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COMMITTED TO LITERACY

Posted: 2004-01-23

"Last month's National Assessment of Educational Progress results, the most comprehensive comparison of large urban districts, showed that districts using "balanced literacy" approaches, like New York, Boston and San Diego, outperformed those using the restrictive programs Stern advocates. And those results were equally true when applied to students whose families live in poverty." And yet, these places could NOT get RF grants!

COMMITTED TO LITERACY



By JOEL I. KLEIN

January 22, 2004 -- THE time has come to sort some truths from untruths about the reading curriculum in the New York City public schools.

All too often critics of the curriculum we introduced last year suggest that we have selected the wrong materials and approach and that we do not provide sufficient phonics.



Phonics, the learning of sounds created by various letter combinations, is for many of these critics the touchstone of reading instruction in the early grades. Some of these critics inaccurately suggest we don't teach phonics at all.



One of our most vociferous critics, Sol Stern, an advocate of "direct instruction" and intensive phonics programs for all children, quoted me in these pages as saying "Klein repeatedly derided phonics as outmoded pedagogy that subjects children to boring and counter-productive 'drill and kill' instruction."



I never said any such thing. And for good reason: I don't believe it. And what's going on in the schools shows the Department of Education doesn't believe it.



About one year ago we introduced a new reading and writing curriculum to be used in most elementary schools in the city. This program, which included a phonics component, received applause from more than 100 highly respected academics and scholars in the field of education. "We recognize there is a tremendous diversity among the students New York City serves, and we celebrate your decision to steer clear of scripted, one-size-fits-all programs," they wrote.



Nonetheless, some argued for a more rigorous phonics program. Then something happened that our present critics won't tell you about: We introduced just such a program. The Voyager Passport Intervention program is widely known as rigorous and intensive. Indeed, unlike the polemicists, experts who are actually involved in this field, including some early critics of our program, became supporters when we added the Voyager Passport component.







For example, Joanna Uhry, a professor at Fordham who had been an initial critic, later said on the record: "What they are trying to do is by far more comprehensive in their approach . . . They are," Uhry said, "taking the best of 'whole language' - the writing process, a student-centered approach - and the best of good phonics instruction."



Voyager Passport is now being used by 65,000 early-grade students in New York City schools. This shows that Stern and other critics are wrong: We are not against phonics. The truth is that we teach phonics according to need and not according to ideology.



Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Diana Lam, an educator with a record of decades of teaching and leading school districts where children have improved their reading skills, led the effort to create a reading curriculum that could meet the needs of a range of students.



Part of her thinking and mine was based on the fact that before the city chose a core curriculum most of our schools used a balanced literacy program such as the comprehensive program we have developed. Some of the most successful schools and districts in the city used a balanced literacy approach. We strengthened even more the phonics component of that approach.



Officials in the federal and state governments have been putting pressure on districts to adopt a scripted approach to teaching literacy in the early grades. While we disagree with that approach, we recently applied for funding under the federal and state Reading First grant program for 49 of our lowest-performing schools. We did not want to lose these potential resources. We chose a program that is aligned with our balanced literacy approach but also met the federal and state requirements for the grant, therefore remaining true to our philosophy and our commitment to our students.



We question The Post editorial board's and Stern's assumptions, and the assumptions the federal and state governments have evidenced by denying Reading First funding to some districts that use a balanced literacy approach. The most recent test results point in another direction.



Last month's National Assessment of Educational Progress results, the most comprehensive comparison of large urban districts, showed that districts using "balanced literacy" approaches, like New York, Boston and San Diego, outperformed those using the restrictive programs Stern advocates. And those results were equally true when applied to students whose families live in poverty.



And yet Boston and San Diego have been unable to secure Reading First funding. It doesn't seem to matter that they do better educating their students than other "favored" districts and approaches. Ideology has trumped the facts.



Joel I. Klein is New York City's Schools Chancellor.











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