As a strong supporter of high educational standards, I should be cheering Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end social promotion for New York’s third-graders. After all, a school system that cavalierly advances children from grade to grade even if they haven’t mastered basic reading and math skills is just hurting those kids—and is certainly demanding little of its teachers and principals. But I’m not cheering—and the reason has to do with pedagogy. A system that holds children accountable for their performance must teach those kids using programs and classroom methodologies that really work. And here, the whole panoply of the Bloomberg administration’s ballyhooed education reforms fails miserably.
In August 2002, after a one-hour phone conversation, Chancellor Joel Klein picked progressive-education ideologue Diana Lam as his deputy for teaching and learning, at a salary of $250,000 (matching his own)—surely one of the dumbest hiring decisions in the annals of New York City government. With a very lackluster record of past accomplishment, Lam roared into town with guns blazing. She purged the Department of Education’s top ranks of educators favoring a traditional pedagogical approach. She dumped a phonics-based reading curriculum, Success for All, which had boosted early-grade reading scores in some of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Worse still, she installed in almost all city schools a “whole language” reading program, favored by creaky progressive-ed bastions like Columbia University’s Teachers College, but with no track record of success in any urban district in America.
Lam also neglected to inform city hall that, because it had no scientific evidence behind it, her favored reading approach risked losing the city federal funding. She thus led the Bloomberg administration blindly into an embarrassing clash with the Bush education department.
Lam’s forced resignation, the result of a nepotism contretemps, gave the Bloomberg administration a perfect opportunity to repair the educational damage she had caused. With a blueprint in place to hold back up to 15,000 third-graders who had failed standardized reading and math tests—and aware of the political opposition the plan would spark—the mayor and his schools chancellor could have announced that they were reviewing instructional approaches, especially in the early grades, to make absolutely sure that the schools used research-approved reading and math programs that worked.
But in canning Lam, Chancellor Klein made it clear that he stood by her worldview. The tough ex-prosecutor is now a progressive-ed true believer, deriding the solid scientific evidence that supports phonics. His choice of Carmen Farina as Lam’s temporary successor sends this message loud and clear. If anything, Farina, a regional superintendent and a teachers’ college stalwart, is even more a fan of whole-language reading and “fuzzy” math curricula than was Lam. In a 2002 article in El Diario, Farina claimed that the Lam-favored reading program had won the imprimatur of the National Reading Panel—a blatant falsehood. For good measure, she denounced the program’s critics as “fanatics” and “extremists.”
Presumably one of the fanatics she’s referring to is Reid Lyon, President Bush’s reading advisor and a chief official of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It’s no secret that Lyon believes that the city’s current reading program fails the kids. At a recent UFT-sponsored reading conference in New York, he argued that picking a reading program is “a matter of ethics”: not to use what we know works, Lyon said, “is education malpractice.” Chancellor Klein, who received an invitation to the conference, declined to attend.
One wonders how rigorously Bloomberg’s no-social-promotion plan will be enforced, anyway. Most of those empowered in the instructional chain of command during Lam’s two years of misrule are progressive-ed ideologues. The same philosophical impulse that leads these educators to reject the “teacher-centered” pedagogy of phonics also makes them suspicious of standardized tests. Believing that children learn naturally and at their own pace, they are loath ever to hold students back. Given their pedagogical beliefs, they’re all but certain to try to sabotage the mayor’s initiative.
Gotham’s experiment in mayoral control of the schools will not succeed unless Mayor Bloomberg shifts gears on progressive-ed pedagogy. But time has about run out.