Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

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. [Read more...]

What do tests measure?

What do tests measure? The NY Times’ Room for Debate blog asks for opinions on whether New York City’s rising test scores are meaningful. Sandra Stotsky, who led the development of Massachusetts’ state exams, notes that all countries test K-12 students at some point.

If the test requires students to do something academically valuable — to demonstrate comprehension of high quality reading passages at an appropriate level of complexity and difficulty for the students’ grade, for example — then, of course, “teaching to the test” is appropriate. That is exactly what we want English or history teachers to do.

However, her evaluation of New York’s grade 8 reading selections found “the test was assessing the ability to understand passages more appropriate for grades 4 and 5.”

On City Journal, Marc Epstein lambastes the New York Regents exam, which is scored to give the greatest weight to subjective questions.

. . . This year, for example, a cartoon of John D. Rockefeller holding the White House in the palm of his hand prompts the question: “What is the cartoonist’s point of view concerning the relationship between government and industrialists such as Rockefeller?” Another question deals with a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt hunting bears. He’s holding a submissive bear with the name “good trust” on a leash while stepping on the carcass of a dead bear with the name “bad trust.” The question: “What was President Roosevelt’s policy towards trusts?”

The Global History Regents isn’t much better. A reading excerpt about child-labor abuse in nineteenth-century England begins with a sentence that reads in part, “it has always been a general reflection, that the children were very great sufferers, and seemed sickly and unhealthy.” The question: “According to Dr. Agnew, what is one impact the Industrial Revolution had on children?” Any answer that contains “suffer,” “sick,” or “unhealthy” will earn points.

The test is “gamed” to jack up scores and pass rates, writes Epstein, who is a high school teacher.

Vouchers for disabled students

Special education vouchers would enable parents of disabled students to shop for the services their child needs, writes Jay P. Greene in City Journal. Currently, parents have to deal with a system that promises services but often fails to deliver.  Some become aggressive advocates for their children; most accept what they get.

Every student identified as disabled could get a voucher worth no more money than the public schools would spend to educate that child (with more severely disabled students receiving more generous vouchers). Students could then use the vouchers to attend private school if they wanted. No one would have to use the vouchers, and students choosing to remain in public schools would retain all the rights they already have there. Disabled students would simply gain a mechanism — a market mechanism — to help them make their rights a reality.

Vouchers could save money, since private schools tend to be cheaper than public schools.

In Florida, for instance, where a special-ed voucher program is already operating, the average cost of a voucher for disabled students is $7,206—far below what taxpayers spend for the average special-ed student in public school.

Second, vouchers reduce the public schools’ tendency to move ever more students into special education, including many who aren’t in fact disabled but are disruptive or just struggling academically. . . .  schools may think twice about overidentifying disabilities for financial reasons if, every time they do so, they risk losing students and all their funding to private schools.

“Florida public schools have indeed become somewhat more reluctant to classify students as disabled with the increased availability of vouchers,” writes Greene, who studied the Florida system with Marcus Winters. The found Florida students are more likely to receive appropriate services in private schools and are less likely to be bullied.

The voucher program serves a representative distribution of disabled students, so that students with more severe disabilities, as well as students from low-income or minority backgrounds, can find what they need in private schools, just as their more advantaged counterparts can. . . . Finally, the public schools feel some competitive pressure to improve their own services for disabled students, even as they become more restrained in categorizing students as disabled. In fact, Winters and I found that achievement levels for disabled students remaining in the public schools improved significantly when those students had more options to leave.

Georgia, Ohio and Utah are using special-ed vouchers as well.

Vouchers for low-income students also could save inner-city Catholic schools, which offer an alternative to black and Hispanic students, writes Patrick J. McCloskey, author of The Street Stops Here. These schools have been closing, unable to cover their costs with donations or tuition.

(Vouchers) save money, too, since the public school system spends about $20,000 annually on each student, while the Catholic schools achieve their superior results for about $5,500 per urban elementary school student and $8,500 per high schooler. (An adequate voucher would cost slightly more, say $6,500 for elementary school and $9,500 for high school students, to include funding for remedial education for many current public schoolers.)

Of course,  teachers’ unions would fight hard against vouchers.

Master's pay bump is waste of money

Paying teachers more for a master’s degree wastes money, conclude researchers Marguerite Roza and Raegen Miller in Separation of Degrees by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Center for American Progress.

On average, master’s degrees in education bear no relation to student achievement. Master’s degrees in math and science have been linked to improved student achievement in those subjects, but 90 percent of teachers’ master’s degrees are in education programs — a notoriously unfocused and process-dominated course of study.

In New York, 78 percent of teachers hold master’s degrees, costing an extra $416 per student or $1.12 billion a year.

Teacher pay should be aligned to their ability to boost student achievement, Roza and Miller conclude.

On City Journal, Sol Stern has “seven achievable reforms” in the New York City teachers’ union contract.

