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Joel Klein gives his opinion on New York's reading program

Publication Date: 2004-02-05

SOMETIMES the absence of a few numbers can distort the whole picture of what is happening in public education. And sometimes leaving out a few facts can make a huge difference in explaining what works and what does not in helping our children learn.
In her column last week, Diane Ravitch, an education scholar, lacked both the right numbers and the right facts.

JUST THE FACTS ON READING REFORM

By JOEL I. KLEIN



February 5, 2004 -- SOMETIMES the absence of a few numbers can distort the whole picture of what is happening in public education. And sometimes leaving out a few facts can make a huge difference in explaining what works and what does not in helping our children learn.
In her column last week, Diane Ravitch, an education scholar, lacked both the right numbers and the right facts.
Writing in these pages, she said a national test of fourth and eighth graders showed that a "balanced literacy" approach to teaching reading and writing - the approach being used by Boston, San Diego and New York City - was not doing well. In addition, she said that these recent test results told us nothing about New York's balanced literacy program.

The test results, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), were released by the federal government in mid-December and provide the only data available to compare the performance of students in 10 cities. (Because of the way sample schools were selected in each city, the results are representative of all students in each and every one of the 10 cities.)

I subsequently pointed out that the cities using balanced literacy programs had performed relatively well and that the federal government's current insistence on certain scripted reading programs - an approach supported by Ravitch - couldn't be squared with the NAEP scores.

But Ravitch's response was to attempt to dismiss the NAEP results, asserting:

"When the next round of test results were reported a few weeks ago, Klein boldly asserted that the cities using 'balanced literacy,' like New York, Boston and San Diego, had 'outperformed' those using different, more structured methods. . . . The chancellor ignored the fact that the tests were given before his new program was introduced. New York City's relatively solid performance was measured while teachers were using a variety of methods; the very ones that Klein decided to sweep away."



Let's get our facts in order. In 2003, the year before we introduced a citywide core curriculum, 76 percent of our elementary schools participating in NAEP used some form of balanced literacy curriculum and another 3 percent used a mixture of balanced literacy and other approaches.

In other words, New York was doing relatively well (compared to other cities) with programs that did not meet the federal requirements. Indeed, only 21 percent of our NEAP schools did not use balanced literacy and followed the kind of scripted programs that Ravitch appears to favor. In short, the schools that participated in NAEP overwhelmingly used a balanced literacy approach.

Overall, New York City fourth graders did comparatively well. They finished second out of 10 cities, just behind Charlotte, with a score of 53 percent of students at or above basic level, up 6 percent from the preceding year. They finished first among Hispanics, first among Asian/Pacific Islanders and fourth among African-Americans.

More importantly, let's take a look at the population that is most crucial in the debate about what type of reading program to introduce in the early grades: poor children. Supporters of tightly scripted programs (like Ravitch) generally argue that poor children need these programs, yet Ravitch never even mentioned the NAEP scores for Title 1 students (i.e., those living in poverty).

Among fourth grade students entitled to Title 1 funding, New York City's finished first, followed by Boston, Charlotte, Houston and San Diego. By any fair analysis, those results hardly support the view that the scripted programs are the way to go.

Equally troubling, and also ignored by Ravitch, is that the cities toward the bottom of the group were generally using the scripted approach. Most significantly, Los Angeles, which has used such a program on a city-wide basis for the past four years, finished near the bottom of the list at number eight, significantly behind New York, Boston and San Diego.

At the beginning of this school year we introduced a new reading and writing curriculum to be used in most elementary schools in the city. I should note that while most schools in New York City were using a balanced literacy approach already, phonics instruction, if any, had been voluntary. Our new core curriculum has brought phonics back in a systematic way, and we have added literacy time especially for phonics.

We have systematically expanded balanced literacy through the implementation of our core curriculum and made our program stronger and more coherent than ever.



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