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August 07, 2003

New York Goes Progressive, Outlook Poor


In one of my recent postings, Education Reform and the Lessons of History, I discussed the arrogance of educational theorists during the Progressive Era (c. 1890-1920). I was rather surprised to see, just a few days later, a story in the New York Times on the adoption of a new reading curriculum by the New York City schools. It seemed to suggest, sadly, that nothing much had changed. It appears that those who can’t or won’t learn from history really are bound to repeat it.

According to “New York’s New Approach” by James Traub, which you can read here, last January Joel Klein, the former antitrust lawyer who is the current chancellor of the New York City schools, and whose utter ignorance of the practical aspects of teaching makes him laughably dependent on his technical advisors, announced that the city would be adopting a “balanced literacy” approach to the teaching of reading and writing. This approach focuses more on children working amongst themselves than on teacher instruction.

For those of you who haven’t followed the arcane world of education theory, “balanced literacy” is a “child-centered” approach that derives, ultimately, from the educational notions of John Dewey. Perhaps as an irony of history, Dewey’s quite left-wing educational heritage goes under the title of “progressive” education. Of course, the term “progressive” education has been rather under a cloud since the late 1950s, but in the world of education theory nothing (bad) ever goes away, it just pops back up under a new rubric. Since the 1980s, “progressive” child-centered educational approaches have sailed under a flag of convenience known as “constructivism,” since they emphasize that children must “construct” their own knowledge base. (Holy socks, Batman! Shades of PoMo!)

The wholesale adoption of a new teaching approach to reading and writing, coupled with the simultaneous adoption of a new (and also “progressive”) approach to math education, in an immense district like that of New York City, has necessitated an ambitious campaign of teacher retraining via workshops. Many teachers are clearly concerned about the adequacy of this workshop-style retraining, as you can see from a follow-up story in the Times, here. But the notion that one can wave the magic baton and create a warm and fuzzy child-centered classroom is deeply typical of the arrogance that has always characterized “progressive” education. (Remember, Dewey himself emphasized that the point of his theories was not education, per se, but the ultimate reform of society as a whole. Dang, nothing compares with the rush of social engineering, does it? It’s like the smell of napalm in the morning.)

The Times story captures the true-believer aspect of “progressive” education wonderfully as it comes out in these retraining workshops:

Ms. Calkins's ''writer's workshop'' model [which she has given to roughly a third of the teachers in the New York City schools over the past six months] is based on the idea that children are natural writers; the job of the teacher is to coax stories out and help them use language to push more deeply into their experience. Ms. Calkins is not an advocate of direct instruction; she believes that children develop language skills by being engaged in so-called authentic learning, learning that emerges from their own experience…Here was a form of teaching that built on the child's innate knowledge and love of learning, required virtually no rote instruction and permitted children to acquire information and understanding as a painless byproduct of pleasurable activities. It sounded delightful. But would it be effective?… A literacy supervisor from Staten Island told me during a break that schools she knew using a similar approach were failing at it. She worried about the absence of rigorous phonics instruction. ''These kids first need to learn how to decode,'' she said. She also said -- and she covered her face in embarrassment when saying it -- that she didn't think most teachers were skilled enough for this constructivist pedagogy, in which teachers act as coaches to help children ''construct'' their own understanding.

And this unnamed literacy supervisor, is, of course, completely right to be worried. There is little doubt that such child-centered approaches are less effective than more highly structured, teacher-centered models, especially when dealing with children from low socio-economic levels (i.e., most of the children in the New York City schools.) This has been known fairly definitively since the late 1960s when Harvard Professor Jeanne S. Chall was asked to summarize the academic research on the subject. (This request was a delayed reaction by the education establishment to “civilian” critiques like 1955’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”) But, as a symbol of how resistant “progressive” education remains to mere facts, Ms. Chall found it necessary to revisit the topic in the late 1990s, examining yet another 30 years of studies, to come to the same conclusion.

The choice of the New York City schools to adopt a child-centered approach to the teaching of reading and writing (especially given the social profile of its student body) has generated considerable criticism:

G. Reid Lyon, the Bush administration's chief reading expert, said that the [New York’s] program lacked any discernible research base, thus holding out the alarming possibility that the city could lose about $70 million in federal money earmarked for reading instruction.

