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...]

Windmills in San Diego

Tilting at Windmills is Richard Lee Colvin’s account of Alan Bersin’s struggle to remake San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005.

“San Diego became notorious for the fierce resistance of its teachers union, abetted by school board members, to any and all efforts at change,” writes Nathan Glazer in an Education Next review.

Like Joel Klein in New York City, Bersin left a law career to become a big-city superintendent. He persuaded Tony Alvarado, the former New York City schools chancellor, to become his director of instruction.

Alvarado clashed with the union over literacy coaches. He wanted coaches trained in method he’d found effective. The union wanted peer coaches to help teachers use whatever method they preferred.

Alvarado believed principals should observe classes. The union wanted advanced warning of a principal’s visit.

Teachers denounced Bersin as a “dictator.” While a 3-2 school board majority backed him, one board member called him a “gauleiter” when he proposed letting charter organizers run the worst-performing schools. (Glazer notes, she inaccurately said gauleiters were “Jews who worked for the Nazis [to shepherd] their own people into the trains” to the concentration camps.

Bersin persisted for six years, in time gaining the support of some teachers and principals. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found the improvement in reading “so definitive that San Diego’s efforts are well worth a look by other school districts in California and the nation.” Achievement gaps were narrowed significantly. But this was for elementary schools: similar efforts in high schools did not show the same results.

“If this is what it takes to make modest improvements in achievement levels and reduce achievement gaps, how often can we expect it to happen?” asks Glazer, a professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard.

No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

Fun with math at MoMath

An interactive Museum of Math dubbed MoMath is opening in New York City on Dec. 15 funded by a math-loving financial analyst named Glenn Whitney.

Math Midway, a traveling exhibition of math marvels, is touring science museums as a preview: Kids can “ride the square-wheeled tricycle, spin the universal wheel of chance or dare to challenge the ring of fire.” Also included: “mind-bending mirrors, terrific tessellations and perfectly packed patterns.”

MoMath will show that math matters, writes Daniel Willingham, who shows Joel Klein, the former New York schools chancellor, on the trike. (It “can be ridden smoothly on a track with inverted curves, calculated to keep the axles of the trike level.”)

Picture

Romney’s pick for Education: Jeb? Rhee?

With the Republican convention underway, it’s time to speculate about Romney’s pick for Education secretary. Over at Politics K-12, Alyson Klein writes that  former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the number one guess among GOP insiders. Bush wrote the foreword to Romney’s education plan and is the “godfather” of the state superintendents’ group “Chiefs for Change,” which has “had a major impact on state-level education policies.”

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota also is a top mentionee.

If Romney looks for a state superintendent, Tony Bennett of Indiana, a Chief for Change, and Tom Luna of Idaho are possibilities.

. . . given Romney’s dissing of the teacher’s unions, Luna’s got anti-union street cred to spare—his tires were slashed last year when he tried to raise class size and put merit pay in place.

Other folks are fans of New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, a registered Democrat who, works with a GOP governor (Tuesday’s keynote speaker, Chris Christie).

Former superintendents include Robert Scott (Texas), Paul Pastorek (Louisiana) and Lisa Graham Keegan (of Arizona).

Folks have also suggested that Romney could use the Education Department as the one place to stick a (non-state chief) Democrat, to show his administration can be bipartisan. The name that came up most often? Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein. Other folks suggested Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, who is now running the Students First juggernaut and will be in both Tampa and Charlotte. She’ll be at screenings of the parent-trigger movie “Won’t Back Down.”

The darkest of dark horses? Some of Klein’s Republican sources suggested Romney could ask Arne Duncan to stick around. “Even if it is a joke, it shows Duncan’s still got some cross-aisle credibility,” writes Klein.

But which one gets to be Crassus?

Via EducationNext, a little inside baseball for those of you following the ongoing reform wars: Klein, Moskowitz, and Rhee have joined forces in New York.  It looks like that’s where they’re going to make a stand.  According to the NYT:

Like the national group, the state branch will promote the expansion of charter schools and the firing of ineffective schoolteachers, while opposing tenure.

