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Reading Isn't Taught by the Book in NY

Battle over best way pits left vs. right, feds vs. local board

NEW YORK — The reading wars are heating up again, fueled by a scramble for $6 billion in federal money, and the students in Agnes Martin’s first-grade class at Public School 172 are caught in the middle.

To an untutored eye, the scene seems innocent enough: 20 children squatting on a rug, piecing together letters to form words such as “dent” and “stand.”

After 15 minutes of this activity — any more would be boring, school Principal Jack Spatola said — the students settle down to hear the story “Harry the Dirty Dog,” which they will later re-create in pictures.

The reading methods practiced in P.S. 172 have won the enthusiastic approval of the chancellor of the New York City school system, Joel Klein, who embraced them last year as a model.

But they have been denounced as “unscientific” by reading experts for the Bush administration, who advocate a much greater emphasis on phonics, the repetitive sound drills viewed by some educators as the key to early reading progress.

The dispute has become a test case for the implementation of President Bush’s ambitious Reading First initiative, which aims to help every child in the country become a successful reader.

Without the federal government’s seal of approval, New York’s reading program is ineligible for federal subsidies.

The two sides reached an uneasy compromise, Klein said, and 49 of the city’s lowest-performing schools would adopt a phonics-rich reading program acceptable to the federal government, unlocking $34 million in Reading First money.

The rest of the city’s 600-odd elementary schools will stick with the methods showcased by P.S. 172.

While Klein and his aides portrayed the concession as a common-sense step that would preserve the best elements of both approaches, the action has rekindled a long-simmering feud between progressive and conservative educators over the best way to teach reading.

It is a battle that pits left against right, the feds against local school boards and “child-centered” against “teacher-centered” philosophies of education.

The conservative camp argues that Klein, a former federal prosecutor who won fame by bringing antitrust charges against Microsoft, has fallen under the sway of progressives with dangerously wishy-washy ideas about how children learn.

The liberals argue that Klein and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have sold their convictions for a few million dollars in federal cash.

“Evidently, someone in the Bloomberg administration decided that they would do whatever they needed to do to get the money,” said Richard Allington, vice president of the International Reading Association and a critic of the Bush administration’s contention that scripted phonics programs have been “scientifically proven” to produce superior results to the “balanced literacy” approach favored by New York City.

Allington accuses the federal government of favoring “one-size-fits-all” programs and “an almost Orwellian” effort to dictate a nationwide curriculum that everyone must follow.

Most reading experts agree that a certain amount of phonics instruction is an indispensable part of an effective reading program, along with other elements such as constructing word walls and writing book reports.

The $6 billion-dollar question in education these days is where the balance should be struck and whether to adopt one of the highly structured phonics reading programs touted by the Bush administration.

The states have served as a buffer between the Bush administration and local education departments over the implementation of the Reading First initiative.

Several states, including Maryland and Massachusetts, have revised their reading programs to bring them in line with federal requirements. It is up to the individual localities to decide whether to accept the federal reading money.

Chris Doherty, the director of Reading First, said the Department of Education has reached agreement with all 50 states and the District of Columbia on the criteria for distributing the federal reading money.

He said the states enjoy “a great deal of flexibility over how they distribute the money” but are required to abide by congressional guidelines that their reading programs be based on proven scientific research.

Some local education officials have expressed frustration over what they see as unwarranted federal interference in the curriculum, which they believe undermines the principle of local control.

“The Democrats would never have gotten away with this,” said Boston Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who served as assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration.

“When we talked to the states about setting federal standards back in 1993 and 1994, we were beaten up by conservatives who were opposed to federal interference.”

— Michael Dobbs
Washington Post


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