So how have these “progressive” theories managed to sustain themselves over the decades? It’s actually quite simple: they are universally accepted in the other-worldly universe of university teacher training. (As the NY Times story notes, younger teachers have fewer issues about the “balanced literacy” program, since it is essentially what they were taught in college.) According to my informant Teacher X, a business executive who has turned to teaching middle school math in his fifties, his teacher training professors couldn’t even be bothered to acknowledge such issues as the efficacy (or lack thereof) of “child-centered” approaches. Quoting from one of Teacher X’s emails:

I own the last [book Ms. Chall] wrote before [dying] in 1999--it's called "The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom"--and it's largely about research comparing "Traditional, Teacher-Centered Education" to "Progressive, Student-Centered Education." Quite an interesting book, but of course we never studied it in any of my classes. I bought it on my own, and not one of my (liberal, student-centered) profs was interested in anything it had to say when I tried to discuss some of its findings in class.

Teacher X has repeatedly pointed out how flabbergasted he is by the widely taught constructivist notion that teachers shouldn’t “tell” the kids anything; the children must somehow suss out “knowledge” from their activities:

Yes, constructivism does outlaw Teacher Telling. I once tried to start a discussion in class as to whether constructivists have a problem with books telling students things, too. Both authors and teachers are so direct, you know--the height of inefficiency. My prof didn't know what to make of my question. I guess hands-on experiments are the ultimate and only way to learn things--especially if you have about 200 years to graduate from high school. Concerning constructing your own knowledge--wow--you mean people actually do that? What an innovative concept. I thought everybody just memorized everything.

Teacher X was also kind enough to point out that child-centered, relatively unstructured programs like “balanced literacy” pose a special risk to dyslexic children. This is an issue of broad concern; as a recent story in Time on dyslexia pointed out, most of the three million children who are currently in special-education classes because they have difficulty reading are almost certainly dyslexic. Moreover, this number doesn’t include many more borderline dyslexics who skate by but will have a difficult time in school.

Recent neurological research has revealed that dyslexics’ brains are wired so that they have difficulty analyzing words into their constituent parts, which is a necessary precondition for building up a data bank of words that can be recognized on sight—the essential aspect of reading fluency. If dyslexics are diagnosed early enough, continuous drill can actually rewire their brains so they have a more “normal” throughput. As the Time story notes:

"In most schools the emphasis is on children's learning to read sentences," says Gina Callaway, director of the Schenck School in Atlanta, which specializes in teaching dyslexic students using the Orton-Gillingham approach. "Here we have to teach them to recognize sounds, then syllables, then words and sentences. There's lots of practice and repetition."

These programs designed to teach dyslexic students sound, of all things, like the highly structured, phonics-intensive reading programs being adopted with considerable success across the country. (Phonics recognition, is, of course, one of the key weaknesses of dyslexics.) As James Traub points out in New York Times story:

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says that urban districts have increasingly adopted a single approach for all schools, especially in reading and writing. He adds that the four districts in the country that have reported the greatest growth in reading scores use either Open Court or Success for All, [two] of the highly scripted, phonics-based programs that progressively minded New York educators like Lucy Calkins scorn as ''drill and kill.''

It all sort of makes me think that New York City is probably a bad place to be a poor or dyslexic child—but a heck of a place to be a “progressive” educator!



posted by Friedrich at August 7, 2003


What does seem so frustratingly illogical about this is Teacher X's point----you don't have 200 years to finish highshool. If you are going to let children teach themselves at their own pace, then automatic promotion to another grade level at the end of nine months seems impossible on its face. If you are going to keep the kids moving along the production line, so to speak, then a more autocratic teacher-must-teach, students must achieve certain minimal level results, seems like a required co-element. Progressive teaching and social promotion...gee, no wonder Johnny can't read.

