Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why bringing back balanced literacy is a terrible idea

This NYT op ed by a teacher nails why bringing back balanced literacy is a terrible idea (especially see the second-to-last paragraph that I highlighted – ed school profs living in their ivory towers do such damage to disadvantaged kids!):

even on good days, it proved a confounding amalgam of free period and frustrating abyss.

This morass was never my students’ fault. A majority of them were poor, or immigrants, or both. The metropolis of marvelous libraries and bookstores was to them another country. To expect them to wade into a grade-appropriate text like “To Kill a Mockingbird” was unrealistic, even insulting.

Writing instruction didn’t go much better. My seventh graders were urged to write memoirs, under the same guise of individualism that engendered independent reading. But while recollections of beach trips or departed felines are surely worthwhile, they don’t quite have the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure or a plain old vocab quiz.

Now the approach that so frustrated me and my students is once again about to become the norm in New York City, as the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops.

Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction. My own limited experience leads me to the same conclusion. But Ms. Fariña seems to be charting a course away from the data-driven Bloomberg years, perhaps as part of her stated plan to return “joy” to the city’s classrooms.

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

Balanced literacy is an especially irresponsible approach, given that New York State has adopted the federal Common Core standards, which skew toward a narrowly prescribed list of texts, many of them nonfiction. Ms. Calkins is a detractor of Common Core; Ms. Fariña isn’t, thus far, but her support of balanced literacy sends a mixed signal.

…The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it. It plays well in brownstone Brooklyn, where children have enrichment coming out of their noses, and may be more “ready” for balanced literacy than children without such advantages.

My concern is for the nearly 40 percent of New York City schoolchildren who won’t graduate from high school, the majority of whom are black and brown and indigent. Their educations should never be a joyless grind. But asking them to become subjects in an experiment in progressive education is an injustice they don’t deserve.


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