Why is the Chancellor Re-Igniting the Reading Wars? The Best Educational Decisions Are Made by Principals and Teachers at Schools, Not in Washington or Albany or at Tweed Headquarters

For the last four years of the Bloomberg administration teachers, principals and parents disliked and frequently despised the educational bureaucracy; for two decades none of the chancellors had been teachers or school leaders, initiative after initiative seemed to be punitive and ill-conceived.

Board headquarters, Tweed, became a “dirty word;” the deputy chancellors were inexperienced, and the teacher union and advocacy organizations were at war with Gracie Mansion.

The appointment of Carmen Farina, a forty-year veteran who worked her way up the ladder from teacher to deputy chancellor for teaching and learning was greeted with joy. The negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement after five years without a contract, new promotion requirements that gave principal judgment more credence, and visit after visit to schools and meetings with teachers, it seemed to be a new day

It is surprising, and does not auger well, that the chancellor intends to resuscitate her favorite reading program, the Lucy Calkins Teacher College Reading and Writing Project.

To the extent possible educational decisions should be made at schools by principals and teams of teachers, the role of the superintendent and network leader should be to guide and support decisions made at schools.

Decisions made in Washington or Albany are looked upon with suspicion, and, usually fade away. Chancellor Farina and Calkins are close friends, its “uncomfortable” when a friendship drives education policy rather than research-based programs.

In an April article Chalkbeat reports Calkins’ antipathy to the Common Core is evident,

[Calkins] … described a model lesson by Common Core advocate David Coleman where high school students are asked to pore over the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address for several days, parsing the meaning of the individual words and phrases in the speech … “To me, it basically represents horrible teaching,” Calkins said

In a letter to Farina Calkins wrote, “Please, Carmen, protect the Common Core from the documents surrounding it that are people’s interpretations of it.”

But some critics say that parts of Calkins’ approach and the Common Core are incompatible. The prospect that Fariña’s ascension could expand Calkin’s influence over the school system has already unsettled some of them, including New York University education professor Susan Neuman. “I think that’s scary,” Neuman said, “and devastating.”

While you philosophically may support or oppose the Common Core, it does drive state tests and regents examinations.

A few days ago Chancellor Farina announced her intent to increase the number of schools utilizing Calkin’s methodology. The New York Times writes,

… balanced literacy is poised to make a comeback in New York City classrooms. The new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, wants more schools to adopt aspects of balanced literacy, including its emphasis on allowing students to choose many of the books they read.

The city’s Education Department turned away from balanced literacy several years ago amid concerns that it was unstructured and ineffective, particularly for low-income children. And Ms. Fariña is facing sharp resistance from some education experts, who argue that balanced literacy is incompatible with the biggest shift in education today: the Common Core academic standards.

But after several years of experimentation, the department moved away from balanced literacy. School officials grew concerned that students lacked the knowledge and vocabulary to understand books about history and science. In 2012, a study found schools that used balanced literacy lagged behind schools that used a differing approach known as Core Knowledge.

When the city released a list of curriculums it recommended under the Common Core standards last year, it omitted balanced literacy, amid worries that it was not sufficiently comprehensive to be labeled a curriculum.

While there are loyal adherents to the Calkins’ approach, the Columbia Teachers College Teaching and Writing Project, with the retirement of Farina the city abandoned the approach and the state did not include the program in the approved Common Core curriculum, Sol Stern writes,

[Farina] became the DOE’s enforcer, making sure that all teachers in the elementary schools toed the line and implemented Calkins’ constructivist methods for teaching reading and writing. Teachers received a list of “nonnegotiable” guidelines for arranging their classrooms, including such minute details as the requirement that there must be a rug on the floor for students to sit on in the early grades and that nothing but student work be posted on the walls.

Balanced literacy has no track record of raising the academic performance of poor minority children. No independent research study has ever evaluated its methodology.

On one hand we have a new chancellor who is a firm supporter of collaboration, who is advocating sharing successful practices among schools, a chancellor of a school system that just negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that is encouraging schools to go beyond perceived limitations of the contract and department regulations, to experiment and create and innovate, and, a chancellor who wants to reclaim a widely discredited reading program.

Unfortunately it appears that the chancellor is repeating mistakes that are all too commonplace, assuming that a program that we “liked,” or seemed to work for the kids we taught, or is in vogue, should be the approach used for all kids. Principal Farina led PS 6, an elementary school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an atypical school with a high achieving student body. The vast majority of students in New York City are children of color with parents who struggle in a city of inequality. Decisions as to which program to adopt must be based on sound research, not the whims of school and school district leaders.

School districts jumped on the technology bandwagon. The key to bridging the achievement gap was technology, if we flooded schools with the latest technology; if we taught kids how to use technology as a learning tool we level the playing field. Unfortunately the unintended consequence was to widen the achievement gap,

… the introduction of computers might “level the playing field” for the neighborhoods’ young people, children of “concentrated affluence” and “concentrated poverty.” They undertook their observations in a hopeful frame of mind: “Given the wizardry of these machines and their ability to support children’s self-teaching,” they wondered, “might we begin to see a closing of the opportunity gap?”

“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it,” … With the spread of educational technology, they predicted, “the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”

While technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer of educational opportunity, a growing body of evidence indicates that in many cases, tech is actually having the opposite effect: It is increasing the gap between rich and poor, between whites and minorities, and between the school-ready and the less-prepared.

