To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.
Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.
Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.
While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:
“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”
Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.
Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought.
Balanced Literacy begins with a belief in the ultimate expertise of the child. The child is already a reader, a writer; he or she just has to learn how to be “professional.” To that end, a lesson will present some nugget on “what good readers do” or “what good writers do” and then put the children to work in groups. They will all do this good thing that they’re supposed to do–maybe well, maybe poorly–and come back together again at the end of the lesson to share the fact that they did this good thing.
The irony is that the advanced and motivated student will suffer in this setup, because everyone’s talking about the process, the strategy, not the subject matter itself. And there is no escape.
Charts and slogans on the walls, mantras at professional development sessions; these things and more remind students and teachers that this is the way to do things and that other methods are relics of the industrial era. In a blistering article in City Journal, Sol Stern notes:
Under the rubric of “professional development,” DOE central headquarters launched an aggressive campaign to force teachers to teach literacy and math only one way—the progressive way. Each of the city’s 80,000 teachers got a six-hour CD-ROM laying out the philosophy behind the new standardized curriculum and pedagogy. The CD portrayed the world of progressive education writ large, with all its romantic assumptions about how children learn.
Nothing wrong with having a touch of the romantic in you; most teachers do. But Balanced Literacy insists you do, in a most unromantic and industrial way.
Now for the group work. When everyone’s talking at once, in multiple groups, the emphasis is on talking itself, not on the substance of what’s being said. In contrast, whole-class discussion allows for sustained, focused pursuit of an idea. There’s room for listening and thinking; there’s room for pitching in. One of the great gifts of the whole-class discussion (if conducted properly) is that it helps students learn to determine when they have something to say and when they don’t.
In addition, small group work (taken too far) drags down the intellectual level of the lesson. Because it can easily turn into plain socializing, Balanced Literacy teachers keep the students accountable by giving them a “task”–and sometimes assigning specific roles, such as note-taker, timekeeper, etc. Instead of discussing what’s subtle about Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” students might have to make a list of images and their own associations with them. Because there’s pressure to get the task done, unusual ideas may be shut out. (John Jewkes alluded to such a danger in a fascinating 1958 article on the nature of invention.)
Now, group work has its place; it is well suited to certain kinds of lessons and topics. I use it sometimes. I would not call for abolishing it. But Balanced Literacy insists on it–and thereby constrains instruction and makes the classroom noisy. One of the noisiest manifestations is the “turn and talk” activity–which may be fine for some situations but which, when overused, emphasizes talking over thinking.
For all these reasons and more, Chancellor Fariña should not call for more Balanced Literacy in NYC schools. Instead, she should call for attention to the subject matter–because when the substance is at the center, good methods and approaches can form around it.
Note: I made a correction to the second paragraph after posting this piece.