Though New York’s billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg and his handpicked schools’ chancellor Joel Klein sure don’t look like revolutionaries, they have turned upside-down a school system that resisted change for half a century. Over the past 18 months, with no less courage than managerial skill they have dismantled the dysfunctional old bureaucracy, put the teachers’ and principals’ unions on the defensive, and created a streamlined administrative apparatus to funnel a bigger slice of the system’s $12.5 billion annual budget into the classroom. Yet tragically, they have gotten one critical part of the formula for improving academic performance completely wrong. On the educational side, their magnificent sleek engine for reform is tearing off in the wrong direction, threatening to plunge the academic futures of 1.1 million children over a cliff.

Mayor Bloomberg began his remaking of the old order as soon as the State Legislature voted through mayoral control of Gotham’s schools in May 2002. First, he cleaned out the stables at the Board of Education headquarters at 110 Livingston Street, breaking up the patronage and special-interest nests within the central administrative apparatus and selling the empty building. A few months later, he took a wrecking ball to the system’s other pillars of patronage and corruption—the 32 community school boards.

Together with Klein, a tough New York lawyer and formerly head of the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust division, Bloomberg created a revamped command-and-control center, placing the several hundred administrators who survived the 110 Livingston Street purge in the Tweed Courthouse, 200 feet from City Hall, where the mayor could keep an eye on them. Bloomberg instructed the troops to focus like a “laser beam” on a single goal—improving teaching and learning in the classroom. To further that goal, Chancellor Klein began a highly publicized search for the “best practices” in classroom teaching and curriculum, an initiative he named “Children First.”

One telling sign of how radical were the changes Bloomberg and Klein wrought was the complaint by United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten that she was the last person to find out what was going on inside the Tweed headquarters. Her union once had the run of 110 Livingston Street, where a UFT vice president was permanently stationed, with instant access to the top administrators in every important bureau. Indeed, there was a time when chancellors and other high-level administrators owed their appointments to the union’s influence. At Tweed, union officials now wait in line to see the chancellor, with everyone else.

Thus, as the city’s schoolchildren returned to their classrooms this September, Mayor Bloomberg pronounced himself pleased with his creation. “At every level, we have replaced an old school system where responsibility was diffused and confused,” he said at a press conference. “There is [now] a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom right to the mayor’s desk.”

What the mayor didn’t say was that this link carries messages in only one direction, micromanaging teachers and principals to an extent unprecedented in American K-12 education. Agents of the chancellor (euphemistically called “coaches”) operate in almost all of the city’s 1,200 schools to make sure that every educator marches in lockstep with the Department of Education’s approved pedagogical approaches. There is now only one way, the Tweed way, to teach the three Rs in the schools.

Trouble is, many of the programs and methods now being crammed down the teachers’ throats have no record of success and are particularly ill-suited for disadvantaged minority children. In fact, a cabal of progressive educators chose them for ideological reasons, in total disregard of what the scientific evidence says about the most effective teaching methods—particularly in the critically important area of early reading.

Young children who fall substantially behind their peers in reading rarely catch up and almost always remain at risk of academic failure across the board. Thus New York’s reading scores—showing that more than half of all students, and over 70 percent of minority students, can’t read at basic proficiency levels—are very grim news. Fortunately, as serious educators know, recent advances in the scientific understanding of how children learn to read—based not on wishful thinking, but rather on a remarkable convergence of evidence in experimental psychology, linguistics, and medical research—make it possible to design truly effective instructional programs to raise reading levels in the early grades.

Two separate government-sponsored reports clearly lay out what the scientific evidence says about teaching young children to read. The first, published in 1998 by the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that systematic phonics instruction was the most effective approach. Two years later, the National Reading Panel’s even more comprehensive report also concluded that “systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than instruction that teaches little or no phonics.”

