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24th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 24, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

There were really no surprises Tuesday as Chancellor Klein announced his curriculum initiatives. Since Mr. Klein brought on Diana Lam as his deputy for instruction last August, the shape that the “new” curriculum would take has been apparent. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

What was released bears a striking resemblance to what she put in place at her last two jobs in San Antonio, Texas, and Providence, R.I. There is a “progressive” educational establishment in the country that has dominated instructional decisions in this country for decades, and Ms. Lam represents it.
So what we are getting is not much different from what we already have. The improvement is that rather than having a laundry list of competing programs and methods, there will be more coherence. This will encourage improvement simply by ensuring that students and teachers moving among schools are learning and teaching in a consistent way.

But there is nothing new or special about these plans. The literacy program was not really outlined in a comprehensive way, other than stressing the use of a program called Month by Month Phonics, a title that is more than a bit misleading. Contrary to the headlines in the newspapers, this program is not “Hooked on Phonics.” Rather, this may be just enough phonics, wrapped around a “whole language” core to satisfy the federal mandate that only research-based programs be employed. But while there is substantial research that suggests phonics instruction works, there is no hard evidence about this specific program. Education historian Diane Ravitch notes that this program has not been tried in any other city, leaving us with no frame of reference to evaluate its efficacy.

To justify the use of Month by Month Phonics, Ms. Lam points to the example of District 10 in the Bronx. But scores in this district are among the lowest in the city. Without the three higher-performing schools in Riverdale, the district’s scores would probably be competing for dead last. Ominously, the number of District 10’s eighth-grade students gaining admission to specialized high schools during the past eight years has declined by twothirds, despite a 25% increase in the district’s pupil population.

Some of the other aspects of Mr. Klein’s literacy program sound innovative, but again actually represent nothing new. Mayor Giuliani had already funded classroom libraries through grade three, an initiative that the current mayor is expanding through grade nine. Frankly, I question whether installing classroom libraries in middle- and high-school grades — where students more often than not travel from room to room for different classes — is the best way to get books into the hands of our children. Making sure that every middle and high school has a staffed and stocked, fully-functioning school library, open before and after classes, might be a better strategy.

While mandating two hours of reading instruction sounds innovative, this also is nothing new. Some city schools are already giving twoand-a-half hours. Add on an hour or more for math, lunch, and mandated physical education, and one wonders where the time is found to teach history, geography, science, music, and art.

Not a word has been heard about expanding the knowledge base of our students, because Ms. Lam subscribes to the predominant “childcentered” philosophy which purports to teach children to “learn how to learn,” but rarely achieves that goal.

The trick is to integrate actual subject matter into the literacy block. As former teacher Jeanette Goldwyn Kingon, writing nearly two years ago in a New York Times education supplement, asked, “Younger students especially must constantly analyze and answer questions about myths, fantasies, and animal stories. I wonder why they can’t also be reading about the world around them. Why can’t they learn the names of and how to spell the five boroughs of New York City, information they are not getting at home?”

On the math side, the pro-fuzzy math forces have seized the initiative with preemptive strikes such as yesterday’s op-ed piece in this paper by Alfred Posamentier, the dean of the School of Education at my alma mater, City College.

There is a war on many college campuses between the professors in the education and math departments. The mathematicians believe that traditional math instruction has worked well. Mr. Posamentier reveals his bias by labeling these mathematicians as “conservatives.” There is nothing liberal or conservative about math instruction. There is only what works and what doesn’t. Traditional math instruction has not failed, and constructivist methods hold no promise to increase the love of math.

Most math teachers in the most successful schools, like those at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, disagree with Mr. Posamentier. They view the new constructivist programs as holding back the ability of the most promising students to pursue the most advanced programs.

Math is not an easy or much-loved subject. Programs that are designed to make kids like math do so at the cost of the rigor and repetition that makes the subject painful for so many of us.

The most frequently-heard complaint by parents whose children are taught by fuzzy math methods is that they never learn the basics, such as the times tables, long division, multiplication and division of fractions, etc. Without a strong foundation in those skills, children who would otherwise excel in math often fall behind in subtle ways. Daniel Jaye, the assistant principal in charge of math at Stuyvesant High School, warns parents of incoming freshmen that those students who have been taught using constructivist programs will most likely not be able to keep up with the school’s fast-track math course.

Others complain that immigrant children, who often excel in math despite English-language difficulties, are put at a disadvantage by the constructivist programs, which are more word intensive and less number-based.

The elementary school program selected by the Department of Education, Everyday Mathematics, also known as Chicago Math, is not the worst of the constructivist programs, but it’s close. The fuzzy math opponents who run the Mathematically Correct Web site rate Everyday Math a C-minus. This is not as bad as the F they give the TERC Investigations curriculum used in District 2, but it raises concerns.

Chicago Math was the program that Ms. Lam put into place when she was superintendent at San Antonio, Texas. So tumultuous was her tenure there that she was paid nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to leave town. Milliseconds later, teachers there voted four-to-one to get rid of her math program as well, the same one we are adopting in New York at her urging.

This program has also been specifically banned by the State of California. The results in the districts that use Everyday Mathematics in New York are nothing to write home about. Is this a step forward? I don’t think so.

Before we subject more than a million New York City school children to any program, we should make sure that we are making the right choice. There is little evidence that the programs selected on Tuesday meet that standard.

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

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