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28th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 28, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

In his Martin Luther King Jr. birthday speech on education, Mayor Bloomberg promised to put in place a reading program with a heavy emphasis on phonics. He did so because there is growing recognition among the public — a recognition that is now backed up by federal law — that the way children are taught to read must be determined by hard research rather than soft ideology.

Less than a week after Mr. Bloomberg’s speech, Schools Chancellor Klein announced a new uniform curriculum. He did this at P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, an admirable school that is achieving impressive results. The two programs announced, Everyday Mathematics and Month-by-Month Phonics, are both currently in place at P.S. 172.
The implication was that these programs were chosen because they brought success to P.S. 172. Mr. Klein said,“P.S. 172 has been using the instructional approach and the materials that we will be introducing throughout the city, and the results have been terrific.” The deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam, speaking right after Mr. Klein, asserted on behalf of Month-by-Month Phonics that “Districts 10 and 15 [the district in which P.S. 172 is located] have adopted this program and are seeing great results with it.”
What results? District 10 was the first district to use this program, beginning in September of 2000. It was adopted after the newly elected community school board president, G. Oliver Koppell, insisted on the adoption of more traditional teaching methods. But Mr. Koppell was fooled by the misleading title of the program, which experts consider nothing more than an appendage of the widely discredited “whole language” strategy.

After two years, District 10 is still among the lowest-performing districts, placing 33rd out of 34 districts in reading improvement last year. You don’t hear much from Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam about District 10 anymore. But as recently as last week, Mr. Klein asserted on television that the experience with Month-by-Month Phonics at P.S. 172 provides the federally mandated research to prove that the program works.
Phonics programs are generally designed for use by children in kindergarten through grade three. Since the first objective testing of these students takes place at the end of third grade, any claims about the effectiveness of these programs could come only after they have been in place for several years.
That is why the use of P.S. 172 for the press conference and the repre
sentations made there were so shockingly deceptive. According to District 15 spokesperson George Greenfield, Month-by-Month Phonics was first put in place at that school in September of 2001.The only testing since the program was put into place took place in January of 2002 for fourth graders and in May of 2002 for third and fifth graders.
It is true that P.S. 172 has made remarkable gains in reading. But these gains predated the introduction of Month-by-Month Phonics by years.

If there is any one program that can take credit for this school’s success, it is a program that was not chosen by the Tweed Ring, Open Court, published by McGraw-Hill. This is the program that was in use at P.S. 172 prior to September of 1999. During the two intervening years before Month-by-Month Phonics was introduced, Mr. Greenfield tells me that various “phonemic awareness” strategies were employed by the school in the early grades.

Any honest analysis of the test results demonstrates that Month-by-Month Phonics had absolutely nothing to do with the dramatic gains at P.S. 172. It is clear that last years third through fifth graders probably learned to read using Open Court.

Open Court is the program that is winning national attention for impressive results in Houston and Los Angeles.Even in New York’s District 2,which has a reputation as the world capital of whole language orthodoxy, the only one of their schools to use Open Court, P.S. 198, is often cited as a model for successful school improvement.

Because Open Court is a heavily scripted program, there is little need for expensive professional development. That strikes at the heart of the services provided by the group of 100 education professors who recently signed a letter to Mr. Klein applauding him for his choice of Month-by-Month Phonics.
Another well-known scripted program that is hated by the establishment, Success for All, has been credited with the significant gains made in the Chancellor’s district. But those schools will now be forced to use Month-by-Month Phonics instead of a program that has consistently been getting results. How can such a change possibly be justified?

It is increasingly becoming clear that the city’s Department of Education may have to relent and abandon Month-by-Month Phonics. There is little chance that the federal authorities will make an exception for a program unproven by research in the nation’s largest school district. After all, if they make an exception for us, how can they refuse a similar request from Podunk?

But there is more at stake than just a choice of program.There is a cancer growing in the halls of Tweed. At this point, Mr. Klein is a victim of it, as much as the children. If he doesn’t act decisively, all that he has accomplished thus far will be lost. He must not make just programmatic changes; he must also make personnel changes, removing those who put him in this embarrassing position.

Watergate was conceived and executed by a bunch of bunglers and fools. In the zeal to pursue their own misguided brand of partisanship, they brought down their commander-in-chief. However, it was not the initial crime that undid Nixon but the cover-up.

The public will forgive a mistake if it is honestly made and quickly corrected.

That’s why Mr. Klein, and by extension Mr. Bloomberg, are at a crossroads in the growing “Reading-gate” scandal. Just as Nixon was ill served by the architects of that “second-rate burglary,” Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg have been put in a difficult position by the poor advice and the economic conflicts of those in which they put their trust.

It is time for the mayor and chancellor to cut their losses and end the cover-up. What actions they take from this point forward will determine whether the hard-won concept of mayoral control of the schools will succeed or fail.

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

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