Last year, the American Psychological Association got into the act, too, issuing a report whose conclusions Scientific American summarized: “Our recent review of the topic shows that there is no doubt about it: teaching that makes the rules of phonics clear will ultimately be more successful than teaching that does not. Admittedly, some children can infer these principles on their own, but most need explicit instruction in phonics, or their reading skills will suffer.” In addition, in several appearances before congressional committees, Dr. Reid Lyon, chief of the National Institutes of Health’s Child Development and Behavior Branch, said the results of his agency’s studies argue for the use of explicit phonics programs in the early grades.

Partly because of this accumulating evidence, Congress voted twice, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, that federal reading funds must go only to school districts that use instructional approaches based on scientifically validated research. Explicit language to that effect first appeared in the Reading Excellence Act of 1998 during the Clinton administration and then again in the “Reading First” section of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

New York City is eligible for almost $40 million a year in federal reading funds for six years, as long it meets the standard of “scientifically based research.” It should be a no-brainer for Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein to gain an extra $240 million for their schools for something they should be doing even if no federal funds were attached. Or so you might think. For why would an education administration proud of having freed itself from special-interest influence use any reading program that didn’t meet the standards for effectiveness agreed upon by such a wide consensus of scientists?

The answer is that in education there are not only special interests but deeply entrenched ideological and therefore political interests. Progressive educators (of whom New York has more than its share) shudder at the thought that science confers validity on the practice of teaching young children to read through scripted lessons in letter/sound correspondence—that is, phonics. Progressive education ideology rests on the Romantic belief that children learn naturally (including learning to read) and that the role of the teacher is to facilitate this natural process through hands-on, or “constructivist,” activity in “child-centered” classrooms. Thus, for example, a third-grade math teacher might have the children construct a Japanese garden as a way of learning addition and subtraction as they measure. Almost as a religious belief, progressives emphasize the importance of the classroom environment: arranging chairs in groups, putting rugs on the floors for children to sprawl, providing “workshop” areas where six-year-olds have writing conferences, and having teachers stand off to the side rather than in the front of
the class.

Phonics, on the other hand, conjures up everything progressives hate about traditional classrooms—that they are artificial places, where deadening lessons are taught by “drill and kill” methods that destroy children’s natural spontaneity and innate creativity, turning them into the regimented conformists that a repressive industrial society needs to man its assembly lines and corporate offices. If this is what science nevertheless says works, then science must be wrong—or at least it must be the wrong kind of science for education.

Progressive educators favor, instead, an alternative brand of research, based on personal, subjective classroom observation—“qualitative” research, the ed schools call it, to distinguish it from the empirical, experimental methods scientists use. This research always seems to validate the progressives’ favorite classroom practices. Thus, in the writings of Alfie Kohn, perhaps the nation’s most militant and widely read progressive-ed writer, the phrase “research has found” frequently appears, followed by the most absurd propositions. As in this, from Kohn’s website: “Research has found three consistent effects of traditional grades: students think less creatively, they lose interest in what they’re learning, and they try to avoid challenging tasks.”

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein certainly don’t share the progressives’ critique of scientific objectivity, and they started their jobs with little informed knowledge of education at all. (One of the few things Bloomberg did say about education during his campaign was that schools should require uniforms—hardly a progressive-ed idea.) Because they began without preconceived educational theories, the most fateful decision they made as their administration took shape was the selection of Diana Lam as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at $250,000 per year, the same salary as Klein’s. As I’ve said before (“Bloomberg and Klein Rush In,” Spring 2003), Lam’s record in her previous job heading Providence, Rhode Island’s schools was nothing to write home about: 55 of the 56 schools in the district were listed by the state as “low performing” when she got there, and when she left three years later, only one of those schools had moved up a notch.

Notwithstanding Lam’s lackluster record, Klein gave her control over most personnel and pedagogical decisions during the planning stages of Children First, while he himself focused on the structural reforms, and during early planning meetings with superintendents, says former district superintendent Betty Rosa, Klein chaired the sessions about organizational and administrative issues, while Lam presided over those focusing on the coming changes in curricula and teaching. It was clear that Lam took the progressive, constructivist approach to most pedagogical issues. She favored superintendents who were already using “whole language” reading curricula (the anti-phonics approach), as well as outside staff developers like Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, a leading champion of the doctrine that all children are natural readers and writers, and that therefore it is criminal for them to be drilled in “boring” phonics lessons.

