Does deBlasio Need to Rekindle the Reading Wars? Lucy Calkins Re-Ignites the “Whole Language” versus “Phonics” Battles.

As the seemingly endless mayoral campaign plodded from panel to panel it became increasingly clear that candidate de Blasio, on education issues, was the furthermost to the left: he vigorously opposed co-locations of charter schools in public school buildings, he was cool to the idea of charter schools generally, he was openly critical of Eva Moskowitz, while the other candidates didn’t disagree, they were just more “thoughtful” and less didactic.

Four months into his term de Blasio has been battered: his plan for a small tax on earners of over $500,000 a year shot down by the governor and a five million dollar media blitz and $800,000 in contributions to Cuomo resulted in legislation to force co-locations of charter schools – a resounding defeat for the new guy on the block, a defeat engineered by his “friend” in the governor’s Albany mansion.

For the mayor the single issue is Universal Pre-Kindergarten, an immense program with many pitfalls to be averted. Can the department find adequate classroom space? Can the department match seats to needs? Can the department find and train appropriately certified teachers? Can the department stock the classrooms with age-appropriate materials? Can the department and the city link a wide range of social and health services to the kids? A Herculean task and a task that must shine to restore the glitter to the mayor’s image.

Other major initiatives are on hold: the reorganization of the network-based management system, the A-F School Progress Reports, the Choice versus Neighborhood Schools concept, the single goal is to assure that Universal Pre-Kindergarten will be a smashing success.

And then Chancellor Farina announced Lucy was back.

For decades the battle over the teaching of reading, aka, The Reading Wars, have pitted supporters of “whole language” against the supporters of “phonics,” Research Professor Peter Gray in “Freedom to Learn” describes the differing positions,

In teaching reading, the progressive [whole language] educator might focus on ways to help beginners recognize and thereby read whole words from the outset and allow them to figure out or guess at other words from the context (such as from pictures and the meaning of adjacent words), so they are reading for meaning right from the beginning. In contrast, the traditionalist might start with lessons on letter recognition and the relation of letters to sounds (phonics) before moving on to whole words and sentences. The process of reading requires the decoding of letters into sounds, and the traditionalist teaches this process explicitly before becoming concerned with meaning.

Today, the majority (though not all) of the experts who have examined the data have declared that the wars are over—phonics has won. The data seem clear. Overall, children who are taught phonics from the beginning become better readers, sooner, than those who are taught by whole-word or whole-language methods. The learning is still slow and tedious, but not as slow and tedious for phonics learners as for those taught by other methods.

Kathleen Porter-McGee, a widely respected scholar and frequent writer about the teaching of reading also pans the Calkins’ methodology,

Not only is this approach [Lucy Catkins’ Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop] widely used by U.S. educators (for ages it was required by the New York City Department of Education and is still widely used today in Gotham schools), but it is perhaps the most egregious example of a content-free, text-neutral, skills-focused version of reading instruction. Students in such classrooms don’t even have the benefit of reading shared or thoughtfully sequenced texts, let alone a thoughtful, coherent knowledge base.

Joel Klein, an attorney, hired Diana Lamm as his deputy under the initial department reorganization, with ten mega-regional superintendents, Lamm imposed the whole language teaching strategy, after Lamm left Klein promoted Carmen Farina, also a devotee of whole language instruction. Over the years Lucy Calkins trained over 10,000 New York Teachers and her Writing Project received millions of dollars in contracts.

The Reading Wars raged with Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute and Diane Ravitch pitted against Calkins and Farina. A lengthy piece in New York Magazine recounts the battle,

Sol Stern of the conservative Manhattan Institute and the education historian Diane Ravitch berated Balanced Literacy’s whole-language roots. “Many of the programs and methods now being crammed down the teachers’ throats have no record of success,” wrote Stern, “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.”

By the spring of 2004, Diana Lam was gone, but Joel Klein went out of his way to defend Balanced Literacy. He promoted Carmen Fariña, a respected Brooklyn superintendent who had used Balanced Literacy as a teacher and principal. Fariña proudly took up the cause.

After Farina left in one of the many leadership shifts Eric Nadelstern took the education helm and the system moved to an affinity network model. Schools could choose their network; “Calkins” schools could cluster in a network, devotees of phonics or other approaches in other networks. With adoption of the Common Core the department recommended methodologies and Calkins was not selected.

With the selection of Farina as chancellor could the resurrection of Calkins be far behind?

Patrick Wall, in Chalkbeat recounts Lucy’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes,

… in January, Calkins’ longtime friend Carmen Fariña, who has called Calkins her mentor, was appointed head of the city school system. The two met privately at the Department of Education headquarters after Fariña became schools chancellor.

Around that time, Calkins wrote to Fariña urging her to resist the curriculum guidelines written by Coleman and his team, Calkins said in her speech.

“Please, Carmen,” Calkins said she appealed to Fariña, “Protect the Common Core from the documents surrounding it, that are people’s interpretations of it.”

Now, Fariña has the power to reimagine the way educators across the city teach reading and writing in the age of the Common Core. Already, the chancellor has promised a top-to-bottom review of the city’s recommended curriculums. And to lead a citywide Common Core literacy training next month, her administration brought in Calkins’ group.

For her part, Calkins seems confident that her group will play a larger role under Chancellor Fariña in helping schools meet the new standards.

“Yes, the city’s moving in our direction,” Calkins said during an interview in February. “Obviously.”

The Reading War has roots in the 1950’s (“Why Johnnie Can’t Read”) and the skirmishes have continued ever since. In spite the reams of critical research whole language instruction continues to stake out a loyal and dedicated following, and an equally vociferous opposition.

As de Blasio struggles to regain his positive public image, as the mayor pumps up support for Universal Pre- Kindergarten, as the laser-like focus of the administration on making sure that pre-kindergarten is a glowing success, does de Blasio need to fan the embers of the Reading Wars?

Fanned embers end up in conflagrations, to raging forest fires, a disaster for an administration looking to find their mojo.

The mayor needs victories, not scrums over how to teach reading.

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2 responses to “Does deBlasio Need to Rekindle the Reading Wars? Lucy Calkins Re-Ignites the “Whole Language” versus “Phonics” Battles.

  1. The whole-language approach is more aligned to the Common Core and better able to hide at least the source of gross deficiencies from lower grades and the need to address them. Unfortunately, the Common Core is now deeply associated with the deform agenda which seeks to punish kids and parents for failure to achieve by punishing the schools and teachers that try to help them, rather than get to the roots of the problems or apply appropriate methods to solve them. It’s tempting to call this racist or classist, but it appears more and more to be just an ignorant corporate carrot-and-stick mentality. Research, intelligence and compassion
    get in the way of the clear demarcations
    needed to enact and enforce carrot-and-stick policy, especially as it is used indirectly to impact students and parents. Deep down Barack and Arne are sublime idiots when it comes to education. The country has been had.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Magic Bullets Equal Duds: Why Do Top-Down Educational Initiatives Rarely Succeed? Will ESSA Change the Face of Education? | Ed In The Apple

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