A return to “Death and Life”

I have been enjoying my recent return to Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010). I have read the book many, many times; I edited it and was research assistant during the final stages of revision. After dozens of readings, the book remains absorbing, invigorating, and beautiful.

As I read it this time, it occurs to me that the central error of Balanced Literacy is very similar to the error of implementing Balanced Literacy (or any other model) across a system. Ravitch’s book draws an implicit and compelling parallel between the two errors.

Balanced Literacy makes the mistake of putting the “strategy” at the center of instruction. Ravitch describes the approach in chapter 3:

Teachers are supposed to teach the prescribed strategies and procedures, and the students (alone or in groups) are expected to practice their reading strategies and refer to them by name. A student might say, for example, “I am visualizing,” “I am summarizing,” “I am making a text-to-self connection,” “I am making a prediction,” or “I am making an inference.”

The emphasis on strategies is misguided (in my opinion). Reading strategies, taught and applied generically, can distract from the text and distort its meaning. What’s more, one learns much more about literature from close reading of specific literature than from instruction in the strategies themselves. The strategy approach is supposed to apply to all students and texts, but each text should be approached on its own terms. Of course, patterns and general practices do emerge, but they come out of the careful reading and attentive listening.

So there’s the central error: taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.

A similar error can be found in the very act of mandating Balanced Literacy across a district. Ravitch describes how Balanced Literacy migrated from District 2 in New York City to the entire school system of San Diego and then back to New York City as a whole.

In District 2, Superintendent Anthony Alvarado made sure “his principals and teachers were trained in Balanced Literacy and used only the new methods. Those who did not were quietly encouraged to transfer to other districts. Over the course of his eleven-year tenure in District 2, Alvarado replaced two-thirds of the district’s principals and about half the teacher workforce.”

Sounds harsh, no? Well, he was relatively gentle and considerate at the time. Once he moved to San Diego, he and city superintendent Alan D. Bersin made Balanced Literacy the law of the land. Teachers and principals had to put up or leave (or get fired).

Many principals and teachers did not like the changes. During the Bersin years, 90 percent of the district’s principals were replaced. Teacher attrition was high. … Altogether, more than a third of the district’s teachers left between 1998 and 2005. Some scholars thought this offered “real advantages for reform” because those who enter the district knowing about its program are less likely to offer resistance and “are likely to be believers.”

The New York City part is well known: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein mandated Balanced Literacy in all elementary and middle schools and required that all follow the “workshop model.” Some regions were more heavy-handed than others, but in many schools, every lesson had to consist of a mini-lesson, group or independent work, and final “share.” (It appears that the workshop model has loosened up a little since then, but many schools still require it.)

As in the Balanced Literacy classroom itself, education leaders took a flawed model and demanded that all teachers implement it, regardless of what they were actually teaching. They thought “literacy” was a subject. It is not. There’s reading instruction, grammar, and literature, none of which is well served by Balanced Literacy, at least not across the board. (Yes, Balanced Literacy includes some of each of these, but not nearly enough, as it places overwhelming emphasis on strategies.)

Over the past few years, Balanced Literacy seems to have lost its glamor. Those who supported it full force don’t bring it up. Joel Klein doesn’t mention it once in his lengthy article in The Atlantic. Perhaps some reformers recognize that it was a mistake. But the error continues in different forms.

The error, which Death and Life describes so well, consists of taking a model and applying it indiscriminately to a wide variety of situations, be they texts or classrooms. Race to the Top pushes a bundle of reforms whose viability has not been demonstrated and which may do considerable harm. The Common Core State Standards are a mixture, in my view—promising in some ways, problematic in others.

If there’s one lesson I take from Diane Ravitch’s book (and her previous books, such as Left Back and The Troubled Crusade), it’s that prudence should never be discouraged or postponed. No one should ever be ashamed of pausing to think. We must always be willing to look skeptically at models and seek approaches that suit the situations at hand.


  1. I haven’t yet read something by you (& I admit I’m relatively new to your work) that doesn’t make perfect sense and isn’t perfectly thoughtful & reasonable.

    Looking forward to reading more. . .

  2. Diana,

    I share your admiration for Ravitch’s book and your discomfort with heavy-handed policy mandates and once-size-fits-all teaching models. But I think your argument goes wrong when you try to make a firm distinction between the teaching of generic strategies and instruction in specific subject matter.

    Sure, educators often make the mistake of “taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.” That’s what I’d call *bad* literacy instruction. In the worst cases, it becomes the sort of intellectually vapid exercise that has always made E.D. Hirsch hot under the collar. But that’s not a problem that’s inherent to literacy instruction per se, is it?

    Sooner or later, don’t you have to teach some generic, broadly applicable skills (or strategies, or whatever you want to call them) that suit a wide range of particular situations, not only within subject areas but across them, as well?

    No, the ed psych research hasn’t been kind, so far, to those who assume that skills transfer easily across domains, but there’s a lot of life left in that debate — e.g., what do we mean by “skills,” exactly, or “transfer,” or “domain”? — and those of use who aim to teach that sort of flexibility aren’t ready to concede.

    It may not be useful to spend a semester teaching students to summarize or visualize or make text-to-self connections in the abstract, but it could be useful (and is in fact useful, according to the National Reading Panel) to ask both the history and the biology teacher to show specific students how to summarize specific texts and, more important, to introduce them to terms such as “summarizing” and to encourage them to use that more-or-less generic strategy when they get stuck on texts in English, algebra, and other classes, too.

    Okay, I’m probably reading more into your blog than you intended. I get antsy, though, when people insist that literacy is not a subject.

    I agree that it’s not one of the familiar course titles — like algebra, biology, U.S history, or English/language arts (whatever *that* means). But it most certainly is a subject worthy of study.

    And, for that matter, maybe literacy (taught well, not like the Balanced Literacy model that you describe) should in fact be defined as one of the core courses of study. After all, one version of generic literacy instruction — Rhetoric — has been treated as a core discipline (and often taught quite well indeed) for more than a couple thousand years.

  3. Rachel, thank you for the kind words.

    Rafael, thank you too. I enjoy a good challenge, and you’ve given me one. You are perfectly right–there are skills that transfer across domains. But one learns how they transfer by delving into the specifics.

    Take, for example, the skill of picking up on contradictions in a poem. Many poems have contradictions; it’s a way of pulling the reader into meanings that go beyond the obvious. But not all poems have them, and not all poems show them in the same way. Sometimes the contradictions are blatant, sometimes very subtle. Sometimes they are between various things said; sometimes they come up as friction between form and meaning.

    So, looking for contradictions may well be a “strategy” of sorts. But one learns it only through close reading of poetry. And in some cases it just won’t apply.

    As for “literacy” being a subject or not a subject, I believe that depends largely on how it is defined. I am wary of it when it does not involve close reading of specific texts–that is, when students are sent off to read their various texts at their various levels. But when it takes concrete forms, such as instruction in rhetoric, it makes room for all sorts of interesting things within a defined domain.

    I wish there were more rhetoric instruction. There’s a wonderful book, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, by Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, which I would eagerly include in a course. The selections are excellent, and the principles are presented in a compelling manner. But it is quite advanced for a high school course. Students would need considerable knowledge and skill in order to tackle something like this.

  4. Diana: there are a number of good introductory rhetoric books out there now aimed specifically at the AP English Language course. I’m partial to Everything’s an Argument, which is what I use (with lots of supplements).

    I think summarizing is a helpful specific skill — text-to-self much less so.