When the Department of Education announced its choice of a citywide K-3 reading program called “Month by Month Phonics” in February 2003, it was clear that this was Diana Lam’s baby. It was also a perfect illustration of how truly you can’t tell a book by its cover. Though the word “phonics” appears in the title, the slim workbook contains none of the systematic instruction in how to break words into letter/sound correspondence required by the new federal standards. Instead, it offers some unconnected shreds of phonics activities in an otherwise whole-language reading program—which is why it met with enthusiastic support from New York’s phonics-hating progressive educators. The progressives were even happier that Lam had ditched a true scripted phonics program, “Success for All,” that was in use (with promising results) in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, and that would easily have qualified for federal reading funds.

By giving the appearance of using some traditional phonics instruction, Lam’s chosen program disarms parents and elected officials, who increasingly have been pressuring the schools for more traditional and reliable methods of reading instruction. That seems to be the effect it had on Mayor Bloomberg, who said in his stirring Martin Luther King Day speech introducing the new citywide reforms that the K-3 reading curriculum would “include a daily focus on phonics.” Since it is hard to imagine that our Republican mayor was looking for a confrontation with the Bush administration, it’s likely that Bloomberg was told by Lam or Klein, or both, that the program contained enough phonics to pass muster with the feds. Either that or no one at the Tweed Courthouse bothered to think that $240 million in federal reading funds was at stake.

Since then, Klein and Bloomberg have doubtless spent many hours, and perhaps some sleepless nights, thinking about the problem they face from Month by Month Phonics and Lam’s failure to brief them properly. When the city announced its choice, alarm bells went off among the scientific consultants who had helped frame the new federal reading requirements. The experts realized that if the nation’s largest school district could pick a reading program so far from meeting the standard of “scientifically based research”—while abandoning Success for All, which did meet the standard—then the message about the new reading standards was not getting through.

Since then the message has been delivered, many times over. In meetings and letters over the past six months, reading scientists and consultants connected with both the federal Education Department (including Reid Lyon of the NIH) and the New York State Education Department have told city education officials where Month by Month Phonics falls short. In a February 4 letter to Bloomberg, Klein, and Lam, seven noted reading specialists, including three who served on the National Reading Panel and several who sit on review committees for implementing the Reading First standards, said that Month by Month is “woefully inadequate,” “lacks the ingredients of a systematic phonics program,” “lacks a research base,” and “puts beginning readers at risk of failure in learning to read.”

That letter should have ended the matter. The federal government would be guilty of malpractice if it were to fund Month by Month Phonics after its own experts warned that it “puts beginning readers at risk of failure.” That sentence should have led Bloomberg and Klein to reverse course immediately in the interests of the children and to fire Diana Lam.

Instead they initially viewed the experts’ letter as a political problem. Accordingly, Lam’s good friend Lucy Calkins of Teachers College rounded up a posse of 100 ed-school professors (some of whom stand to rake in, collectively, millions of dollars in staff-development fees from the Department of Education) to write a counter-letter, asserting that the National Reading Panel’s scientific criteria “are much narrower than those which most educators subscribe to” (big news) and affirming the merits of Month by Month Phonics. The thought seemed to be that a letter from 100 education professors would outweigh one from a mere seven reading scientists—as if a plebiscite could resolve questions about the effectiveness of the reading program.

Throughout the summer, Bloomberg and Klein refused to cut their losses. They tried to finesse the problem by patching up the K-3 curriculum with a small supplementary phonics program that could be used at the teacher’s discretion for up to six children who were struggling with the main program. But this didn’t fool anyone. On September 2, three expert consultants to the State Education Department gave Lam their professional assessment not just of Month by Month Phonics but of the city’s entire “Balanced Literacy” curriculum. (The state was about to get its Reading First funds and was providing this pre-review because, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, each state education agency evaluates the local school districts’ applications for their share of the federal money.) The state consultants’ review was devastating. According to notes of the meeting, made available to City Journal, the experts told Lam that the city’s literacy curriculum does not contain a “core, scientifically based reading program” and does not appear to be systematic or comprehensive. Instead, “the materials seem to reflect a philosophical framework,” much of which is “contradictory” to “scientifically based research” on reading instruction. The experts warned that the curriculum would not meet the federal funding requirements.

