Saturday, June 28, 2014

Shades of 2004: Balanced Literacy Plus High Class Sizes a Recipe for Failure

With the re-entry of Farina's pal Lucy Calkins and Balanced Literacy and its Workshop models we may find ourselves in the Tweed version of Groundhog Day.
One of my long-time colleagues in ICE/GEM/MORE is a grad of Teachers College where she was trained in Balanced Literacy and is a fan - in theory. She teaches in the heart of Bed-Stuy and since I've known her she says, "It's a wonderful program -- IF CLASS SIZES ARE LOW ENOUGH TO MAKE IT WORK.

Friday's NY Times has a piece on Carmen Farina bringing back the ghost of Balanced Literacy and Lucy Caulkins, the incredibly controversial program implemented in the early years of BloomKlein and then abandoned because it was so clearly unworkable without serious reductions in class size. Caulkins and the thousand dollar a day Aussies brought in as advisers were amongst the most hated people in those early years of Klein's first chief ed officer, Diana Lam.
In May, Ms. Fariña asked Ms. Calkins to host a seminar on her methods for hundreds of principals; in August, New York City teachers will be invited to a similar event.
The Education Department did not respond when asked how much it was paying Ms. Calkins’s program.
In the interview last week, Ms. Fariña emphasized that while she believed in balanced literacy, she would not mandate its use in classrooms or add it to the city’s list of preferred curriculums. “I’m just asking people to have a common-sense approach,” she said.
That Farina has learned her lesson from the past when she was part of the almost vicious imposition of BL on the entire school system is good news. But we know that the ambitious lunatic principal crew looking to make brownie points may force feed BL and the Workshop model back into their schools.
Under the method, long-winded lectures by teachers were discouraged, and students worked frequently in groups — called workshops — to read and write. Spelling and grammar were de-emphasized in favor of fluency. Textbooks were scrapped in favor of classroom libraries teeming with novels and plays. And students were encouraged to write about social justice issues and tell their personal stories. Balanced literacy took off in New York under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who mandated the approach citywide in 2003 as one of his early efforts to shake up the school system.
Bloomberg used a sledge hammer and Farina helped bring the hammer down and tainted many of the good aspects of BL for much of the teaching staff as principals force fed it to their teachers and used it against some senior people who were slow to adapt.

When Diana Lam went down in scandal, Farina was promoted into her spot and force fed BL down every teacher's throat. But  Farina is/was not a fan of low class sizes to go along with BL.

Personally, the idea of BL makes sense for kids who can handle being on their own to some extent with the teacher as manager. And this on Common Core is interesting since BL seems so at odds with CC:
“I don’t really agree with rigid, myopic interpretations of the Common Core,” Ms. Calkins said in an interview. “It needs to be a big tent.”

Some CC people are freaking, as is probably Sol Stern and his fellow phonics police who are CORE Knowledge fans. I have to state that there are elements of both that make sense - IF professionals - the teachers had real input they would find the way that works for them. Let me say this again in another way -  every teacher with 3 or 4 years experience needs to be able to find the path that suits their personality and teaching style -- and not have PD imposed on them ad infinitum. (For newer teachers, yes.)

I came face to face with the BL/Workshop issue when I mentored Teaching Fellows (a once a month visit to observe them) in District 15 where Farina was Supt before she headed Region 8 under the first Joel Klein reorganization, which included my district (14) and 13. She went on to replace Lam and implemented the program city-wide. It is no accident that she left in 2007 when Klein abandoned BL when he thought it wasn't getting high enough test scores - a dumb reason but to Klein data meant more than classroom dynamics.

District 14 and 15 were very different in management and in population. Farina took over Region 8 with the attitude that the "back to basics" D. 14 was corrupt (not totally untrue) but tagged the educators as not as fit as the "progressive" D. 15 educators.  I too wanted a more progressive system in D. 14, but one to take all factors into account - ie if you are going in the direction of D. 15, do it moderately in places with people eager and ready to try it - and shave class sizes to make BL feasible. In fact a blend of the D. 14 and 15 cultures would have made sense (I don't know the D. 13 culture but was never impressed.)

Instead, Farina came in an attitude of "my way or the highway." And the class size issue was always poo-poohed.

I got an inkling of what this meant when I went to see one of the Teaching Fellows I mentored (2002-5), a wonderful 2nd year 2nd grade teacher in Park Slope. She had around 22 kids in her class and her BL worked fairly well, according to her -- the kids seemed like readers and could work independently. But when they were doing the Writing Workshop and BL called for her to sit down with each group for a spell and then move on to another, one kid would not sit still and she had to spend time away from what BL called on her to do to make it work. I suggested she give the kid a workbook or rexo to work on until the lesson was finished. "Oh, no, we are not allowed to do that," she said. Workbooks and worksheets were banned. Thus, she had to take time away from the class and making BL work better because she had to deal with the restive child who at that point was not capable of doing the workshop model.

