyenne of progressive-education pedagogy in America. Her “writing-process” approach to teaching writing in elementary and middle schools is based on the romantic idea that all young children are “natural writers” and should be encouraged to start scribbling in journals and rewriting composition drafts without worrying (or being taught much) about formal grammar or spelling. “Writing process” encompasses two of progressive education’s key commandments—that teachers must not “drill and kill” and that children can “construct their own knowledge.” The underlying assumption, inspired by theorists going back as far as Rousseau, is that traditional schooling is an oppressive institution, suffocating the natural talents and expressiveness of children.

I experienced this “writing process” more than a decade ago, when my children attended the Upper West Side’s P.S. 87, a school in which Calkins had trained many of the teachers. “Writing process” offered some charming moments in the early grades, as my kids scribbled their preliterate musings, but I remained skeptical that this “progressive” pedagogy did a better job than traditional methods in giving middle-class children like mine the writing skills that they would need as adults. By contrast, I became absolutely certain that it was a calamity for my children’s poor minority classmates, who desperately needed order, discipline, and what progressives call the “stifling” rules of standard English discourse to join the mainstream. Nor was this just my opinion. One of the harshest critiques of “writing process” comes from an African-American educator named Lisa Delpit, winner of the celebrated, left-leaning MacArthur fellowship and a progressive-ed loyalist in every other respect. Delpit condemns “writing process” as virtually a liberal conspiracy, because it denies black kids the skills they need to gain access to “the culture of power.”

Calkins is already a major presence in the city’s schools; under Diana Lam, her role will likely grow exponentially. She was present at the press conference at P.S. 172 that announced Month by Month Phonics as the standard curriculum, and school officials pointed her out as an allegedly independent academic expert who could testify to the program’s effectiveness. After the seven top reading specialists sent their letter to Bloomberg, Klein, and Lam, criticizing Month by Month Phonics, Calkins drafted a counter-letter, signed by more than 100 education-school professors, that effusively praised the program. Though few of the signers had ever even looked at the program, and fewer still were reading specialists, they confidently asserted that it “has a strong track record in both New York City’s high-achieving schools and in schools that serve our high-need areas.” Of course, it has no statistically validated track record at all, but what are “mere” facts to education professors? 

Calkins’s progressive-ed Teachers College project already provides staff developers to 100 city schools at the rate of $1,000 per day per developer, plus it offers summer “writing process” institutes for thousands of city teachers. Though the Department of Ed stonewalled when I asked for the total dollar amount of the taxpayers’ money it is spending on Calkins’s project’s current contracts with the city, she herself claimed that it was more than $2 million per year. At least three of the new regional superintendents have used Calkins’s staff developers in their old community districts; another collaborated on one of Calkins’s books and served as a director of the Reading and Writing Project. At an early March meeting with more than 100 New York City principals, Calkins could confidently predict that she would be providing staff development for Month by Month Phonics in many more city schools in the years ahead.

When you consider Calkins’s simultaneous status as a beneficiary of Department of Education contracts, as an advocate and political organizer for the same Department of Education leadership, and as a supposedly objective university professor, there is clearly the appearance of conflict of interest. Not that the conflict is about money. Lucy Calkins is a true believer in the power of her own ideas. When I spoke to her recently, she was charming and articulate in defense of those ideal classrooms where young children naturally find their way to literacy without boring, scripted drills by automaton teachers. She was also unabashed in saying she hoped her literacy-training programs would expand to more schools, and not just middle-class schools. “It’s a great move to social justice to bring this to every school in the city,” she said. If only it were true.

Mayor Bloomberg accepted a big political risk when he took on the job of running the city’s schools. Whatever else his administration accomplished, he said, voters should judge it a failure if there were no improvement in an education system that was now wholly his responsibility. He has to decide soon whether he really wants to stake his reputation and so much of his political capital on an untested reading program masquerading as phonics, led by a group of progressive educators who have never demonstrated that they can provide minority children with the basic skills they need to succeed in life.

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More by Sol Stern:
When the Instructors Need Instructing
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
More . . .
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