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New York Chancellor Answers Critics of Reading Program

In attack after attack, writers in The New York Sun have seriously misrepresented the facts about the reading curriculum in most New York City elementary schools.

For example, in a recent editorial, the Sun associated our reading curriculum with “progressive ideology,” and contended that we lacked the support of scientific research [“No Mayor Left Behind,” January 8, 2004]. And columnist Andrew Wolf has implied that we have abandoned phonics [“The Biggest Mistake,”Opinion,January 9,2004].In addition, he portrayed the recent choice of a new curriculum for 49 needy schools as a philosophical retreat.

None of this is true. So let’s set the record straight. About one year ago, we introduced a new reading and writing curriculum to be used at most elementary schools in the city, which contained a phonics component. This program received applause from more than 100 highly respected academics and scholars in the field of education. “We recognize there is a tremendous diversity among the students New York City serves, and we celebrate your decision to steer clear of scripted, one-size-fits-all programs,” they wrote.

Nonetheless, some argued for a more rigorous phonics program. Then something happened The Sun can’t seem to acknowledge: We introduced just such a program.The Voyager Passport Intervention program is widely known as rigorous and intensive. And some of our early critics of our program responded by praising our approach.

For example,Joanna Uhry,a professor at Fordham who had been an initial critic,said on the record: “What they are trying to do is be far more comprehensive in their approach.… They are,” Ms. Uhry said, “taking the best of ‘whole language’ — the writing process, a studentcentered approach — and the best of good phonics instruction.”

Voyager is now being used by 65,000 early-grade students based on careful assessment.Why is it that the Sun and Mr. Wolf insist on ignoring Voyager’s existence?

Maybe it is because our choice of curriculum had nothing to do with ideology. It is a comprehensive approach that includes all five elements recommended by the National Reading Panel: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. We assess all children in the early grades to determine whether they are mastering these essential elements and we tailor their learning to specific needs. In our program, children get phonics but they also get rich and varied reading instruction and reading opportunities through the use of classroom libraries.

Mr. Wolf has been decrying the damaging effects of a progressive cabal in New York City education since before I arrived. In June, he wrote: “The Board of Education is heavily invested in many of these ‘progressive’ and ‘childcentered’ programs advanced by the University-Institutional Complex.” In fact, last year (before the introduction of a core curriculum), school districts had a wide array of programs. But most of our schools used a “balanced literacy”reading approach. And we strengthened the presence of phonics as a component in that approach introduced this year.

The most complete comparison of the reading performance of large urban school districts shows that as Mr. Wolf was complaining, New York City was outperforming and scoring higher than almost every other major city. More remarkably, The National Assessment of Educational Progress released last month found that in 2003, in tests of grade four and grade eight students eligible to receive Title 1 funds — children of poverty — New Yorkers scored above children in every other city. Among all students, New York finished only behind Charlotte. And urban districts generally using “balanced literacy” approaches like Boston, San Diego and New York considerably outperformed other large cities using the type of scripted programs that Mr. Wolf favors.

Officials in the federal and state governments have been putting pressure on districts to adopt a scripted approach to teaching literacy in the early grades. While we disagree with that approach, we recently applied for funding under the federal and state Reading First grant program for 49 of our lowest-performing schools.We did not want to lose these potential resources. We chose a program that is aligned with our balanced literacy approach but also met the federal and state requirements for the grant, therefore remaining true to our philosophy and our commitment to our students.

Mr.Wolf can keep trumpeting his ideological call. But our obligation is not to ideology but to our students and to the facts. The NAEP scores show that we should keep moving in our present,pragmatic direction.

— Joel I. Klein, Chancellor New York City Department of Education
Joel Klein: ‘Our Obligation Is Not to Ideology But to Our Students’
New York Sun
http://daily.nysun.com/Repository/getFiles.asp?Style=OliveXLib:ArticleToMail&Type=text/html&Path=NYS/2004/01/16&ID=Ar00902


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