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24th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 24, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The other day I discovered a shocking bit of news — that Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teachers College, was a classmate of mine at the Bronx High School of Science, and, I believe, at Creston Junior High, also known as J.H.S. 79. How could a product of the successful pedagogy practiced by those institutions have become a leading advocate of tearing down the very programs responsible for his own success?

Readers of this column know that I believe in the type of traditional education I — and Mr. Levine — received during these “golden days” of the New York City Public Schools back in the 1950s and 1960s.

We learned how to read using basal readers like “Fun with Dick and Jane.” We memorized multiplication tables. Our teachers used a timetested method I have since learned is called “teacher-directed instruction.” Teachers typically stood in the front of the classroom, lectured, and scribbled notes on the blackboard to illustrate their points.
Bright children were grouped together in accelerated classes, and children who lagged behind got help by attending classes with others having similar difficulties.This enabled teachers to focus their instruction to a narrower spectrum of need. Some students were so advanced that they were permitted to skip whole grades.There was no guilt about the concept of meritocracy in administering the tests that determined which students would attend the “elite” specialized high schools such as Bronx Science.

All of this seemed quite natural, and it seemed to work.Yes,it was true that some students failed, but not nearly as many as today. Some children may have felt badly about not being in an advanced class, but I suspect they got over their disappointments, learning important lessons about life along the way.

Most of this kind of instruction is now history — largely due to the efforts of the institution Mr. Levine now leads, Columbia Teachers College.

In January, Mr. Levine penned a dispatch that appeared in the Daily News, attacking the federal government for funding only those reading programs demonstrated to work by scientific research.The rejection of Tweed’s Teachers Collegeendorsed “balanced literacy”program days earlier was the genesis of his piece. Americans are finally looking at test scores and questioning the “progressive” theology of Teachers College.

Rejecting scientifically validated programs is not the kind of thing that the young Arthur Levine learned at the Bronx High School of Science. I distinctly remember my science teachers, Mrs.Goldreich,Mrs.Frank,Mr.Skutelsky,and Mr. Heitner, insist on the use of the scientific method to draw conclusions.

Mr. Levine’s column annoyed me and I wrote a response calling him and his colleagues at Teachers College “the Education-School Alchemists,” suggesting that they “have found a way to turn the lead of failed reading strategies into real gold — gold for them, but continued failure for our children.” For Teachers College gets millions in city money to train teachers using the very “progressive” methods that have been rejected as ineffective by scientific study.

Rather than take my constructive criticism to heart and return to his Bronx educational roots, Mr. Levine responded angrily to my piece, misleadingly citing the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.The misuse of test data to justify success or explain away failure is a common tactic used by the defenders of the failed educational status quo.In this case,the test in question was administered before Joel Klein even became chancellor and his citywide “balanced literacy” program was put in place.

I was annoyed again last week when the New York Times reported that Mr. Levine described educational historian Diane Ravitch as an “ideologue.” For anyone from Teachers College, the Politburo of “progressive” educational theology, to call anyone else an ideologue is comic.

I assume that this charge has its roots in Ms. Ravitch’s prior service at the U.S. Department of Education in the administration of President Bush the elder.That she was also appointed to the NAEP governors by a Democratic president, William Clinton, is conveniently ignored. Also ignored is the fact that she has been a visiting scholar at both the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative Hoover Institution.This doesn’t sound like an ideologue to me.

In the 2002 Teachers College Annual Report, Mr.Levine writes about his old neighborhood.He has gone back to the apartment he lived in as a boy, and has befriended the occupant of his old room, a young man named Jesus. Mr. Levine is outraged by the condition of local schools, asserting that “no child should ever be forced to attend the kind of middle school Jesus and his classmates attended.” I agree.

But what Mr. Levine needs to admit is the destructive role of his own institution in this awful situation.The old neighborhood is part of District 10, one of 32 in our city. For more than a decade, the district has been slavishly following the pedagogical programs advanced byTeachers College. Millions have been spent on these programs.The results remain awful.

Maybe Mr. Levine needs to look back to his own childhood and concede that the kind of instruction that he and I enjoyed and thrived under may hold answers for Jesus and the other children who now follow in our footsteps.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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