Farina had tied the teacher's hands behind her back in dealing with a kid who needed something to keep him busy for 20 minutes. Teachers have precious few weapons. And the "my way or highway" approach of Farina implementing Diana Lam is what caused so many teachers to turn off and created a hostile environment when attack dog Leadership Academy principals went after teachers who could not adapt fast enough to a very massive change in the style of teaching - especially those who had been teaching for many years.

I for one would have had trouble in the BL system given my belief that phonics was very necessary for the poorer readers - I felt there had to be intense work done to get them to decode -- and by the way, I have a Masters from NYU in diagnosis and correction of reading problems. I taught mostly in homogensous classes where they were grouped by reading scores - and my early administrators believed in making the so-called "bottom classes" smaller classes -- so you could adjust your teaching depending on the level of you class. But in heterogeneous mixed group classes you can't teach to the whole class - so in theory, small groups made sense and BL was one method of dealing with that. But imagine a class in Park Slope where the majority of the kids could read well compared to a class in my school where in a heterogeneous class you were lucky to find 30% reading well enough to work in these small groups. A potential nightmare.

Farina doesn't seem to see these complexities. Farina seems to see the educational world in a homogeneous way- her point of view. And with the re-entry of Farina's pal Lucy Calkins and Balanced Literacy and its Workshop models we may find ourselves in the Tweed version of Groundhog Day.

Here's a link to the Times piece and the entire article below the break.




The reading lesson began like any other. Tara Bauer, a teacher at Public School 158 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks.
But a few sentences in, Ms. Bauer shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like “buoyant” and identify the book’s structure.
“Turn and talk,” she said as she raced around the classroom, prodding students to share their impressions.
The student-led approach to reading and writing used by Ms. Bauer, which is known as balanced literacy, is poised to make a comeback in New York City classrooms. The new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, wants more schools to adopt aspects of balanced literacy, including its emphasis on allowing students to choose many of the books they read.
The move, while cheered by proponents of this method, is seen by some as a departure from recent trends in the city and nationwide.
Photo
Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and an early advocate of balanced literacy, at P.S. 158. Credit Andrew Renneisen/The New York Times
The city’s Education Department turned away from balanced literacy several years ago amid concerns that it was unstructured and ineffective, particularly for low-income children. And Ms. Fariña is facing sharp resistance from some education experts, who argue that balanced literacy is incompatible with the biggest shift in education today: the Common Core academic standards.
During her almost six months as chancellor, Ms. Fariña, a veteran of the school system, has reduced the role of standardized tests, increased collaboration among schools and shepherded through a new contract for teachers that includes more training and more communication with parents. But her push for a revival of balanced literacy may have some of the most far-reaching implications in the classroom.
Ms. Fariña, who relied on balanced literacy as a teacher and a principal, said in an interview last week that she did not believe it was at odds with the Common Core, a more difficult set of learning goals that has been adopted by more than 40 states.
She said she thought the strategies of balanced literacy were particularly useful for children who arrived in classrooms with little knowledge of English, including immigrants. “They’re going to feel frustrated, alienated,” she said. “You need to put them on something they can accomplish and do fluently.”
The Common Core demands that students frequently read books at and above their grade level, and some of its proponents take issue with the idea of allowing struggling students to read easier books. Susan Pimentel, an architect of the Common Core standards, said that the philosophy was “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.”
Balanced literacy, so called because it combines several approaches to reading and writing, has a relatively long history in American education. It emerged as a product of the progressive movement of education in the 1970s and ’80s, when teachers were searching for an alternative to the top-down, textbook-driven approach to literacy in many schools. It was based on the idea that children were natural readers and writers; teachers needed only to create the conditions to unleash their talents.
Photo
At P S. 158 in Manhattan, which is among the schools that have adopted aspects of balanced literacy, a student-driven model. Credit Andrew Renneisen/The New York Times
Under the method, long-winded lectures by teachers were discouraged, and students worked frequently in groups — called workshops — to read and write. Spelling and grammar were de-emphasized in favor of fluency. Textbooks were scrapped in favor of classroom libraries teeming with novels and plays. And students were encouraged to write about social justice issues and tell their personal stories.
Balanced literacy took off in New York under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who mandated the approach citywide in 2003 as one of his early efforts to shake up the school system. The city turned to Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who was one of the early advocates of balanced literacy, to help train teachers.
The shift prompted complaints that balanced literacy was loosely organized and lacked rigorous instruction in phonics, an approach that teaches children how to sound out words. Ms. Fariña, who became deputy schools chancellor in 2004, worked to respond to those doubts, arguing that balanced literacy could be used in tandem with robust efforts in spelling and phonics.
But after several years of experimentation, the department moved away from balanced literacy. School officials grew concerned that students lacked the knowledge and vocabulary to understand books about history and science. In 2012, a study found that a small group of schools that used balanced literacy lagged behind schools that used a differing approach known as Core Knowledge. (Education officials in the current administration said the study was too small to be meaningful.)
When the city released a list of curriculums it recommended under the Common Core standards last year, it omitted balanced literacy, amid worries that it was not sufficiently comprehensive to be labeled a curriculum. Still, many schools continued to use Ms. Calkins’s methods, and now at least several hundred of the 1,700 schools use at least some aspects of balanced literacy.
Ms. Calkins, the founder of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, has continued to make the case for balanced literacy, which is in wide use across the United States. She has tailored her approach to the Common Core standards, by increasing the amount of nonfiction, incorporating more discussion of difficult texts and decreasing the amount of time devoted to personal writing.
Photo
Carmen Fariña, the New York City schools chancellor.
Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
“I don’t really agree with rigid, myopic interpretations of the Common Core,” Ms. Calkins said in an interview. “It needs to be a big tent.”
Ms. Pimentel, the Common Core architect, said she believed that balanced literacy could be used under the new standards, so long as students were regularly exposed to complex books, read a mix of fiction and nonfiction and were asked to write about the texts they read, and so long as there was a focus on building knowledge through reading.
Ms. Fariña said she was confident that balanced literacy had incorporated the tenets of the Common Core. “I believe the world is comprised of a lot of nonfiction reading, and we need to put that in there,” she said. “But I still don’t want to lose the sense that kids write about things they’re personally involved in and write about their own memoirs.”
But some experts remain unsatisfied and point to the Common Core’s requirement that students develop a “rich” body of knowledge across a variety of subjects through reading.
“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”
Ms. Fariña and Ms. Calkins have been friends for decades. Ms. Calkins wrote the introduction to one of Ms. Fariña’s books, and Ms. Fariña worked for several years as a consultant for Ms. Calkins’s group after her retirement from the Education Department in 2006.
Photo
Tobias Wolf, left, and Preston Frankel, fourth graders at P.S. 158, working as a team, a classroom practice encouraged in balanced literacy. Credit Andrew Renneisen/The New York Times
In May, Ms. Fariña asked Ms. Calkins to host a seminar on her methods for hundreds of principals; in August, New York City teachers will be invited to a similar event.
The Education Department did not respond when asked how much it was paying Ms. Calkins’s program.
In the interview last week, Ms. Fariña emphasized that while she believed in balanced literacy, she would not mandate its use in classrooms or add it to the city’s list of preferred curriculums.
“I’m just asking people to have a common-sense approach,” she said.
At P.S. 158, the students and the staff have rallied behind the curriculum. On a recent day, second graders rewrote the story of the Gingerbread Man, adding their own plot twists and flourishes.
Ms. Bauer, the fourth-grade teacher, said balanced literacy had improved her teaching and inspired a love of reading in her students.
“This hooks students in a way that other approaches don’t,” she said. “They become highly motivated. Every lesson has a higher purpose.”