I should visit the concession stand and pick up some popcorn.  This is going to be good.  Anyone want anything while I’m up?

Bold dissenter — or burnable heretic?

The Dissenter in the New Republic (subscribers’ only) analyzes education historian Diane Ravitch’s turn against education reform ideas she’d once championed.

Author Kevin Carey seems to attribute Ravitch’s change of heart to her long-time partner’s rejection by Joel Klein. As a new chancellor, Klein started a training program for principals, ignoring the work of an existing and well-respected leadership academy run by Mary Butz, Ravitch’s partner.

Ravitch had good reason to distrust Klein and his reforms, writes Mike Petrilli.

. . . Diane had a point about Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein running schools as if they were “selling toothpaste.” The leadership academy was a perfect example. . . . like many reformers who distrust the reformers who came before them, he didn’t consider that Mary’s program might be worth building on, rather than replacing. And instead of recruiting experienced principals to run his new initiative, he went to corporate America for its funding and design.

Keep in mind that this was the same Joel Klein who was trashing the federal Reading First program for being too prescriptive, lavishing money on Lucy Calkins and her hare-brained “writing workshop” ideas, and arguing that the content of a particular curriculum didn’t matter; what was important was picking one and sticking to it. Klein was agnostic about the education side of education. And that (understandably) infuriated Diane.

. . .  she is right to be suspicious of a school reform movement that still, to this day, has little to say about matters of curriculum and pedagogy.

“Successful movements seek converts; unsuccessful movements hunt heretics,” responds Core Knowledge‘s Robert Pondiscio in an e-mail.
. . . Look, I disagree with Diane on choice and charters, among other things (lest I become the next heretic to be burned at the stake). But I remain deeply appreciative of her unchanged and unflinching support of a core curriculum, and enormously influenced by her overall body of work. The speculation that she would gainsay a life of scholarship merely for the cheap thrill of settling a personal grudge is just plain silly.
Indeed.

In a 1983 essay, “Scapegoating the Teachers,” Ravitch wrote:

It is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.

Ravitch was affiliated with the anti-communist left and was a friend of teachers’ union leader Al Shanker, Goldstein adds.

Both Goldstein and Alexander Russo raise the issue of sexism.

If it works, keep doing it

New York City wasted millions of dollars on bonuses for students and teachers with no effect on performance, writes Sol Stern in a New York Daily News op-ed.  Now a Core Knowledge reading program is succeeding in 10 Bronx and Queens elementary schools by teaching phonics and background knowledge to disadvantaged students. But there’s no guarantee the funding will be continued.

As chancellor of New York City schools, Joel Klein set up a comparison between the Core Knowledge pilot schools and similar schools using “balanced literacy.”

After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group.

The third-year results will be released in the fall. If the gains continue, logic says the program should be extended. But logic doesn’t always prevail.

On the other hand, New York City’s Education Department has ended a three-year bonus program for teachers and administrators because a RAND study found it had no effect on students’ or schools’ performance.

The case for (and against) commonality

We need higher and common education standards, argue former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The Common Core State Standards define what students need to know; they do not define how teachers should teach, or how students should learn. That is up to each state. And they are built on what we have learned from high-performing international competitors as well as the best practices in leading states.

. . . research shows that rigorous mastery of fractions is crucial for later math performance. The Common Core State Standards provide clear grade-by-grade goals for what students should know about fractions, built on the best practices of high-performing countries. In literacy, what most predicts college readiness is the ability to read and understand complex texts. The Common Standards set clear benchmarks for each grade for students reading sufficiently complex texts in English, history/social studies, science and technical subjects.

Bush and Klein make the case against common standards, contends Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog. They argue that states, not the federal government, should set education policy. But the feds have pushed states to adopt Common Core Standards by threatening loss of Title I funds; the testing consortia are federally funded.

Furthermore, what’s so great about commonality?

If states should lead the way, if what we want is a decentralized 50-state laboratory of democracy, why not actually do that instead of rounding up all the states to all do it one way?

I wish a few states with strong standards and an established test, such as Massachusetts, had resisted pressure to jump on the Common Core bandwagon. It would be nice to see a few laboratories of democracy.

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. [Read more...]