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23rd April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 23, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The Bloomberg administration’s school curriculum choices are based on the ideas of an Australian, Brian Cambourne, a professor of education at Wollongong University at New South Wales. Sol Stern discussed Mr. Cambourne, his ideas, and his politics at length in an article published in the autumn of 2003 in City Journal, “Tragedy Looms for Gotham’s School Reform.” 

    Many of the ideas imposed by the now departed deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, emanate from Mr. Cambourne’s theories, which are widely followed in his home country. Rarely considered is just how the most at-risk children are faring in the schools Down Under, taught using the methods now mandated here in New York. 
    Lorraine Skeen, who was one of New York’s most successful principals, brought to my attention an article from Sunday’s New York Times titled “Aborigines Say Australia Pushes Their Plight to Sideline.” According to the article, “Only 20% of Aboriginal students met reading standards and fewer than 30% met writing standards.” 

    This raises questions, since the New York City Department of Education has invested what now appears to be tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts with an Australian company to train our teachers to use the methods that don’t seem to be working all that well there. 

    Ms. Skeen, who came out of retirement last year to help in Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reform, served briefly as a local instructional superintendent in the Bronx. But she was disappointed with the rigid ideology and made a quick departure. 

    One of the reasons she left was the mandated, extensive use of the teacher training/professional development services of Aussie, an acronym for Australian United States Services in Education, a company owned by an Australian couple, Diane and Greg Snowball. While it is difficult to ascertain how much money the city is spending with Aussie, it is likely in the tens of millions of dollars, making Aussie the largest supplier of professional development personnel services in city schools. 

    “If the Australians have failed with their indigenous people of color,” Ms. Skeen said, “please explain why we are hiring individuals from an agency that we know nothing about, who have no track record of success and no doubt probably share in the failure of Aboriginal education.” 

    Several months ago, I met with the public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, who is exposing problems at our public schools. She is attempting to visit every school building in the city. The first thing she asked me was, “Who are these Aussies that so many of the teachers I meet are complaining about?” 

    When I researched Aussie a few months ago, as recounted in an earlier column, I was surprised by the paucity of references to Ms. Snowball, the firm’s educational guru in the press, both here and abroad. 

    Nexis yielded only 15 articles mentioning Ms. Snowball, and I wrote two of them. Certainly, I thought, a reading expert worth the expenditure of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars would be the subject of a higher degree of press attention. 

    By comparison, a similar search conducted on another such expert, Lucy Calkins of Columbia Teachers College, came up with 126 citations, and I wrote two of those articles as well. 

    Australians are now asking tough questions about the pedagogy Ms. Snowball espouses.The national newspaper, the Australian, noted Wednesday that “Australia’s leading literacy researchers have warned that schoolchildren are failing under trendy reading programs that have no scientific backing. 

    “In a move that reignites the reading wars, a group of researchers has written an open letter to federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson warning of a gap between the teaching methods used in schools and those proven by research to be effective. 

    “The group condemns the ‘wholelanguage’ philosophy used in many schools.…” 
    Does any of this sound familiar? 

    Folks in Australia are condemning as ineffective in their own country the very practices that we are importing Australians to teach our teachers here. 

    The letter to the Australian education minister is reminiscent of a letter to Chancellor Klein in February 2003, by seven reading researchers who work in the New York area. It is comforting to know that even in the land where many of these fads began, people are catching on to the reality that the best way to teach reading is by using methods proven to work.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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