5 comments:

  1. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'

    Now, where have we seen that quotation before? Same old Sh&t, different Chancellor.

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  2. Norm if you have a chance do a post about this...
    THIS is the root of all academic evil in NYCDOE. Why is Farina advocating for a failed literacy program if you can even call it that. It's not aligned to Common Core, wastes millions of dollars to her FRIEND Lucy Calkins and was even dumped by DOE years ago.
    If she is advocating this garbage, she is no advocate for children, especially ELL's and Spec. Ed children

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  3. BL requires intensive involvement with students. It does not align with CC and the Gates plan to have every child on a tablet by year's end. I am in agreement. Phonics is an important component of a literacy program. If it weren't tragic, this discussion would be laughable.

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  4. The foundational skills listed in the Common Core, which I believe in part were written by Louisa Moats; clearly outline, important phonics work that must be done in early childhood. The IRA recently issued a statement that synthetic phonics works best, that is, phonics taught and then reading practice portioned according to skills learned. That is, decodable readers along with phonics vocabulary work synergistically together. Learning to read also requires a substantial amount of spelling. Handwriting is also important as it is another avenue to the brain. The problem with Bloomberg was that he relegated every school, except the high performing schools, to the same curriculum, Farina and Calkins just stepped into "sh+t" as they can do whatever they wish because the system is set to follows orders. We might as well be working in the Vatican, where every one must believe the exact same thing. (Actually I think the Catholic church is a bit more liberal than we are in the DOE!) Where are the parents? Why aren't they speaking out against these problems? Perhaps because they believe they are sending them to a trust all, believe all, holy enterprise. Parents must wake up and fight, it's their tax dollars that are being spent on junk curriculum.

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  5. Lucy Calkins' approach does not produce competent readers and writers. If students are already strong readers and writers perhaps it works. But teaching for 10 minutes and then sending the kids off to practice independently is not an approach that helps below grade level readers and writers. 25 years of teaching is all the research I need to figure out that Calkins is a cult leader who has been allowed to serve her koolaide-aid for far too long. Roseanne, PS8

    ReplyDelete

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