. . . (Mayor) Bloomberg’s six-year school-spending binge . . .  fattened the education budget from $12.7 billion in 2003 to $21 billion this year — probably the greatest increase by a school district in the history of American education. The UFT was complicit in the spending, since it reaped a 43 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, an identical hike for the union’s executives and managers, and a commensurate increase in union dues.

One suggestion is to tear up the “irrational salary schedule” and replace it with “a formula that plausibly links pay raises to real academic accomplishment and classroom skills.”

Performance pay is powerful

If we Get Performance Pay Right, it will transform schools, argues William Slotnick on Education Week.

Performance-based compensation . . . must be tied directly to the educational mission of a district and must focus on how a school system thinks and behaves—specifically in the areas of student learning, teacher support and rewards, and institutional culture.

. . . Linking teacher compensation to student performance stimulates discussion about the district’s goals for student achievement and what factors need to be addressed to reach those goals. This in turn leads to change.

Doing it right requires building trust between administrators and teachers, writes Slotnick of the Institute for Compensation Reform and Student Learning.

How do we evaluate teachers’ performance? Collect and analyze the data, writes Marcus Winters in City Journal. The data-crunching techniques that helped New York City police fight crime can be used in education, he argues.

Currently, 21 states have data systems capable of matching teachers to students. Duncan has pledged to use his discretionary funds under the federal stimulus package to get more states to do the same. It seems like a no-brainer. After all, who’s against having more information?

The teachers’ unions, that’s who. They’re fighting hard against the adoption of these systems precisely because the information they reveal is so useful. The unions insist, against all evidence and logic, that no meaningful variation exists in teacher quality. Further, in a clear case of making the perfect the enemy of the good, they argue that because test scores are a limited measure of student proficiency and statistical models for evaluating teacher quality are imperfect, the information that data-system analyses produce for individual teachers are not ready for prime time.

Without the use of data linking teachers to their students’ performance, there’s no meaningful evaluation of teachers’ effectiveness, Winters writes. A teacher may be observed once or twice a year — less in some states.  In a study of large school districts by the nonprofit New Teacher Project, over 99 percent of teachers were rated “satisfactory.” NTP calls this failure to distinguish between excellent, good, fair and poor teachers The Widget Effect.

From cop to teacher

The Teacher of the Year for 2009, Anthony Mullen, spent 21 years as a New York City police officer before starting a second career as a special education teacher working with the kind of would-be tough kids he once arrested. He hopes to focus on lowering the dropout rate by encouraging options. Teacher Magazine has a great interview with Mullen, who’s focusing on dropout prevention.


It’s important that every student gets an academic background, but we’ve lost vocational education. Most of our high schools are geared towards getting students into college. And yet we have this population of students—millions of students, literally—who want to do what our ancestors have done for thousands of years: They want to work with their hands. They don’t want to sit in a desk all day. They want to build, they want to create, they want to design. And we’re losing that because we’re so concerned that they take the extra science, the extra math, the extra history and all these things to go to college when all these vocational opportunities are passing them by.

Speaking of cops in the classroom, Los Angeles is seeing high graduation rates at its police-affiliated magnet schools, reports City Journal. Most students come from low-income Hispanic families.


Discipline is strict, a communal priority. Reseda organizes cadets into squads of five to eight, each supervised by a student leader. The leaders make sure that their cadets get their work done, keep their grades up, behave in class, and dress neatly.

So far, few graduates have gone on to become police officers, perhaps because there’s a three- to four-year gap between high school and eligibility to join the force.

Oppressive pedagogy

In Pedagogy of the Oppressor in City Journal, Sol Stern takes on Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has become a staple in teacher-training programs. It’s not actually about education, Stern writes. There’s no mention of  “testing, standards, curriculum, the role of parents, how to organize schools, what subjects should be taught in various grades, how best to train teachers, the most effective way of teaching disadvantaged students.”

This ed-school bestseller is, instead, a utopian political tract calling for the overthrow of capitalist hegemony and the creation of classless societies.

. . . His idiosyncratic theory of schooling refers only to the growing self-awareness of exploited workers and peasants who are “unveiling the world of oppression.”

A Marxist professor in Brazil, Freire “organized adult-literacy campaigns for disenfranchised peasants” to get them to elect radical candidates.  After the 1964 military coup and a stint in jail, Freire was exiled to Chile.

Freire believed that all education is political and that teaching academic subject matter “serves to rationalize inequality within capitalist society,” writes Stern.

One of Freire’s most widely quoted metaphors dismisses teacher-directed instruction as a misguided “banking concept,” in which “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.” Freire proposes instead that teachers partner with their coequals, the students, in a “dialogic” and “problem-solving” process until the roles of teacher and student merge into “teacher-students” and “student-teachers.”

Progressive educators in the U.S. loved it.

Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

But political, content-free education hasn’t proven liberating for poor and minority students learn, writes Stern. The “pedagogy of the oppressed” keeps them poor, uneducated and easily oppressed.

Check out the debate in Core Knowledge’s comments about whether Freire is still influential.

Unions kill vouchers, go after charters

Teachers’ unions have declared war on charter schools, writes Jay P. Greene in the Wall Street Journal. The unions are fighting on two fronts:  While seeking to deny charter funding, they’re also trying to unionize charter teachers.

Studies have shown students who win charter school lotteries do better than those who seek a charter education, lose the lottery to get in and have to attend district-run schools, Greene writes.  A study by Harvard economist Tom Kane also looked at Boston’s district-run, unionized charters, known as “pilot schools.”

. . . students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit.

When charter schools unionize, they become identical to traditional public schools in performance. Unions may say they support charter schools, but they only support charters after they have stripped them of everything that makes charters different from district schools.

“Vouchers made the world safe for charters by drawing union fire,” Greene writes. Now that the unions have beaten back vouchers — pressuring congressional Democrats to defund the successful and popular voucher program in Washington, D.C. –  they can unionize, regulate and starve the charter schools.

The American Federation of Teachers is working hard to unionize three Chicago charter schools run by a non-profit, notes This Week in Education.

Marcus Winters writes on KIPP vs. the Teachers’ Unions on City Journal.

Are books dangerous?

Children’s books published before 1985 are dangerous, unless cleared by expensive tests, say federal consumer product regulators.  Many used-book sellers and secondhand store owners are refusing pre-1985 books and clearing them off the shelves, writes Walter Olson of Overlawyered  in City Journal. There are reports of older books being thrown away. It’s illegal to give “dangerous” books, not just to sell them.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 limits lead in products intended for use by children aged 12 or under; the limits are retroactive. The law went into effect on Feb. 10.

The law has hit thrift stores particularly hard, since many children’s products have long included lead-containing (if harmless) components: zippers, snaps, and clasps on garments and backpacks; skateboards, bicycles, and countless other products containing metal alloy; rhinestones and beads in decorations; and so forth. Combine this measure with a new ban (also retroactive) on playthings and child-care articles that contain plastic-softening chemicals known as phthalates, and suddenly tens of millions of commonly encountered children’s items have become unlawful to resell, presumably destined for landfills when their owners discard them. Penalties under the law are strict and can include $100,000 fines and prison time, regardless of whether any child is harmed.

Some pre-1985 books used lead pigments in illustrations, Olson writes. Tests can detect lead residues, but there’s no evidence that any child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations; book pigments don’t flake off the page. But booksellers are afraid of liability, writes Olson, quoting a commenter at Etsy, a vintage-goods site.

I just came back from my local thrift store with tears in my eyes! I watched as boxes and boxes of children’s books were thrown into the garbage! Today was the deadline and I just can’t believe it! Every book they had on the shelves prior to 1985 was destroyed! I managed to grab a 1967 edition of “The Outsiders” from the top of the box, but so many.

The American Library Association argues libraries can distribute pre-1985 books without expensive testing. But libraries may have to comply too.

One CPSC commissioner, Thomas Moore, has already called for libraries to “sequester” some undefinedly large fraction of pre-1985 books until more is known about their risks.

Of all the risks facing American children, old books must rank very, very low.

Kids’ dirt bikes and ATVs also are banned under the law because of metal alloys used in the tire valves and batteries. If this stuff is dangerous, it’s not because kids are licking the tire valves.

Tragedy: NYC loses Catholic schools

The closing of Catholic schools in New York City is a tragedy, writes Sol Stern on City Journal. The Street Stops Here by Patrick J. McCloskey explains why. McCloskey writes about Rice High School, which educates black boys in central Harlem.

No security guards or metal detectors greet them at the doors. But the boys remove their do-rags and hooded sweatshirts and presto, they become Rice men, with pressed slacks, oxford shirts and ties, and green Rice jackets. “The ritual is almost sacramental,” McCloskey writes. “The young men lose their street swagger and transform into students not much different than their peers at suburban, predominantly white Catholic schools.”

Rice’s teachers and administrators work hard to create “a counterculture of middle-class values and an ethos of hard work,”  Stern writes. That’s the  “Catholic-school advantage,” which the successful charter schools have learned from.

Though most ninth graders start out two years behind in reading and math, they gradually catch up to grade level.

Rice’s graduation rate is a legitimate 90 percent, compared with the public schools’ rate of 50 to 60 percent—despite per-pupil spending in the city’s public high schools triple that of Rice’s. Most Rice graduates go on to some form of higher education.

There are plans to convert some Brooklyn’s Catholic schools into publicly funded charter schools, as was done in D.C.  If it works, other boroughs may follow suit.

My book, Our School, is about a public, secular charter school that also has the Catholic-school advantage. The bishop once called it “the best Catholic school in San Jose.”