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21st January
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, January 21, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Tiffany Parker has been relieved of her instructional duties as principal of the Lewis Lemon Elementary School in Rockford, Ill. Since we’re here in New York, you’re probably asking why we should care. However, there is good reason for us to look at Rockford: The events there are pertinent to our children and our schools.

Ms. Parker, who will now shuffle papers, was not demoted because she is incompetent, nor as the unfortunate result of an incident that she might have mishandled. Nor was she disciplined because the school’s reading scores went down.
In fact, under her leadership, the school’s scores improved dramatically. So why did the district administration abruptly take her out of the instructional loop?

The answer is that Ms. Parker put the children of her school ahead of pedagogical theology.
According to a dispatch in the Rockford Register Star, penned by its education reporter, Carrie Watters, Ms. Parker’s background, like most educators today, is in the predominant “progressive” educational ideology. But when she got to the classroom, she found that this approach wouldn’t work.

“I was trained in balanced literacy. I got so frustrated over not meeting the needs of my kids … I had training, reading coaches, high levels of support, and I work. Yet I still felt inadequate, and it showed within the scores,” she said.

“Balanced literacy” is a revisionist term for the increasingly unpopular whole-language programs that research has proven don’t work for the lowest performing children — those most at risk — typically minority children.

When a federal grant obtained by a former professor at Northern Illinois University, William Bursuck, gave her school and others in the district the opportunity to use the more traditional approaches of phonics and direct instruction, Ms. Parker signed on.

The results were so impressive in the lower grades — the program was designed for grades K-3 — that the principal expanded the use of the teaching methods into the upper grades.

The reading program that Ms. Parker champions is similar to the one that was used in the Chancellor District in New York, established by former Chancellor Rudolph Crew. This was, perhaps, the most successful program ever put in place here to help the most at-risk students.

Just as balanced literacy failed in Rockford, there is evidence that the uniform imposition of “balanced literacy” in New York has not been successful with the students most at risk. Already we see declines in fourth-grade reading scores in districts where the most vulnerable children reside. The abandonment of the successful experiment in the chancellor’s district is an indication that ideology is more important than results.

Like her counterparts here in New York,Ms. Parker’s success has fallen victim to regime change. Under the Bloomberg/Klein restructuring, the Chancellor’s District is now history, and the schools that thrived using traditional methods must conform to the city’s “uniform curriculum” mandating the use of “balanced literacy.”

In Rockford, a new superintendent came on board, and brought on a deputy for instruction who is a believer in “progressive” programs, like the former deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in New York, Diana K. Lam, and her successor, Carmen Fariña.

The new district leadership ordered the Rockford schools to return to the balanced literacy program that had been abandoned as a failure at the Lewis Lemon School years earlier. This was too much for Ms. Parker, who, citing a “moral obligation” to her students, refused to give up the instructional methods that had lifted scores at her school.

So the Rockford district administration has stripped her of her instructional authority, giving those powers to a reading coordinator. This does not sit well with parents at the school or some of the school board members.

One unhappy board member is Michael Williams, who said, “We need to support those administrators who are getting results. Why mess with success?”

This is an example of the pervasiveness of the true monopoly in public education. Far more powerful than the teachers unions or the bureaucrats is the university-institutional complex, the schools of education and nonprofit foundations. They dictate the instructional methodology even when their strategies defy logic.
This is why it is essential that in the revisions expected in the No Child Left Behind law, provisions that require scientifically validated teaching methods be strengthened.

Meanwhile, unless the school board acts when it meets next week, Ms. Parker will remain another casualty in the reading wars. Research demonstrates that Ms. Parker is right and the administration is wrong. But when we allow ideology to trump science, the best principals and teachers inevitably join the students as victims.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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