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6th January
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, January 6, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The word from the Tweed Courthouse is that most of the extraordinarily lucrative contracts to train the city’s teachers how to teach reading and writing will now be given to one vendor — the Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University Teachers College, led by Lucy McCormack Calkins.

If true, Tweed is investing even deeper in the radical ideas of Ms. Calkins just as the pendulum, here in America and abroad, has begun to swing away from her philosophy. Ms. Calkins is described by Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, as “a doyenne of progressive-education pedagogy in America. Her ‘writing process’ approach … is based on the romantic idea that all young children are ‘natural writers’ and should be encouraged to start scribbling in journals and rewriting composition drafts without worrying (or being taught much) about formal grammar and spelling.”
The Calkins philosophy is the bedrock upon which the Department of Education has based its balanced literacy “uniform curriculum.” This is not actually a curriculum, but rather a teaching methodology that virtually all city schools are mandated to follow. Curriculum, the actual information that is taught, is expressed only in loose terms.Gotham’s teachers are instructed not to ask students to absorb “mere facts,”but to teach them to “learn how to learn” in order to become “lifelong learners.”This is why so many of our children are ill-prepared to do high school level work.

The image of the classroom we know from our own experience, neat rows of eager students absorbing the knowledge of the wise and inspiring instructor, is becoming extinct. Instead, desks are arranged in clusters of four or five, and each group is encouraged to include children of differing abilities. Teachers no longer worry about getting chalk dust on their pants, since the use of the blackboard is discouraged. In some classrooms the boards have been totally covered over by charts lest a weak teacher backslide into traditional instruction.

Teachers must organize their classrooms and lessons in ways that encourage these groups to “construct their own knowledge,” as the teacher is consigned to the passive role of facilitator. They are cautioned not to become “the sage on the stage,” but rather the “guide on the side.”

The good news is that other vendors, most notably a privately-owned firm called AUSSIE (an acronym for Australian United States Services in Education), appear to be losing contracts worth tens of millions. This largesse has surely made the owners of AUSSIE,Diane and Greg Snowball, millionaires. I, for one, won’t miss them. Nor will thousands of New York teachers who are tired of being talked down to by trainers who know less than they do.

Ironically, as Ms. Snowball boasts of bringing those “advanced” Australian teaching methodologies to ignorant American teachers, things are not going well back in her homeland. The teaching methods Ms. Snowball was promoting here, virtually identical to the Calkins philosophy, led to the formation of a national commission Down Under to investigate why Australian children were doing so badly in their studies.

The same thing is happening in the United Kingdom, where a recently released report by a government commission that rejected the whole language or balanced literacy approach of Ms. Calkins, in favor of direct teacher-led instruction in phonics. This is similar to the conclusions arrived at by America’s own blue-ribbon National Reading Panel several years ago.

With evidence so clearly on the other side,why are we increasing the influence of the ideas of Lucy Calkins to virtual monopoly status in our schools? There is more than 20 years of experience right here in Gotham that suggests that the Calkins approach has not met with the kind of success that would demand uniform replication.

One of the first public mentions of Ms. Calkins is an article in the New York Times of June 19, 1984, describing her work at P.S. 11 in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. More than 20 years later, after years of ups and downs, primarily downs, fewer than half of the students at P.S. 11 are reading a grade level. Is this what we get for the $1,200 we pay Ms. Calkins to send one staff developer into one school for one day?
Rather than moving toward a pedagogical monopoly, I would prefer, as suggested by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, the authors of “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” that we convert every public school into a charter school that would select its own structure, pedagogy, and professional development strategy for its teachers.The buck would stop with the principal. Converting existing schools to charter status can be done without limit under current law by the chancellor, so long as a majority of the parents in each school approve.

Such a strategy would make each school accountable for results rather than ideology.This is more promising than Tweed’s current top-down imposition of discredited pedagogical theories.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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