Curriculum: The Great Divide Among Education Reformers

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”

This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.

I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.

Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2 = 4 connection between children learning how to read and every other outcome reformers fight for. One gets the sense that we “pro-phonemes” reformers have a bug up our behinds and that we just need to get over it.

I’m not out to pick a fight here—certainly not with an indefatigable reformer who consistently fights the good fight. I’d take my complaints offline, except I maintain that Whitney is only expressing out loud a view that others share in silence. The fact is that, for whatever reason, better reading preparation as a critical reform tool is not tops on most peoples’ minds, conference agendas, policy fights, or funded grants, and its absence speaks volumes. There is a clear aversion to taking on the reform fight over curriculum writ large, beyond reading, even by people who normally have no problem landing a blow. I’ll never forget Michelle Rhee’s comment as chancellor: “The last thing we’re going to do is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a plan to hire—and dispatch at great expense—reading coaches (their sources unknown) for every one of its seven hundred schools, in the hopes of tackling the city’s skyrocketing rate of reading failure. (At 70 percent, it’s well over twice the national average). His plan raises the obvious question of why the city isn’t just giving actual classroom teachers a strong reading curriculum and some good PD.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein will tell you that his own inattention to curriculum, including sound reading methods, was his biggest regret from all his years in office. Big charter authorizers like KIPP have also recognized the error of their ways and adopted much stronger curricular materials.

It’s ironic: Education reformers are so united behind the Common Core standards, and yet 1) those very standards explicitly endorse scientifically based reading instruction, and 2) the focus on the importance of “reading complex text” appears to come at the expense of early reading instruction. As is the case with any skill, simple things must be mastered before we can master complex things.

Kids are paying a high price for our neglect. It also allows many teaching instructors to continue taking an approach to reading instruction that often simply asks students to “journal” about their own memories of learning how to read. How does that exercise helps them?

This isn’t complicated. There’s really nothing here to debate. Can’t we all get on the same page?

– Kate Walsh

This first appeared on Flypaper

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