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6th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 6, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 Imagine if the president of the nation’s most prestigious medical school dismissed the idea of the federal government insisting that drugs and therapies be tested for efficacy and safety, employing the best scientific methodology. Imagine if he proposed that we leave it to the localities to use whatever treatments they favored, backed up by nothing more than the belief system of the local witch doctor.The outcry would be enormous. Yet last week the president of one of our nation’s best-known schools of education did exactly that. 

    One of the most remarkable — and revealing — articles about the state of education appeared in the January 28, 2004,edition of the Daily News.In it,the president of Columbia University Teachers College, Arthur Levine, strongly attacked the federal government for insisting that reading programs must be proven by scientific research to actually work in order to receive funding. By questioning this perfectly reasonable provision of the law, Mr. Levine reveals himself and his institution to be advocates of what it nothing more than educational alchemy. Our children deserve better. 
    We don’t ask too many questions when we allow the federal government to approve the drugs we take, inspect our meat, set standards for highway safety, enforce the protection of our environment, and protect workers at their jobs. Is the education of our children a lesser enterprise? 

    Just as the federal government drove the snake-oil salesmen from the prescription drug business, they are now trying to drive the alchemists and their unproven programs out of our children’s schools. It’s about time. 

    Some activities demand oversight, to protect both taxpayers and the public at large.After all,if we ask the feds to pony up with the bucks, don’t they have a right to have a say in how the money is spent? 

    It amazes me how some liberals, usually quick to insist on federal regulation of every aspect of our lives, suddenly become states’ rights advocates on the issue of education. Conversely, conservatives, the champions of decentralized decision-making, have newfound religion in the increased federal role in regulating what goes on in our schools. It’s time to drop the labels and instead focus on what works and what doesn’t. That’s where science comes in. 

    The results we see in schools are measurable,and things that are measurable lend themselves to scientific inquiry. Moreover, there has been much advanced research in the workings of the brain that have practical applications to the study of reading and how best to teach it. Just as the FDA can determine the safety and effectiveness of new drugs, studies conducted by scientific methods have been made into the teaching of reading, and hard conclusions can and have been drawn. 

    These studies come down clearly on the phonics side of the “reading wars,” much to the dismay of many, such as Mr. Levine, in the university-institutional complex that runs our educational system. Schools such as the Teachers College have put all of their educational eggs into one basket.The wrong one. 

    This problem has been studied by a professor at Boston University, David M. Steiner, and reported on in this space. Mr. Steiner found that most schools of education exclusively prepare our prospective teachers to use “constructivist” teaching methods such as whole language and “fuzzy math.” These have recently been shown to be less effective than other, more traditional techniques. The ed schools must bear responsibility for much of the academic failure that came about through the use of the programs that conform to their “progressive” ideology. However, Mr. Levine’s school takes it even further. 

    What Mr. Levine suggests is simply that Washington,D.C.,continues to write big checks to local school boards letting them spend the money on anything they wish. However, scratch the surface and you will find that what he really asks for is that New York continues to be able to spend money for the professional development services for teachers being provided through his institution. 

    The Reading and Writing Workshop, run by a professor at Teachers College, Lucy Calkins, has brought millions and millions to the school for many years. This despite a considerable body of evidence that for the children most at risk, this orthodox whole language (now deceptively renamed “balanced literacy”) program simply hasn’t brought results. These ed-school alchemists have found a way to turn the lead of failed reading strategies into real gold — gold for them, but continued failure for our children. 

    Last year, after the public schools Chancellor Klein and his deputy chancellor, Diana Lam, announced their choice of reading program, it became immediately apparent to all but those with an economic stake in his plan that it was sure to be rejected by state and federal officials under the terms of the No Child Left Behind Act. After tens of billions being poured into the educational schemes and dreams coming from places such as Teachers College, Congress listened to the advice of the nonpartisan National Reading Panel it had created years earlier and insisted that only scientifically proven reading methods be funded. 

    When a group of seven prominent researchers questioned Mr. Klein’s choice of reading program last year, Ms. Calkins submitted a competing letter signed by 100 “Education Faculty”from New York–area colleges, 26 of whom were her colleagues at Teachers College, and all compromised directly or indirectly by dependence on Department of Education contracts. 

    One could understand Ms. Calkins’s concern then and Mr. Levine’s now. Under the questionable Klein/Lam program, Teachers College can continue to turn lead into gold. If the program is scrapped, the gravy train comes to a halt. 

    In December, an article in the Daily News stated that teachers in the 400 schools in which Ms. Calkins provides professional development — as part of a three-year, $5.4-million agreement with the Department of Education — claimed that they were not being given enough of the curriculum guides that were part of the Teachers College’s commitment under the terms of their contract. 

    “Principals say they’re being forced to spend hundreds of dollars on books and photocopies for teachers.‘I feel like I’m being set up to fail,’ said one Manhattan administrator.” 

    The Daily News reported that principals “have been told by their supervisors to copy the guides or buy new copies of Calkins’s $150 book, ‘Units of Study for Primary Writing.’” 

    Is this what our universities have become? Profit centers and booksellers? Has the search for the truth been abandoned for the search for gold? 

    This is a remarkable conflict of interest, one that Mr. Levine should have disclosed when writing his article.I respect his right to a position that is different from mine. However, before he dismisses the value of science in evaluating programs to teach reading, he should take Teachers College out of the business of profiting from his misplaced confidence in educational alchemy.

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

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