‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.

Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.

Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.

Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.

Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”

He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.

Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”

Weaker teachers leave under new tenure policy

Ineffective teachers were more likely to leave voluntarily after New York City principals got tougher on awarding tenure, according to a working paper by Stanford researchers. After a new policy was adopted in 2009-10, few teachers were denied tenure but many more had their probationary period extended instead of receiving tenure.

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“Extended” teachers who were less effective — by principals’ judgments and value-added measures — were the most likely to leave, reports Ed Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck. They were replaced by stronger teachers, on average.

The district started supplying more data on teachers to principals, asking them to weigh performance observations, reviews of teachers’ lesson plans, and in limited instances “value-added” data based on test scores. And it began requiring principals to justify their decisions about whether to grant or deny tenure—particularly if it didn’t match up with the data. Principals could also extend the tenure decision for another year if they weren’t ready to make a final call.

The new policy improved the overall quality of the teaching force, the study concluded.

Teachers in schools with high concentrations of black and low-performing students were more likely to be “extended,” the study found. “We have a chicken-and-the-egg problem here,” said United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley. “Were people less likely to have probation extended because their kids are more successful, or is it the other way around?”

Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.

Separate and gifted?

Eliminate gifted tracks in New York City, argue Halley Potter of the Century Foundation and David Tipson of New York Appleseed in the New York Times Room for Debate blog.

Seventy percent of the city’s gifted and talented (G&T) kindergarteners are white and Asian, while 70 percent of students are black and Latino, they write.

“Segregation” harms the education of low-income students. they argue. “At the same time, affluent white and Asian students in the city’s separate G&T classrooms are also denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms offer.”

Gifted children won’t “be fine” in mixed-ability classes, responds Rick Hess.

. . . we’re putting much at risk when we simply hope that overburdened classroom teachers can provide the teaching and learning that gifted children need. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well.

Students do best in classrooms with students of similar ability, researcher Bruce Sacerdote writes. “We know from data, from theory and, most important, from decades of experience that ability grouping or tracking can have a big payoff. . . . High-ability students benefit the most from high-ability peers.

NYC: Cheating or sympathy?

“Scores on English Regents exams for high schoolers plummeted” when New York City barred teachers from grading tests given at their own school, reports the New York Daily News. Passing rates dropped at 373 out of 490 schools and the failure rate on English exams rose from 27 percent to 35 percent. That change was “not reflected in the other nine Regents subjects.”

At Harlem Renaissance High School 69% of students passed English in 2012. In 2013, only 37% passed. “Teachers helped us out a little bit. They gave us credit for trying,” said senior Morrell Christian, 19, recalling the good old days. “If you needed extra points they gave them to you. That changed when they couldn’t mark their own tests.

Evaluating essays is subjective, teachers told the Daily News. While “grade inflation was rampant,” it wasn’t cheating, they said.

“Teachers know their students. Sometimes a bad grade means the student giving you hell again next year, or him not getting a scholarship,” said one teacher at a Brooklyn school. “There’s a form of empathy coming out. Like, ‘Oh my God, there has to be another point in there! Let’s find it.’”

Many said teachers were “encouraged to grade the exams generously so more students would graduate.” That helped students, but raising graduation rates also could keep a school from closing and earn the principal a “fat bonus.”

Don’t blame measurements for cheating, writes Matt Yglesias on Vox. He’s responding to tweets by Chris Hayes, who “offers a take on the VA scandal that’s calculated to warm the hearts of America’s teachers unions,” writes Yglesias. Hayes writes:

Current VA story is a classic example how metrics ordered from above often just lead to books being cooked rather than better performance . . . See juking crime stats, Atlanta standardized test cheating scandal, etc…

Yglesias wonders if  “a person who cheats in response to an incentive program the kind of person who’s going to do amazing work in the absence of an incentive program . . . If a data-based framework is imperfect, is going to a data-free one any better?”

