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14th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 14, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

New York City may be in Code Orange in the War on Terrorism, but in the nation’s reading wars the Big Apple has moved into Code Red. The issue is what strategy New York will use to teach reading. Not only is the future of New York City’s more than 1 million school children on the line, but also the hundreds of millions of dollars in consultants, contracts, and professional development expenditures that drive the program.

There is a new Tweed Ring in the shadow of City Hall, with their hands deep in the taxpayers’ pockets.They practice a 21st-century form of “honest graft.” Persons and institutions with a financial stake in the current system are leading the charge to maintain the instructional status quo.
When Mayor Bloomberg made his Martin Luther King Day speech on education, he promised a phonics-based reading program, much to the relief of critics of our city’s failed educational strategies.

Elation turned to concern the following week when the mayor and chancellor announced the choice of curricula for reading and math. For reading, Deputy Chancellor for Instruction Diana Lam chose a little-known program, Month-by-Month Phonics. For math, the administration chose Everyday Mathematics, a well-known constructivist, or “fuzzy,” math program.

Month-by-Month Phonics drew sharp criticism within a day after it was announced on January 21. Educational historian Diane Ravitch led those criticizing Ms. Lam’s choice of programs. Within days,G.Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development raised similar questions. Mr. Lyon has President Bush’s ear on matters regarding the teaching of reading, and he wrote the provision of the No Child Left Behind law that demands research-based curricula.

Despite its name, Month-by-Month Phonics is considered by many experts to be largely a “whole language” program. While whole-language programs are wildly popular with the majority of educators, who like Ms. Lam follow the so-called “progressive” model, recent studies have indicated that they work poorly in teaching children from deprived backgrounds how to read.

These are the programs the city has employed in the past two decades under the parade of chancellors that have come and gone. No matter who runs the school system, the programs live on bolstered by the tens of millions in contracts to Columbia Teachers College, Bank Street College of Education, NYU, the City University, and others that just keep coming.

How were Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein fooled so easily into adopting this program? As non-educators, they took at face value the word of the experts. This has been done before and with the exact same deceptively named reading program.

In 1999, a slate composed largely of Riverdale residents won a decisive majority on Community School Board 10 in the northwest Bronx. The former New York state attorney general, and now councilman, G. Oliver Koppell, was chosen to chair that board. After touring district schools, a horrified Mr. Koppell raised objections to the district’s orthodox whole-language theology.

Mr. Koppell was distressed by the lack of phonics, spelling, and vocabulary exercises. He threatened to fire the district’s superintendent, Irma Zardoya, and replace her with a more traditional educator.
To meet his objections, the district’s literacy gurus found Month-by-Month Phonics.The traditional-sounding title satisfied Mr. Koppell and his board who, like Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg today, were blissfully unaware that the program was still predominantly whole language. It was business as usual in District 10.

How have the children of District 10 fared with Month-by-Month Phonics? Of 34 districts (all 32 community districts plus the chancellor’s and special education districts), District 10 placed 33rd in reading improvement last year, posting declines significantly greater than every other city district except one.
While the mayor and chancellor don’t get it, the District 10 School Board finally has. Last Thursday they passed a resolution objecting to the choice of Month-by-Month Phonics.“The board is unconvinced that this program provides enough phonics instruction, de
spite its title,” they said.

They are not alone. On February 4, a blue-ribbon group of seven prominent reading researchers wrote to Mr. Klein and his team criticizing the initial choice of program, outlining in detail their objections and suggestions for change. They wrote the chancellor in the hope that it would spur a frank discussion of the current plans. They had no intention of going public.But to their dismay, there was no direct response.
Their analysis of the Month-by-Month Phonics program was devastating. They
charge that it “falls short as an effective systematic phonics program.Its effectiveness has not been validated scientifically — the program is woefully inadequate for many reasons. It lacks the ingredients of a systematic phonics program. It places an unrealistic burden on teachers for making decisions about designing lesson materials, and it does not provide teachers with any useful guidance for helping students who fall behind.”

Rather than meet with this distinguished group, none of whom stand to benefit financially from their concern, the Department of Education dug in its heels.As a preemptive strike should the panel go public, the DOE released their own letter of support, a fawning missive signed by 100 of their own experts.Who are these experts? They admit, right up front, that they are the people who “work directly with your schools and with the teachers who teach and learn in them.”

In other words, these are the folks who are paid,in many cases in excess of $1,000 a day, to “teach our teachers” — what is otherwise known as “professional development.” We are quick to assign blame to principals and teachers for what goes wrong in the schools. What about these gurus with their hefty contracts and fees and absolutely no accountability? These same folks were around in the days of Harold Levy, Rudy Crew, Ramon Cortines, Joseph Fernandez, Richard Green, Nathan Quinones, and Anthony Alvarado. Pay heed, Joel Klein.

Almost a quarter of the group comes from Teachers College, 17 from Bank Street, 16 from NYU, and nearly 30 are from various units of the City University. Many of the names on the list have no particular expertise in reading, but are on the list to pad the numbers.

This is the new Tweed Ring.Whether we have 32 districts or 10 regions or a thousand principalities, it matters little as long as the Ring continues to provide the same tired, failed strategies where it counts — in the classrooms. The Ring favors Month-by-Month Phonics not because they have evidence that it works, but because it ensures their continued employment.

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

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