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5th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 5, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

In preparation for the new school year that is set to begin on Monday,teachers,principals,and even parent coordinators are being subjected to endless hours of “professional development.” In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars, an unprecedented amount anywhere, will be spent every year to train these staffers.
So that us ordinary folk can keep up with the Bloomberg educational “reforms,” I humbly submit this short “professional development” course to help
parents and taxpayers understand what is really going on.

The new uniform literacy curriculum is actually not a curriculum at all. A curriculum is a map of what topics are studied when and in which subjects. A year of algebra, a term of geography, a course in American history, and the contents of each course, would be part of a curriculum.What the Department of Education offers is actually a structured teaching methodology, not a curriculum.
This mandated method is not a new invention. It is widely used all over the country and has been tried with mixed results right here in New York. During the past generation, most American schools of education have advocated this method of teaching, which is commonly known as the “progressive” or “child centered” approach.

Of course this sounds wonderful. How could putting our children at the “center” of things be bad? Doesn’t “progressive” imply positive movement in the right direction? If it were only that simple!

The image most members of my generation has of a classroom is from our own childhood: neat rows of stationary desks, facing a teacher at the front.The teacher would usually lecture on some subject, and write notes on a blackboard, that we would dutifully copy into our notebooks. Questions would routinely be asked of students, and they, in turn, would ask the teacher their questions. This is known as “teacher directed learning.”Insubjects where it seemed appropriate, such as learning the multiplication tables, spelling, or vocabulary, children of my generation would memorize information. For me and for most of my friends and classmates, this approach worked well.

At some point, well-meaning educators began to see such instruction as unkind — even as a form of child abuse. They hypothesized that rather than have a teacher “talk and chalk,” the children should “construct” their own learning. The horror of “rote learning” often referred to disparagingly as “drill and kill,” is to be avoided since the material learned is nothing but “mere facts.” It is more important that children “learn how to learn”than that they acquire a bunch of “useless” knowledge.

If some of this jargon sounds familiar, your child is more likely than not attending a school practicing this so-called “progressive” approach. Many New York City public schools and even many private schools already use such programs. Beginning this year, one of the most radical manifestations of “progressivism” found anywhere is being put in place in the vast majority of New York City classrooms.

In those rooms, this translates into what is termed “child directed” instruction.There are few, if any, lectures given. The children sit in groups facing each other, not the teacher, in islands of tables arranged throughout the room. The children discuss reading passages among themselves, “constructing” knowledge, the teacher reduced to the role of “facilitator.”Blackboards have been largely covered over with a variety of materials, and are rarely, if ever, used in a traditional way.Arranging classes by academic ability is frowned upon. Such “homogenous” class groupings fly in the face of progressive orthodoxy. Preferred are “heterogeneous” class groupings, mixtures of high and low performing children expected to “learn from each other.”

One of the hallmarks of the progressive movement in recent years has been the clever use of terminology to cast what should be controversial instructional programs in a more favorable light.Take the case of “whole language” reading instruction. The theory behind this is that teaching the love of books and literature is a substitute for the “drill and kill” of phonics instruction. This approach has been pushed with near religious fervor by a growing number of reading gurus who have profited handsomely for years with multi-million dollar consultant contracts.

After research clearly demonstrated that for the lowest performing 40% of the pupil population, this approach was ineffective, whole language was given a superficial facelift and renamed “balanced literacy.” It is this program, one that had already repeatedly failed under-performing students from low-income households nationwide,that is now sadly being implemented throughout the city.

When Mayor Bloomberg was campaigning, first for his job and then to assume control of the old Board of Education, he did so as an advocate of a more back-to-basics “traditional” educational approach. He pledged to restore phonics instruction, and vowed to eliminate other favorite — and failed — progressive programs, such as bilingual education.

His selection of Joel Klein, a non-educator, as schools chancellor gave those seeking real reform hope that the direction in which the city schools were heading would be reversed.But that hope was dashed with the ill-advised selection of one of the nation’s most controversial “progressive” educrats, Diana Lam, as his deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. Ms. Lam has spent more than a decade drifting from city to city, an educational nomad, leaving a trail of failure and bad feelings in her wake.

Evidence more than strongly suggests that Ms. Lam’s approach does not work for the lowest-performing students. This is why proponents often cite the relative success of District 2 on the east side of Manhattan as the justification for expanding their ultra-progressive approach citywide. District 2 has the highest median income in the city, as well as a majority of white and Asian students. But another district that has slavishly followed the District 2 programs and philosophy for years, District 10, in the northwest Bronx, still languishes as one of the lowest performing of the 32 districts. In neighborhoods with huge numbers of poor and minority students, the touchyfeely progressive approach favored by Ms. Lam has failed.

I hope that I’m wrong, but I fear that the results of the effort will look more like the stagnation of District 10 than the relative successes of some schools in District 2.This will be a sad lesson in the professional development of Mr. Klein, but he will land on his feet, resume the practice of law and,I suspect,will earn a great deal of money. Ms. Lam will move on to some other unsuspecting city,or perhaps claim her final reward with one of the education schools that she has bestowed contracts on so lavishly. Mr. Bloomberg, on the other hand, will have squandered his place in history.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.


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