One of the consultants at the meeting was Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and professor of pediatrics at the Yale medical school. As co-directors of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, she and her doctor husband, Bennett Shaywitz, have studied for 30 years how the brain learns to read. Using brain-imaging techniques and countless rigorously controlled experiments, whose findings have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, they have methodically studied the problems of poor readers in the same way that other medical researchers might study abnormalities in the pituitary gland. “We really do have the scientific knowledge now to ensure that every child becomes a good reader,” Sally Shaywitz told me recently.

She summarizes that knowledge for the general reader in her eye-opening new book, Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. Shaywitz convincingly shows how reading programs that systematically teach children about the sounds of spoken language, and how letters represent these sounds, will enable just about every child, even those with reading difficulties, to become a better reader. It’s hard to imagine any fair-minded person reading the book and not wondering why the “reading wars” are not over.

Though science must eventually win out over ideology, even in New York City, for the time being the Tweed train has left the station, carrying a lot of heavy ideological baggage. It will take someone in the administration brave enough to say he made a colossal mistake to turn the train around.

And the problem goes even deeper than Month by Month Phonics.

Since June, the city’s Department of Education has undertaken a huge project to re-educate its 80,000 teachers, several thousand principals and assistant principals, 2,000 literacy and math coaches, 1,000 parent advocates, and scores of administrators in how to teach literacy and math. Each teacher has received a six-hour CD-ROM laying out the philosophy behind the new standardized curriculum and pedagogy that he or she is expected to follow to a T. In addition, thousands of teachers also attended one-week crash courses offered at some of the local graduate education schools, many of them taught by professors who signed the February letter in support of Month by Month Phonics. The rest received their indoctrination in sessions just when the school year began. The total cost of the department’s re-education effort will exceed $60 million.

To examine the CD-ROM and peruse the three-inch-thick binder of more text and charts distributed to each teacher as school opened is to see the world of progressive education writ large, with all of its Romantic assumptions about how children learn, and its narrow and blinkered knowledge base. As the CD-ROM opens, Joel Klein announces: “This CD will walk you through the research upon which we based our decisions regarding our program choices.” Diana Lam assures the teachers that the Department of Education is interested in an ongoing “dialogue” with them about all the education issues. The implication is that the Department of Education’s search for the “best practices” was an open and intellectually serious process.

But in fact, in the section of the CD-ROM that lists academic sources, there isn’t a single education writer who favors phonics for reading instruction or a curriculum emphasizing knowledge of facts. Teachers looking for references for further study won’t find the names of Sally Shaywitz, Reid Lyon, the authors of the Scientific American article on reading instruction, Jean Chall, E. D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, or countless other distinguished scholars who believe that all children, but particularly economically and socially disadvantaged children, desperately need instruction in basic skills and factual knowledge to be able to function in an increasingly complex information economy.

Surprisingly, much of the text is dominated by the pedagogical principles of an education guru that not a single New York teacher is likely ever to have heard of before: Brian Cambourne, a professor of education at Wollongong (that’s not a typo!) University in New South Wales and a leader of the constructivist and whole-language movement that dominates Australian public schools. He came to his theories, he says, when he discovered as a young teacher that many of his poorly performing students were actually quite bright. He began to meet with them outside the classroom. To his surprise, almost all demonstrated extraordinary competence at challenging tasks in the real adult world. The son of the local bookie, for example, was failing his math tests. “He couldn’t learn basic math,” said Cambourne, “but he could calculate the probability the Queen of Spades was in the deck faster than I could.”

From this discovery, Cambourne concluded that children learn better in natural settings with a minimum amount of adult help. The role of the educator should be to create classroom conditions that stimulate children and most closely resemble the way adults work and learn. Thus, children should not sit in rows facing the teacher, but rather the room should be arranged with work areas where children can construct their own knowledge.

