Disaster, step one

New York City schools are adopting “progressive,” reading and math programs that haven’t proven effective, especially for disadvantaged children whose parents can’t supplement their education at home. Despite a traditionalist mayor and his hand-picked chancellor, progressive educators are hostile to direct instruction by teachers and rote learning of phonics or basic math skills, writes James Traub in a first-rate New York Times story. Children are supposed to learn easily, naturally, painlessly and “authentically,” thanks to their innate love of learning. It all sounds lovely. Traub explains the reality.

”Balanced literacy” is usually understood as some combination of fundamentals and experiences of reading and writing meant to promote deeper understanding. In practice, it often involves a great deal of the latter, and not very much of the former.

In a training session, teachers are told not to teach skills but rather to provide opportunities for students to learn “authentically.” For example, children are natural writers who should be encouraged to express their experiences and emotions.

A small, energetic woman, (trainer Lucy) Calkins strode rapidly in from the wings and began by asking the teachers to think of happy and unhappy memories of writing. One raised her hand and said that her happiest memory of writing was keeping a journal while her father was dying and her unhappiest was having to write term papers in college. Instead of making a case for analytic writing, Ms. Calkins seized on the woman’s preference to make her central point: ”What works for us is writing that is personal,” she said. Ms. Calkins told inspiring stories about children who had used writing to surface buried hopes and fears. The audience drew pictures to illustrate a memorable experience — an exercise for beginning writers. Even in the case of nonnarrative writing, she said, ”it doesn’t have to be a book report; it doesn’t have to be about ancient Greece.” That was her only reference to book reports. She never once used the words ”vocabulary,” ”knowledge” or ”analysis.”

Four city school districts with the greatest growth in reading scores use Open Court or Success for All, both teacher-directed, systematic, phonics-first programs. Progressives call this “drill and kill.” But students learn to decode, so they can go on to work on comprehension without having to guess at new words. New York will use a nearly unknown whole language program with a deceptive title, Month by Month Phonics. After protests by reading experts, the district added a back-up phonics program for students who fall behind.

The district also is adopting Everyday Math, which Traub calls the best of the constructivist math programs. Principals and teachers working in low-income areas say their students need more structure and basic skills; their teachers aren’t trained to make constructivist math work either. This is an important point. It’s hard enough to find elementary teachers who can teach math well the easy way. Everyday Math asks them to teach it indirectly, with students who don’t know the basics (but they have calculators!) trying to understand concepts.

Traub doesn’t come right out and say that New York City schools are heading for disaster. But he sure implies it.

About Joanne