Alise vs. the Mayor

Alise vs. the Mayor the first in a pro-charter mini-series, pits a cute 10-year-old girl who loves reading against Mayor Bill deBlasio, who tried to close her school. Alise Alexander is a student at Success Academy‘s Harlem Central.

The school’s fifth graders — nearly all black and Latino and more than three-quarters from low-income families — scored first in the state in math in 2013 notes The Blaze.

A HuffPost story on public school “apartheid” complains that a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school is better equipped, more cheerful and serves a much better lunch than the ones district students get.

(At the Promise Academy charter), the brightly lit hallway is decorated with the student’s artwork. Every class has three teachers, 20 students and an abundance of computers, lab equipment and books. More grown-ups monitor the hallways.

One floor up is public middle school 469. It is Depression-era Kansas to the Promise Academy’s Oz. The hallway is grim, undecorated, and poorly lit. A group of older boys shove one another against lockers, which are mainly unused because they are too easy to break into, and a gaggle of eighth grade girls are huddled together whispering, plotting, gossiping. There are several hundred children bursting with energy and one security guard at one end of the hallway leaning against the wall.

The classrooms are largely devoid of books and equipment. One room has square black tables pushed together into groups suggesting a scientific purpose. It is easy to imagine beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners, but that was a long time ago, before the kids threw the scalding beakers at one another and a teacher.

. . . At some point, we tacitly consented to the notion that providing only 20 percent of the children in Harlem, those that win the lottery and go to charter schools, with adequate teachers, equipment and food, is a morally acceptable public policy.

The story is nonsense, writes Robert Pondiscio. He works for Democracy Prep, which runs a second charter school in the same building. “We run it on public dollars, at a per pupil rate that is lower, not more, than district schools.”

If the charters provide more for students than the district-run schools, why not expand the charters so more students can enjoy adequate teachers, equipment and food, plus lighting and supervision?

$33,500 per year to teach ‘napping’

Manhattan school for babies will charge $33,500 per year to teach “napping” and “play,” reports the Daily Mail. Explore+Discover is designed for babies and toddlers three to 23 months old.

The school day starts at 8am and finishes at 6pm. The schedule include morning explorations, music, story time, outdoor play, napping, the development of self-feeding skills and Spanish.

All of the teachers have master’s degrees in early childhood education. There will be three for every class of eight to 12 infants.

I assume it’s for two-career parents who’d otherwise hire a nanny, but 10 hours a day in “school” for babies?

When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.

Private school head hits ‘elite’ charters

In defense of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s anti-charter agenda,  Steve Nelson attacks charter schools for enrolling the children of motivated parents and taking money from wealthy donors Nelson is the headmaster of the Calhoun School, an elite private school in New York City.

. . .  the (charter) lottery is rigged in that the pool is comprised only of self-selected families with social capital and high motivation. They claim to operate with more efficiency, but their budgets are augmented by an infusion of capital from billionaire philanthropists and hedge fund managers who know a lot about PR and very little about education.

Charter schools and other “so-called” reforms  reform” will “divide us by creating pockets of relative privilege while leaving the rest of the nation’s children to languish in neglect and poverty,” writes Nelson.

So, all of the nation’s children who don’t attend charters are languishing in neglect and poverty? Or maybe it’s just the public school kids.

The Calhoun School is a “pocket of rather extraordinary privilege on Manhattan’s Upper West Side,” responds Robert Pondiscio on Facebook. Tuition runs from $41,700 in kindergarten to $43,580 in high school and parents are asked to donate more.

Calhoun’s board is full of wealthy financiers, points out Matthew Levey.  The chairman of the board runs a hedge fund, the vice-chair is a partner at a financial firm, the treasurer manages two investment funds, a board member is a portfolio manager and another is a broker.

We know what works, but it’s not easy

We Know (A Few) Things That Work to improve high-poverty schools, write economists Greg J. Duncan of University of California at Irvine’s School of Education and Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, they describe the success of Boston’s pre-K program, the University of Chicago’s K-12 charter school network and New York City’s small high schools of choice.