Plus---I don't know---maybe there are lots and lots of very focused and goal-oriented eleven- or twelve-year-olds out there, regardless of income level or home life... but I was a "good student" from an upper middle class home attending a good public school system in elementary and highschool, and if they had totally left it up to me (Annette-centered education), I don't know that I would have achieved the basics---what eleven-year-old really wants to do homework instead of a zillion other things? I mean...who are the adults in this story and don't they have a role to play?

Posted by: annette on August 7, 2003 8:13 AM

I was glad to get out of the education business, but I still can't seem to escape all this progressive thinking. I currently work at a faith-based NPO (dedicated to increasing economic opportunity for the working poor) that has slowly been adopting an "employee-centered" management strategy. Towards this end, management has implemented a "discussion" period in our twice-monthly staff meetings. Yesterday, during the first such discussion, one of my co-workers said that it would really help her do her job if she knew the definite "chain of command" in the office, i.e., who is ultimately responsible for what, etc., etc. Now, I think this is a perfectly reasonable request. Feeling that someone is actually in charge makes for a comfortable work environment. However, another co-worker objected to the use of the word "command" as "sounding too authoritarian." (I kept my mouth shut, not out of fear, but because I don't believe this kind of "free discussion" has much use aside from letting people flew their egos and make veiled criticisms of their co-workers).

Now, I'm not a fan of authoritarianism, but I do think sound leadership and a well-defined hierarchy make for a better workplace as well as a better school. Of course, that would mean teachers would have to take some responsibility for the performance of their students and the education bureaucrats would have to take responsibility for the performance of their schools. It's a lot easier just to put the entire burden on the students. If they don't learn how to read, well, then, hey, I guess they just didn't feel like doing it: we can't force them, after all. That would be authoritarian.

Posted by: J.W. on August 7, 2003 10:48 AM

I must admit that I dislike the phonics vs. whole-word debate because I think it leads to the belief that there is the "one true way". I have two sons, and one picked up phonics beautifully. The other would never have read at all if we hadn't abandoned the phonetic approach and gone whole-word.

The point is that unless you are prepared to abandon the 20% of students who won't learn effectively via whole-word or the 15% who won't learn via phonetics (made up percentages), you need to use a blended set of approaches.

I remember asking my son's teacher what approach she used. She replies that she used the WW approach. The "Whatever Works". I heartily approved.

Posted by: Tom West on August 7, 2003 11:26 AM

One problem I have with this posting is the use of the term "dyslexic." I had the same problem with the article in the Time. It's much too narrow and doesn't adequately describe the broad range of issues children with learniing disabilities and reading disablities deal with.

With that said, I have a learning disabled daughter. There is no way she could have learned to read in a whole language environment. She needed a very structured phonics based program and lots and lots of repetition. Unfortunately, the program she was in didn't address the problems of spelling or writing with fluency until after she had developed many bad habits. It's such all encompassing thing with her, I can't imagine her achieving mastery in any subject without teacher instruction and support. And she is coming from a home where a very high value is placed on reading, speaking clearly and effectively, and writing in a fluid and coherent manner. How are other kids going to survive?

Posted by: Deb on August 7, 2003 11:39 AM

Annette: Perhaps you noticed the quote in the story from the literacy supervisor:

...she didn't think most teachers were skilled enough for this constructivist pedagogy, in which teachers act as coaches to help children ''construct'' their own understanding.

I can understand this woman's concerns; I doubt many people are capable (especially after just listening to a few lectures in a workshop) of walking the unbelievably fine line between "telling" the kids stuff and "getting the kids to construct their own understanding." Obviously, classroom paradigms are pretty blunt instruments, and the notion that anyone would adopt such a complex and subtle one to be executed by a mass workforce with minimal training blows my mind (speaking as the manager of a much smaller workforce.)

J.W.: I feel your pain. I hate such meetings, too, and try to avoid having any at my company.

Mr. West: I understand that different kids learn differently (a point vividly underscored by the brain scan research cited in the Time article. Obviously, there is no need to insist on any single methodology in teaching reading. terms of organizing an immense social effort like the teaching of reading and writing in New York City schools, it is only rational to suggest that the method that seems to work best for most kids--phonics--should be emphasized as the front line strategy, with the others backing it up.

