Why Johnny Won’t Learn to Read

Bad ideas in education are like horror movie monsters. You think you’ve killed them, but they refuse to stay dead.

A generation ago, the infamous “reading wars” pitted phonics-based instruction in the early grades against “whole language,” which emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out.

In 1997, the National Reading Panel was tasked to settle the fight once and for all. Phonics won. That should have been the end of it, but whole language never really died. It morphed, grew a new head called “balanced literacy,” and lived on. In New York City, it grew even stronger.

Finally, last year, there was hope: Balanced literacy was left for dead yet when the city Education Department recommended two reading programs for elementary schools as they prepare to meet the rigorous new Common Core State Standards in English: New York State’s Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum and Pearson’s ReadyGen.

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—the balanced-literacy program developed by Prof. Lucy Calkins, which had dominated city classrooms for more than a decade—notably failed to make the cut.

Why? Under the shift to Common Core standards, reading programs are explicitly expected to teach strong foundational skills, including phonics in the early grades, while building background knowledge and vocabulary, which are especially important for low-income children most at risk of reading failure.

To match the Common Core, reading programs must also encourage students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading.

None of these is emphasized in balanced literacy, which leans heavily on teachers “modeling” good reading habits for children, having children choose books themselves (worthwhile or not), and kids practicing strategies such as “visualizing” or “finding the main idea.” Common Core focuses kids’ attention on what the text says, while balanced literacy often elicits a personal response to literature.

We know for a fact that balanced literacy has had little effect on closing stubborn achievement gaps separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian peers. Yet it still lives.

The source of its latest lease on life is Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. According to the New York Times, Fariña is advocating a return to balanced literacy in city classrooms. The website Chalkbeat previously reported the chancellor promised to “review” the DOE’s curriculum recommendations. But she’s already hired Calkins to lead citywide training for DOE literacy teachers.

Susan Pimentel, one of the principal authors of the Common Core standards, told the Times that the city’s renewed embrace of balanced literacy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.”

She’s right to be worried, and New York’s parents should be, too. Common Core is controversial in some circles, but—love ’em or hate ’em—these new standards get several big things exactly right, especially in the crucial early grades: Children should regularly read high-quality texts and a healthy mix of fiction and nonfiction.

They should be able to back up their opinions with evidence from text, not merely tell what they think or feel about their reading.

The resilience of balanced literacy is understandable. There’s a sensible logic behind the idea that children will become better readers if they are motivated to read more books that engage and delight them. Teachers often enjoy it, too.

Yet the Education Department’s own three-year study comparing Core Knowledge with balanced literacy in demographically matched New York City schools showed the former “had significantly stronger gains than comparison school students on nearly all measures.” Students who started with the lowest scores showed the greatest growth; the highest overall reading scores were posted by those with the longest exposure to the curriculum.

It’s tantalizing data that Fariña’s Education Department has now essentially dismissed.

Curriculum decisions—what kids actually learn in school all day—seldom capture the attention of parents or the media. That’s a terrible shame. While Mayor de Blasio’s fight with Eva Moskowitz and the city’s charter schools was big news, balanced literacy’s scary scramble from the grave is, educationally speaking, a bigger deal.

If Fariña truly believes balanced literacy can get more kids learning to read and write well while logic, experience, and evidence suggest otherwise, she owes New York parents a compelling explanation as to how it will be different this time.

-Robert Pondiscio

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

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