August 24, 2003

NYC schools chancellor Klein under fire

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein has been under some heavy and well deserved fire recently for his curricular policies. This blog entry is based on articles and opinion pieces by James Traub, Sol Stern and Andrew Wolf; and on the Web pages of New York City HOLD.

On August 2 the New York Times educational supplement offered New York's New Approach, by James Traub. (The original article has gone off-line, and the link is to a copy.) Traub focusses on the literacy part of New York's "Children First" initiative.

[...] All New York elementary and middle-school students will have lengthy "literacy blocks" each day to focus on reading as well as writing skills. Teachers will read books aloud, engage in "shared reading" with the whole class, "guided reading" with smaller groups and "independent reading" from classroom libraries whose books will be carefully calibrated by skill level.

[...] 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?

Traub presents Klein as perhaps an unwitting captive of the city's liberal consensus on pedagogical issues, and presents the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, as the real force behind the progressive pedagogy. Traub himself has no sympathy for the direction chosen by chancellor Klein:

Every new chancellor in recent years has come into office with a message of salvation for the schools. Once it was "school-based management," then it was "curriculum frameworks," and then data-driven instruction. None of it really mattered in the end, because chancellors couldn't impose their will on the system. Now, at long last, they can. Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Klein have the power to reshape New York City schools.

But they have imposed a curriculum that scants content knowledge for personal experience and direct instruction for self-directed learning. With almost half of the city's fourth graders and two-thirds of its eighth graders reading below grade level, is this the direction they should go?

Traub's piece mentiones an earlier article by Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute: Bloomberg and Klein Rush In (City Journal, Spring 2003). There, Stern wrote:

Unless Bloomberg and his handpicked schools chancellor, Joel Klein, admit to some monumental blunders, discredited progressive methods for the teaching of the three Rs such as "whole language," "writing process," and "fuzzy math" will soon be enforced in every single classroom in 1,000 New York City schools. This is a disaster in the making, not least because the children in the targeted schools are mainly poor and minority - the very population historically most damaged by such methods.

Mr. Stern is at it again in the online pages of City Journal with Mayor Bloomberg's Diana Lam Problem. (The article also appeared as an opinion column in the New York Post: Lam Excuses.) Stern first recalls the appointment - later put on hold - of Diana Lam's husband to a $100,000 per year job as regional instructional supervisor. He then addresses a new issue by which Ms. Lam has given the impression of being ethically challenged. With reference to Stern's earlier conclusion that Diana Lam is addicted to discredited "whole language" and "constructivist" methods for teaching reading and writing Stern writes:

Lam responded to these criticisms in a manner that raised new questions about her competence and integrity. In a Daily News op-ed, she trumpeted the results of a recent U.S. Department of Education study comparing the reading and writing scores of New York City's 4th-graders with those of five other urban districts: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington.

In those tests, the city's 4th-graders ranked at the top of the six participating districts in writing and a close second to Houston in reading. According to Lam, "the results of this assessment show our pedagogical approach is sound."

But Lam neglected to inform her readers that the tests represented a random selection of the city's 4th-graders from January through March 2002. At that time, Lam was running the Providence, R.I., school system, Joel Klein was an executive with the Bertelsman publishing company, and newly elected Mayor Bloomberg hadn't yet convinced the state Legislature to give him control of the city's schools.

[...] I leave it to others to decide whether Lam's misrepresentations about those 4th-grade tests result from a blunder or from something worse. In either case, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein now have a credibility problem on their hands.

In addition to the pieces by James Traub and Sol Stern there was a scathing op-ed by Andrew Wolf in the New York Sun. (No NYC journalist has been as consistently strong on the Bloomberg and Klein educational fiasco as Andy Wolf, as witness this collection of previous columns.)

In a remarkably intellectually dishonest opinion piece that ran last week in the Daily News, Ms. Lam had the chutzpah to declare that New York's "reading plan is working." She bases her claim on the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, a voluntary exam given to compare the progress of students in the nation's cities. This test was administered to a sampling of fourth-grade classes more than six months before Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam took over the old Board of Education. New York City and Houston were shown to have the most effective programs among the six largest urban centers.

Now unless Mr. Klein was lying on January 21, when he stated that the city has been "using something along the lines of 30 different reading programs," the results of the NAEP test reflect that diversity. This is certainly no more an endorsement of Ms.Lam's controversial program than it is of any of the other 29 programs then in use. And what if Ms. Lam, as many of us feel, has chosen the wrong one of the 30 alternatives? She concedes that Houston did just as well, but with a "scripted" reading program that she has specifically excluded. But many of our New York City schools used such programs. How much of New York City's success can be attributed to those schools?

The cited articles of James Traub, Sol Stern, and Andrew Wolf all address primarily the reading component of chancellor Klein's Children First initiative. For critical perspectives on the mathematics component, please see the New York City HOLD Web pages, and see also my overview page Chancellor Joel Klein's "Children First" New Standard Curriculum for NYC Public Schools.

A further issue that has not received adequate attention in the press reporting is the secrecy of Children First. As a result of Freedom Of Information Law Requests we know that the primary Children First working groups operated without formal charge and did not produce reports. In a remarkable show of contempt for integrity of process and for careful policy chancellor Klein has arranged that there is no documentation, not even for the Department of Education's internal purposes, of the rationale behind his and Ms. Lam's choices for the literacy and mathematics curricula.

Posted by Bas Braams at August 24, 2003 09:01 AM


Thank you, thank you, for putting it together. I'm a high school English Teahcer in a the city but I work in a K-12. i'm terrified by the changes, the the dubious pedagogy, I see in the elementary level. I read Taub's August 2nd article and loved it. In fact, the Times printed a letter of mine about that article. Here is the text of it (they may have edited it a little, I don't remember:

"The city’s emphasies on self-directed reading and writing programs may be more damaging than we think. We read in order to broaden our experience as well as to deepen it. Self directed programs, however, emphasize personal experience over content, and children who learn to read and write through such programs can rapidly come to assume that their own experiences are much more valid and interesting than anyone else’s. By the time such children reach high school, the only books that interest them are books about teenagers in high school, and by the time they vote, I suspect they vote their own interests before the common good.

It may be true, as ……says that “not all children need phonics.” What they do need, however, is an understading that there something else besides their friends, their pets, and their trips to Disny World."

Posted by Jackie at December 10, 2003 09:34 PM