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November 05, 2003
Bloomberg's blunder

There's a really interesting article in the Autumn issue of City Journal about the education battles being fought by New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Together with Klein, a tough New York lawyer and formerly head of the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust division, Bloomberg created a revamped command-and-control center, placing the several hundred administrators who survived the 110 Livingston Street purge in the Tweed Courthouse, 200 feet from City Hall, where the mayor could keep an eye on them. Bloomberg instructed the troops to focus like a "laser beam" on a single goal—improving teaching and learning in the classroom. To further that goal, Chancellor Klein began a highly publicized search for the "best practices" in classroom teaching and curriculum, an initiative he named "Children First."

The trouble is, says Sol Stern, all this commanding and controlling is being used to command and control some bad things, especially in the matter of basic literacy teaching. On that front, says Stern, what is now going on in New York is exactly what has been going on in Britain.

Which is: that although phonics has done pretty well in public debate, the anti-phonics crowd still occupy so many of the bureaucratic offices that it is often they who are charged with the task of re-introducing phonics to the curriculum, of expunging their own past influence, that is to say. This they are understandably reluctant to do. Instead, they produce curriculum and teacher guidance documents with the word "phonics" on the front, but inside it's the same old look-and-say "whole word" rubbish.

They, in the case of New York, is a lady called Diana Lam.

Notwithstanding Lam’s lackluster record, Klein gave her control over most personnel and pedagogical decisions during the planning stages of Children First, while he himself focused on the structural reforms, and during early planning meetings with superintendents, says former district superintendent Betty Rosa, Klein chaired the sessions about organizational and administrative issues, while Lam presided over those focusing on the coming changes in curricula and teaching. It was clear that Lam took the progressive, constructivist approach to most pedagogical issues. She favored superintendents who were already using "whole language" reading curricula (the anti-phonics approach), as well as outside staff developers like Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, a leading champion of the doctrine that all children are natural readers and writers, and that therefore it is criminal for them to be drilled in "boring" phonics lessons.

When the Department of Education announced its choice of a citywide K-3 reading program called "Month by Month Phonics" in February 2003, it was clear that this was Diana Lam’s baby. It was also a perfect illustration of how truly you can’t tell a book by its cover. Though the word "phonics" appears in the title, the slim workbook contains none of the systematic instruction in how to break words into letter/sound correspondence required by the new federal standards. Instead, it offers some unconnected shreds of phonics activities in an otherwise whole-language reading program – which is why it met with enthusiastic support from New York’s phonics-hating progressive educators. The progressives were even happier that Lam had ditched a true scripted phonics program, "Success for All," that was in use (with promising results) in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, and that would easily have qualified for federal reading funds.

By giving the appearance of using some traditional phonics instruction, Lam's chosen program disarms parents and elected officials, who increasingly have been pressuring the schools for more traditional and reliable methods of reading instruction. That seems to be the effect it had on Mayor Bloomberg, who said in his stirring Martin Luther King Day speech introducing the new citywide reforms that the K-3 reading curriculum would "include a daily focus on phonics." Since it is hard to imagine that our Republican mayor was looking for a confrontation with the Bush administration, it’s likely that Bloomberg was told by Lam or Klein, or both, that the program contained enough phonics to pass muster with the feds. Either that or no one at the Tweed Courthouse bothered to think that $240 million in federal reading funds was at stake.

Since then, Klein and Bloomberg have doubtless spent many hours, and perhaps some sleepless nights, thinking about the problem they face from Month by Month Phonics and Lam's failure to brief them properly. When the city announced its choice, alarm bells went off among the scientific consultants who had helped frame the new federal reading requirements. The experts realized that if the nation’s largest school district could pick a reading program so far from meeting the standard of "scientifically based research" – while abandoning Success for All, which did meet the standard – then the message about the new reading standards was not getting through.

The other huge problem is that all this is being imposed by a highly centralised and dictatorial new system, which makes it more difficult for dissenters – teachers or parents – to opt into different schools and do things better, and then to spread by their example the "best practice" which Mayor Bloomberg says he's so keen on, but has actually made it harder to spread.

... the authoritarian curriculum stands in contradiction to one of the city’s proudest education reforms. In a gala ceremony in September, Bill Gates announced that he was giving the city another $51 million to create 200 new small high schools and middle schools, whose fundamental premise will be that each will have a unique theme or educational approach, and each will have some degree of autonomy from the central system. Yet even as the mayor was taking Gates’s check, his education department was pressuring dozens of the city’s existing small schools (some of them already Gates-supported) to align their curricula and teaching methods with the new standardized citywide approach.

I already hate the word "initiative". I'm starting also to hate the phrase "best practice".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: LiteracyPolitics

Before going to New York, Diana Lam was Superintendent of School in Providence, Rhode Island. She was there for about three years before going to NY -- three years or so of claimed achievements and bitter fighting. Before that she was Superintendent of Schools in San Antonio, Texas. Yes, also a rather tumultuous time there, with claims of amazing improvement in test scores and bitter public fighting. There seems to be a certain pattern.

Comment by: Jim on November 6, 2003 10:21 PM
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