Embarrassing problems are piling up on Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s desk. Students are rioting and committing mayhem in dozens of his schools. Thousands of teachers are demoralized and close to revolt over his attempts to micromanage every last detail of their classroom practices. Reading experts representing the New York State Education Department have voted no confidence in the “balanced literacy” curriculum he has imposed top-down on most city schools, rejecting it as “a philosophical framework” unsupported by “current scientifically based research on reading.”
With so much at stake for the city you would think that, at the very least, Mr. Klein would be willing to take another look at some of his controversial programs and begin listening to serious critics from within and outside the system. After all, this is a public education system he has been given command of—one that ostensibly values intellectual diversity and open debate. Instead, our iron chancellor is digging trenches around his Tweed Courthouse fortress and lashing out at any and all criticism. In recent letters and articles he has sounded an almost Orwellian note in trying to deny the consequences of his own policies.
In a previous column in City Journal—subsequently reprinted in the New York Post—I had described Klein in general terms as expressing extreme hostility to scripted phonics programs. In his response in the New York Post, Klein misled readers by claiming that I had quoted him directly and then insisting he “never said any such thing.” In fact I heard him vehemently complain on two separate occasions about phonics programs approved by federal and state reading experts. More significantly, in his Post article Klein asserted that he had adjusted his “balanced literacy” reading program by adding a dose of phonics called Voyager/Passport and that the new package has been validated by research. However, it is precisely that new package that the State Education Department, with the advice of federal reading authorities, has totally discredited as still not constituting a core phonics program.
Unwilling to accept that his pet reading program was slapped down by the only experts who count, Klein has also been making completely unfounded claims that his “balanced literacy” program has now been vindicated by the results of recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests in a number of urban school districts. He repeated that claim in his Post article. In fact, the NAEP tests were conducted last spring, before Klein’s new programs were put in place and at a time when many of the city’s schools were using precisely the scripted phonics programs he hates. Moreover, other urban districts that did notably well on the NAEP tests, such as Houston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, used scripted phonics programs. The wacky inferences that Klein has been making from the NAEP statistics would get him an F in a high school civics class.
It was almost exactly a year ago that Mayor Bloomberg gave his magnificent Martin Luther King Day speech outlining the city’s new education reforms. I praised the speech in City Journal, because the mayor seemed to be promising a new era of accountability, openness, and a return to basics in the classroom, including tested phonics programs. What Chancellor Klein and Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam have given us instead is a relentless, closed-minded crusade to install in the overwhelming majority of city classrooms a “progressive” pedagogy and curriculum that have never been proven to work for inner-city children. In their zealotry they have created turmoil in the schools, alienated the best of our teachers, and corrupted public discourse about the vital issues in education. It’s a small tragedy that their ideological foolishness has torpedoed an initiative that Mayor Bloomberg has invested so much thought, energy, and political capital into. It’s a much larger tragedy that 1.1 million children still wait for real school reform.