Mathematics instruction is another arena where there is a sharp divide between the advocates of direct instruction and advocates of a more child-centered, discovery approach, not dissimilar to the Calkins approach,

A recent study supports a direct instruction methodology, especially for struggling learners in first grade classrooms,

Pennsylvania State University researchers Paul L. Morgan and Steve Maczuga and George Farkas of the University of California, Irvine analyzed the use of different types of instruction by 1st grade mathematics teachers, including teacher-directed instruction, such as explicit explanations and practice drills; student-centered, such as small-group projects and open problem-solving; and strategies intended to ground math in real life, such as manipulative toys, calculators, music, and movement activities.

“In general education there’s been more focus on approaches that are student-centered: peers and small groups, cooperative learning activities. What can happen with that for kids with learning difficulties is there are barriers that can interfere with their ability to take advantage of those learning activities. Children with learning disabilities tend to benefit from instruction that is explicit and teacher directed, guided and modeled and also has lots of opportunities for practice.”

Moreover, neither struggling nor regularly achieving math students improved when using manipulatives, calculators, music, or movement strategies; these activities actually decreased student learning in some cases. Ironically, a regression analysis of the classes found teachers became more likely to use these strategies in classes with higher concentrations of students with math difficulties.

Unfortunately too many educators, in colleges and in schools are wedded to a philosophy rather than exploring well-researched, peer vetted methodologies.

Scattered around the city we find successful and ineffective schools, sometimes within blocks of each other and sometimes in the same building. The chancellor intends to “pair” effective and struggling schools hoping the struggling schools can “learn” from the successful schools.

The rage in the nineties was school-based budgeting: I traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, the school district that was the model, sort of the Finland of its day. When I returned I was asked, “Will it work here?” My answer was, “If you bring back the Canadians.” Edmonton was a different culture, highly competent principals working closely with their staffs in schools that had wide discretion over instructional approaches. The supervisors and teachers were in the same union, the district office staff and principals frequently changed jobs, parents were heavily involved in schools, and, the district was generally middle class. Success of a school usually depends on school culture; not reading programs, the success of the school depends on the quality of the school leadership and the quality of the staff – the synergy of leadership plus staff results in excellence. Yes, in high quality, highly effective schools the analysis of instructional approaches, the input that goes into decisions, the process results in the product.

School district leadership should “support” a range of programs with proven records of success. For example Core Knowledge or Success for All or Reading Recovery all have track records, school district leadership should be prepared to support proven programs in schools, not advocate for one program over another. And, if a school is not successful take the lead in selecting programs that suit the needs of the students. Too many school leaders selected under the previous administration lack leadership skills, and, the new guys” will have to retrain or replace the ogres.

Unfortunately “pair-a-school” approach has no research legs. What works in school “A” may fail in school “B.” The chancellor should be asking: what are the qualities of the school leader and the staff? What in the culture of the school results in higher student achievement?

The window is open; we can turnaround the largest school district in the nation, for the chancellor it seems that old habits are hard to unlearn.

I was an invited guest at a school leadership meeting – I forget the issue but after a lengthy discussion the principal jumped in … “I totally disagree with the approach – but – the teachers and parents are clearly committed to it – show me I’m wrong – make it work.”

We need more principals like Jeff Latto.

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2 responses to “Why is the Chancellor Re-Igniting the Reading Wars? The Best Educational Decisions Are Made by Principals and Teachers at Schools, Not in Washington or Albany or at Tweed Headquarters

  1. People need to back away from the idea that teaching and learning is quantifiable in a way that very routine service and labor jobs may be. The Common Core belies the importance of developmental benchmarks and plateaus and the debate about English above belies the open-endedness of what strategies may be effective in certain schools at certain times.

    Many factors go into test results: the nature of the student body, school culture and strategies, preps outside of regular class, the instruction within class ( the teacher as filtered through demands on instruction by the principal, school support, peer reviews, etc. ) The idea of punishing a teacher due to variances in these factors is absurd; especially absurd to even consider this as an overriding feature in evaluation.

    Fine, if you want test results as a very rough and unreliable additional gauge to confirm much larger aspects of an evaluation, just to round out the whole picture. 20% max would probably do.

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  2. Marc Korashan

    Balanced Literacy is not, and never was, a curriculum. It is a teaching method where teachers use a mixture of whole language approaches and direct phonics instruction to help students become successful “decoders.” It is about choosing a different balance between those two approaches for each student.

    In the hands of an administrator who believes in corporte, top-down management Balance Literacy becomes a mandate (still not a curriculum) and someone other than the techer in the classroom is choosing the balancing point. Then it stops working for struggling and disabled students. It also strips teachers of the ability to make the on-the-spot, real-time decisions about how best to help a given student master the material. When you do that you dis-empower and demoralize the teacher and this can never lead to good results.

    Instead of arguing about what curriculum to use, we should be ensuring that all teachers (at all levels) know how to teach reading and are prepared to do so in the context of their subject areas. That is how we can support students.

    p.s. Ms Calkins should take note of Gary Wills’ book, LIncoln At Gettysburg, which is a riveting story of the speech and the Civil War, before criticizing a close reading of the speech.

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