Main image
9th January
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, January 9, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Today is the deadline for submission of proposals for federal funding of reading programs, an initiative that will bring $34 million a year to New York City school children.This is not a lot of money in the context of the expenditures made annually on Gotham’s school system. However, for nearly a year it has been at the center of a debate on which hinges the future of reading instruction not just here but across the nation.

When the Education Department announced the choice of a reading program last year as part of the plans for a citywide “uniform” curriculum, the choice they made, an obscure workbook series called Month-by-Month Phonics, raised immediate concerns. Month-by-Month is basically an add-on that is part of a larger “whole language” reading strategy. This methodology has come under increasing fire as a growing number of studies conclusively demonstrate that for many of the most at-risk students, whole language doesn’t work. 
While this message meets resistance among much of the K-12 educational establishment who have been heavily invested in whole language for the past 20 to 30 years, it resonates with the public at large. So unpopular is the term “whole language,” that its proponents have recast it as “balanced literacy.”

You can say that your Yugo is a Mercedes, but that doesn’t make it so. It is still a Yugo, doomed to spend a significant part of its life under repair at the shop. Repair in the case of whole language is subjecting the instructional staff to endless “professional development.” And like most trips to get your car fixed, where the only ones to benefit are the auto mechanics, it is a small cabal of institutions, colleges, and private companies that are profiting in the reading wars.

Responding to concerns over the efficacy of whole language, a key provision of the No Child Left Behind law mandates that federally funded reading programs must be shown to be effective based on scientific study. This was meant to be a frontal assault on whole language, or “balanced literacy” programs. That is why this $34 million drama was so closely watched.

Had the city’s program been approved by the state and ultimately the federal government officials responsible for its review, then they would have de facto nullified a key provision of the NCLB law. Imagine the embarrassment had such a decision been challenged in the courts, putting the Bush administration in the awkward position of defending the very programs they were trying to eliminate.

Alternatively, had the city passed up the funding, it would have been a major political embarrassment for Mayor Bloomberg, and opened the Department of Education to possible litigation. In the end, the city blinked.

This confrontation came as no surprise. It was preordained from the moment the mayor and his chancellor, Joel Klein, cast their lot with the “progressive” ideology of the deputy chancellor, Diana Lam, of which whole language is a key component. I suspect that both men entered into this endeavor in pure innocence, unaware of the details of the controversy raging on the national stage. But now both the mayor and chancellor are victims of the “reading wars,” as are perhaps hundreds of thousands of city schoolchildren who could have been taught by methods that have been demonstrated to be more effective.

As reported by the New York Times, Mr. Klein was defensive. “Where’s the science?” the chancellor asked. Perhaps he could start with an article that appeared in the March 2002 issue of Scientific American that reviews much of the research done in the area and concludes that between phonics and whole language, “systematic phonics instruction produces higher achievement for beginning readers. The differences are greatest for students at risk of failing to learn to read, such as those living in homes where the value of literacy is not emphasized.…Educators who deny this reality are neglecting decades of research. They are also neglecting the needs of their students.”

The article, co-authored by five prominent research scientists, asks why the battle continues when the conclusion is so clear. The answer is ideology. Mr. Klein has picked the losing side in the reading wars, refuses to surrender, and retreats into denial.

Citing national test results, presumably the NAEP tests, Mr. Klein stated that New York City’s “balanced literacy” approach was working better than cities using the scientifically validated instructional methods approved by federal officials. However, by making this claim, he is being less than fully illuminating. Using raw test-score statistics without correcting for variables would, in any event, not rise to the same level of scientific method of the studies endorsed by the federal government.

That being said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test is administered at a limited sample of New York schools. It was given prior to the implementation of Ms. Lam’s curriculum choices. Many city schools were using other, more traditional approaches. For instance, every school in the Chancellor’s District was using a scripted program called Success for All. If you were to characterize the city as a whole, the most you could say about the wide variety of programs in use was that it was eclectic. To characterize it as balanced literacy or phonics or anything else is off the mark.

However, this entire enterprise has been conducted in a misleading way from the onset. Trapped into Ms. Lam’s radicalism, Mr. Klein has refused to retreat and allowed himself to be engaged in a number of deceptions which began the first day the program was announced at P.S. 172, when the press and public were given the impression that the Lam program was responsible for the school’s success.

Last February, Mr. Klein’s response to warnings about the Lam reading program from seven prominent reading researchers, was to contrive a letter from 100 education professors, endorsing his plan. He failed to disclose that virtually every name on this list had a financial stake in the program’s implementation.
What is needed is new candor from Tweed. This is an opportunity to reexamine where we are and where we are headed. The concept of the uniform curriculum, flawed from the outset, is now shattered anyway. These have been expensive mistakes, but the biggest mistake would be not to learn from them.

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

Leave a Reply