Deb: I'm not sure if you're criticizing my very broad brush treatment of the issue here, but if you are, I can't argue with you because space reasons dictated that I couldn't delve into the details. In any event, you're right, things are more complex in the learning disability universe than just dyslexia vs. "normalcy." None the less, the point of the Bush Administration official is that the programs that NY are adopting seem utterly unacquainted with the issues raised by such dyslexia-focused and other neurological research, as well as by considerable evidence that child-centered approaches are not likely to be as successful as teacher-centered approaches when dealing with the types of students that largely make up the NY public schools. So...why did they adopt it again? I'm confused.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 7, 2003 12:15 PM

How accurate is it to claim that using phonics is a better approach than whole language, or vice versa? Research shows that the most effective literacy education combines solid skills instruction (including phonics) with reading and writing experiences that help students extract meaning from context.

I'm not a teacher, but both my parents are, as are several aunts and uncles, cousins, close friends, and three out of my four grandparents. Most are or were elementary-school teachers with remarkable talent for helping kids become creative, literate and surprisingly motivated learners. They also share general antipathy toward the theorists who cycle through the highest levels of education, declaring one fad after another the next great thing. My mother had to fight the system to get her master's degree in the '90s because she refused to quote the correct manifestos before her inquistors. Nevertheless, her students always performed well on reading and writing assessments, even though she employed a method too traditional for the educrats but steeped in enough whole language immersion to make today's back-to-basics Luddites cringe.

Good teachers combine approaches and mold their classrooms for each unique set of students. Good teacher education programs should prepare them by giving them a set of tested options and guidance in applying them. A good SCHOOL SYSTEM would weed out the teachers who can't or won't master that skill and reward those who do. But there's the rub, and where I differ from some of my teacher friends. If they were rewarded for results, it would be better for good teachers and much better for students. But teachers' unions are good at protecting the dregs. (A word of sympathy: I can't blame teachers for worrying that performance assessment is as fickle as the flavor-of-the-day educrats who end up creating the assessment tools.)

Good teachers are underpaid. Teachers as a group are not. Until the economic structure of the system is fixed, pushing one theory over another will make only marginal difference to the system as a whole (unless it's a really BAD theory).

Posted by: Kari on August 7, 2003 4:47 PM

Another great NYC plan. Let's experiment on kids with no other options. And let's make sure they have a really hard time mastering the kinds of basics it takes to have a decent chance in life.

It's funny. I still remember sitting in some classes wondering why the hell the teacher wasn't just telling me what the answer was, or how to do something. Why all the beating around the bush? Now I know -- I guess I was getting a progressive education. Or non-education, as it worked out.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 7, 2003 6:03 PM

Friedrich--when schools make broad and sweeping changes, especially in an environment of budget cuts and lack of funding, my cynical sense says they are somehow able to save money doing this. I dont know enough about the plan to say how but, if you scratch hard, my bet is that you find a way to cut aides in the classrooms, use fewer teachers for the same number of kids, a savings in textbook and materials costs, whatever.

Our school had an era of multiaging the kids. It was the greatest thing since sliced bread, according to the school administratror. Parents hated it, teachers didnt know how to do it well but gosh, they could use three teachers instead of four...Eventually, enough kids entered 1st grade to require another teacher anyway and, surprise, multiaging went right out the window.

As I said, I'm cynical....

Posted by: Deb on August 8, 2003 7:54 AM

The educational establishment's devotion to its unproved and unprovable doctrines, and to the imposition of these doctrines on real teaching, is very reminiscent of the struggle between traditional medicine and scientific medicine in the 1800s. The old-style doctors claimed authority by their knowledge of ancient Latin and Greek texts, and killed patients by the thousands with 'remedies' such as bleeding and refusal to practice sanitation. When Semmelweiss showed that doctors were spreading childbed fever, he was hounded to his death for it. The parallel extends to the strange loyalty of the public to the doctors, whose authority continued even as their failures became flagrant. (Louis XIV's court physician was known as the "killer of princes".) Today an amazing proportion of the populace rejects vouchers and other measures that would break the grip of the educrats, despite knowing what they do.

I don't get it.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 8, 2003 7:34 PM

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