So critical does the CD-ROM deem Cambourne’s theories that it instructs teachers to go through a checklist to make sure their classroom practices meet the professor’s “conditions for learning.” Which of four scenarios most accurately describes how your classroom is set up? the disc asks. If the teacher can claim “a variety of center-based activities, for purposeful learning using different strategies, and for students to flow as needed,” she can pat herself on the back. But if her classroom is set up “for lecture with rows facing forward,” she must don the dunce cap.

In a revealing magazine interview, Cambourne distinguishes among three kinds of literacy that schools can foster. “Functional Literacy” produces adults who can succeed in the real world and hold challenging jobs—which to most New York teachers would be a considerable achievement for their students. But Cambourne dismisses this competence as inadequate, because it produces “dependent and compliant learners.” The next form of literacy, which produces adults who can enjoy great works of literature, also is insufficient for Cambourne, because it merely “produces a citizenry that admires and values individual achievement and expertise.” What all conscientious teachers ought to strive to inculcate in their students is “literacy for social equity and social justice,” a literacy that can deconstruct language and show how it is used to maintain power and privilege in our current society. In striving for this “critical” literacy, Cambourne acknowledges that his own work “is based on the political prejudices I have and these must of course impact what I research.”

Now, you might say, this is a red herring. Surely the New York City Department of Education is not trying to foster Professor Cambourne’s left-wing political views in its students or teachers. Point granted. Still, Cambourne’s constructivist assumptions, which are now being implemented throughout the city, are not just honest mistakes about what works best in the classroom but are indeed political in the deepest meaning. Progressive educators like Cambourne do not insist that more learning occurs when children work in groups and in natural settings because they have followed the evidence, since there is no scientific evidence to support the claim. Quite to the contrary, as much as science tells us anything on this issue, it tells us that, particularly for disadvantaged children, direct, explicit instruction works better in the classroom.

Rejecting science, rejecting objectivity, what progressive educators actually mean when they nevertheless say that “student-centered” classrooms work is that they like the social outcomes they hope these classrooms will produce—adults who have learned to be independent “critical thinkers” about their own society and who will therefore be eager to help reform the world and make it a better place. There’s nothing wrong with healing the world, but the progressives have put the cart before the horse. There will be little improvement in our inner cities unless the kids learn to read and acquire other minimum skills.

It’s a tragedy that this truth seems to be lost on the Department of Ed’s pedagogues. With the zeal of a Dictatorship of Virtue, they strive to turn every city classroom into something that their favorite Australian professor would endorse.

This September’s re-education sessions for teachers drove home the party line relentlessly: “Your students must not be sitting in rows. You must not stand at the head of the class. You must not do ‘chalk and talk’ at the blackboard. You must have a ‘workshop’ in every single reading period. Your students must be ‘active learners,’ and they must work in groups.” Even more recently, principals and department heads from schools supposedly successful enough to be exempt from the new curriculum were herded off to Teachers College to be harangued about how students must work in group workshops and teachers must transform themselves from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”

Some brave teachers have dared to object. At Junior High School 44 in Manhattan, one teacher tried pointing out, quite reasonably, that some teachers felt more comfortable and could get better results through more traditional methods. The school’s literacy coach responded: “This is the way it is. Everyone will do it this way, or you can change schools.”

Even progressive-ed supporter Norman Scott, publisher of a newsletter that criticizes UFT president Randi Weingarten from the left, is appalled. “There are many valid points to child-centered teaching and learning,” he says. “But the new ‘Cult’ at the DOE has taken what could have been a progressive curriculum and scripted it, forcing it down the throats of teachers who are being told everything is ‘non-negotiable.’ ” You might say, in the words of the first great progressive-ed reformer (and political radical) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that the DOE’s aim is to “force them to be free.”

