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...]

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.”

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.

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.”