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$40 Million Goof


$40 Million Goof

October 20, 2003
EducationPre K-12

MAYOR Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are on course to lose $40 million a year in federal funds for New York's schools because the new reading curriculum doesn't meet national standards.

The curriculum totally disregards the scientific evidence on the most effective teaching methods - particularly in the critically important area of early reading.

Recent advances in the scientific understanding of how children learn to read - based on a remarkable convergence of evidence in experimental psychology, linguistics, and medical research - make it possible to design truly effective instructional programs to raise reading levels in the early grades.

Both the 1998 National Academy of Sciences report and the 2000 National Reading Panel's even more comprehensive report concluded that systematic phonics instruction was the most effective approach. Last year, the American Psychological Association agreed.

And Dr. Reid Lyon, chief of the National Institutes of Health's Child Development and Behavior Branch has told Congress time and again that the results of his agency's studies argue for the use of explicit phonics programs in the early grades.

This accumulating evidence helped move Congress to vote by overwhelming bipartisan majority in 1998 and again in 2001, that federal reading funds will go only to school districts that use instructional approaches based on scientifically validated research.

So why is New York City choosing otherwise? Deeply entrenched ideological and political interests.

Progressive educators (of whom New York has more than its share) shudder at the thought that science confers validity on the practice of teaching young children to read through scripted lessons in letter/sound correspondence - that is, phonics. And Bloomberg and Klein put the key decision in the hand of a progressive - Diana Lam, the deputy chancellor for Teaching and Learning.

When the Department of Education announced its choice of a citywide K-3 reading program called "Month by Month Phonics" in February, 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 a program that otherwise matches progressive dogma - which is why it met with enthusiastic support from New York's phonics-hating progressive educators.

The progressives were also happy 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.

By giving the appearance of using some phonics, Lam disarmed parents and officials who have been pressuring the schools for better reading instruction. But 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.

Over the past six months, federal and state experts (including Reid Lyon of the NIH) have delivered that message, many times over. But New York has yet to budge.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Bloomberg, Klein and Lam, seven noted reading specialists, including three who served on the National Reading Panel and several who sit on review committees for implementing the federal standards, said that Month by Month is "woefully inadequate," "lacks the ingredients of a systematic phonics program," "lacks a research base," and "puts beginning readers at risk of failure in learning to read."

That should have ended the matter. The feds would be guilty of malpractice if they were to fund Month by Month Phonics after their own experts warned that it "puts beginning readers at risk of failure." Bloomberg and Klein should have reversed course immediately in the interests of the children, and fired Diana Lam.

Instead, they treated it as a political problem. Lam's friend Lucy Calkins of Teachers College rounded up a posse of 100 ed-school professors (some of whom stand to rake in, collectively, millions of dollars in fees from the Department of Education) to write a counter-letter affirming the merits of Month by Month Phonics.

Bloomberg and Klein also tried to finesse the problem by patching up the K-3 curriculum with a small supplementary phonics program that could be used at the teacher's discretion for up to six children who were struggling with the main program.

But none of this fooled anyone. On Sept. 2, three expert consultants to the State Education Department gave Lam their professional assessment of Month by Month Phonics and the city's entire "Balanced Literacy" curriculum: It does not contain a "core, scientifically based reading program" and does not appear to be systematic or comprehensive. Instead, "the materials seem to reflect a philosophical framework," much of which is "contradictory" to "scientifically based research" on reading instruction. The experts warned that the curriculum would not meet the federal funding requirements.

One of the consultants at the meeting was Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and professor of pediatrics at the Yale Medical School and co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention who has studied for 30 years how the brain learns to read. "We really do have the scientific knowledge now to ensure that every child becomes a good reader," she told me recently.

Science must eventually win out over ideology, even in New York. Sometime in the next two months, the mayor and chancellor will have to apply to the state education department for the city's share of the federal Reading First funds. It will be a watershed for their administration.

Will they have the courage to admit they made a mistake, correct the reading program, and get rid of Diana Lam? Or will they make a bad situation worse by trying to handle the problem politically and thus inflict further harm on the city's children?