The attempted reign of terror in the name of progressivism has turned into pure farce in some schools. Michael Laforgia, a supervisor in charge of ten schools in Manhattan’s Region 9, took the handbooks very seriously. In preparation for a site visit to Seward Park High School, one of the city’s most violent schools, he sent a memo to one of the school’s assistant principals indicating the kind of classroom environment he would be looking for. Since apparently Brian Cambourne wasn’t quite progressive enough for him, he offered helpful hints from the works of constructivist guru Alfie Kohn. For example: “A learner-centered classroom might have chairs around tables to facilitate interaction, walls covered with student work, a hum of activity and ideas being exchanged, and a general emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issues.”

The idea that one of the education department’s top administrators thought that Alfie Kohn’s student-ruled classrooms would suit a school with 600 reported incidents last year of student disruption or violence provided the demoralized staff with some comic relief. As the memo went around the school, some of the teachers wrote anonymous comments on it, like samizdat. Next to Laforgia’s question—“Is the teacher teaching the text or the students?”—one teacher wrote, “Is this a binary question?” Another wrote, “Duh . . . aren’t we supposed to do both?” Kohn’s question, “Who is solving the students’ reading and writing problems?” elicited the response: “Clearly not the Dept. of Education.” As in other soft totalitarianisms, gallows humor has become a means to cope with an absurd and fearful situation.

But Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein never get to hear the jokes. They are basking in the applause they are receiving from elite opinion makers who have no idea what is going on in the classrooms. The Bloomberg top-down revolution still looks like a great school-reform breakthrough to a remarkably wide spectrum of New York City education watchers, including the editorial boards of the city’s major dailies, the business community, most of the local education advocacy groups, and of course the graduate education schools that normally rail against top-down mandates and political control in education.

Two of the nation’s big philanthropies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli Broad Foundation, are heaping not just praise on Bloomberg and Klein, but also barrels full of cash—over $70 million of it from the Gates foundation. And at a recent lavish Rainbow Room luncheon for several hundred Gotham movers and shakers, California billionaire Eli Broad praised Bloomberg and Klein as effective educational “change agents,” predicted that they’d succeed in turning around the city’s public schools, and presented them with a check for $5 million on top of the $4 million he had already contributed.

Even some school reformers who would prefer choice and vouchers have been willing at least to “give Mike a chance.” Since we’re not likely to get vouchers or other competition-based reforms in New York, they seem to be saying, perhaps a regimented, “teacher-proof” approach gives the city its second-best chance of forcing the pace of school improvement in the classroom.

But by now it has become abundantly clear that there will be no improvement with Month by Month Phonics, with Diana Lam running teaching and learning, and with Klein’s and Bloomberg’s Dictatorship of Virtue.

First, the system’s best teachers will resent being treated like robots and are likely to leave, while the mediocrities will follow orders. Moreover, because of their dictatorial treatment of rank-and-file teachers, Bloomberg and Klein will find it harder to win work-rule concessions from the union. Teachers who might otherwise be appealed to over the heads of the union leadership will now cling to the work rules as their only protection from what they see as an arbitrary and oppressive system.

Second, because authoritarian regimes tend to become intolerant of dissenting opinion or even of free discussion, the system’s leaders are likely not to be listening when there is bad news they should be aware of and trying to correct.

Third, the authoritarian curriculum stands in contradiction to one of the city’s proudest education reforms. In a gala ceremony in September, Bill Gates announced that he was giving the city another $51 million to create 200 new small high schools and middle schools, whose fundamental premise will be that each will have a unique theme or educational approach, and each will have some degree of autonomy from the central system. Yet even as the mayor was taking Gates’s check, his education department was pressuring dozens of the city’s existing small schools (some of them already Gates-supported) to align their curricula and teaching methods with the new standardized citywide approach.

Finally, Bloomberg and Klein’s failure to choose a program that could improve reading instruction in the early grades puts at risk almost everything else they are trying to do. Sometime in the next two months, the mayor and chancellor will have to apply to the state education department for the city’s share of the federal Reading First funds. It will be a watershed decision for their administration. Will they have the courage to admit they made a mistake, correct the reading program, and get rid of Diana Lam? Or will they make a bad situation worse by trying to handle the problem politically and thus inflict further harm on the city’s children?


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