Reading & Literacy

N.Y.C. Hangs Tough Over Maverick Curriculum

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 15, 2003 9 min read
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If PS 72 were transplanted into almost any other large city in the nation, what is going on here could be considered subversive.

Teachers are more likely to be found reading from a popular children’s book than a teachers’ guide. They are often engrossed in literary discussions and lessons on the writing process—beginning in kindergarten—and only rarely lead phonics drills. And math lessons in grades K-6 highlight concepts and real- world applications over multiplication tables and standard algorithms.

The basic reading and math skills that have become the centerpiece of school curricula in cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles fade into the background here in East Harlem, where they are embedded in lessons throughout the day and taught more directly only when pupils display a need for such fundamentals.

But Public School 72 is not a hotbed for rogue teachers. What’s happening in this struggling school resembles scenes all across the 1.1 million-student New York City system. Bucking a national penchant for highly structured, skills-based approaches to reading and mathematics instruction, the nation’s largest school district is marking its own path toward school improvement.

The decision by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein earlier this year to mandate “progressive” approaches to teaching the subjects in all but the highest-performing of the city’s 1,000 schools has set it apart from other big- city systems.

It has also landed Gotham at the center of the continuing debate over how best to teach the three R’s.

Almost immediately after adopting the progressive instructional strategies, city officials began deflecting criticism from scholars, policymakers, and teachers over a curriculum perceived as ill-defined and “fuzzy.”

Too Rigorous?

Pupils at PS 230 in Brooklyn pull colored chips out of a bag for a lesson in probability.

Pupils at PS 230 in Brooklyn pull colored chips out of a bag for a lesson in probability. Teachers throughout the New York City school system employ “progressive” instructional strategies.
—Photograph by William C. Lopez/The New York Times

Critics questioned whether the plan had evidence for the effectiveness of its approach. The teachers’ union objected to what it sees as a “cookie-cutter approach” and micromanaging of even minor decisions from furniture arrangements to the precise time spent on each activity. And a key federal adviser suggested that the decision could jeopardize the district’s claim to millions in federal money that hinges on the use of “research based” programs.

But district leaders barely flinched.

“I think that the critics think this curriculum is too rigorous and maybe poor children can’t do this,” said Diana Lam, the district’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. “We did not want to settle for anything but a rich and rigorous curriculum for our students.”

That tack, by many accounts, is a brave step in the current policy environment. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires the use of research-tested methods and materials.

G. Reid Lyon, the director of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and an influential adviser on President Bush’s reading policy, fueled the debate last February when he expressed doubt that New York’s curricular approach would pass scrutiny for the more than $68 million in federal money set aside to improve reading instruction in the city’s most disadvantaged schools.

Ultimately, the state will decide which of the eligible schools meet the federal grant requirements. State officials said last week they are providing assistance to the New York City Department of Education to ensure the academic program is consistent with federal guidelines.

Many other districts have responded to the federal mandates by adopting off-the-shelf programs thought to have solid evidence that they work. In Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and other urban systems, most schools are required to use Open Court Reading, published by the McGraw-Hill Cos., and other step-by-step programs. A number of those cities also subscribe to commercial programs that teach mathematics in a “traditional” way, building skills through repetition and standard calculations.

Several local scholars questioned that research base in the New York approach shortly after Chancellor Klein announced the city would adopt Month-by-Month Phonics and Everyday Mathematics as the main reading and math programs. The phonics program uses spelling and rhyming activities, as well as analogy, rather than directly teaching the letters and sounds that make up words. The math method teaches the subject in untraditional ways promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. District officials quickly soothed some of those concerns by supplementing the curriculum with more structured materials for students who continue to have trouble, though some skeptics still ask how those programs will be used.

Educators, meanwhile, are trying to dispel notions that the curriculum lacks rigor or is not a realistic manner of teaching large numbers of struggling students.

“We don’t want this to be interpreted as laissez faire,” said Peter Heaney, the superintendent for the city school system’s Region 9, which cuts a swath through Manhattan to the South Bronx. “This is much more rigorous than that.”

‘Not Uptown vs. Downtown’

On a warm fall day, kindergartners at PS 72 huddled over tiny, round desks discussing their colorful drawings of farm animals. Second graders sitting close together on a plush carpet remnant were dissecting the elements of a memoir as they prepared to write their own. And 5th graders in small clusters were scrunching up their faces as they searched for words to describe particular emotions while trying to understand the literary techniques used in a popular children’s book they’ve been reading.

To Principal Maria Diaz, the new curriculum puts those children closer to the path their peers in more privileged communities are taking.

“This year, the message is the same across the city: It’s an imperative that we’re going in this new direction together,” said Ms. Diaz. “It’s not Brooklyn or Queens, it’s not uptown versus downtown.”

She holds hope that the new curriculum, as well as the resources and extra time being devoted to teacher professional development and instructional-support services, will bring her pupils closer to proficiency.

“It’s going to give them access to the same experience,” Ms. Diaz said. “Close your eyes,” she advises during a lesson by one of her best teachers, “and you don’t know that you’re not in PS 59.”

At Public School 59, a school in a Manhattan neighborhood across town and a world away, many similarities exist. Book corners invite readers to curl up or chat with classmates over the texts. Writers’ guidelines and techniques are hand-printed on large notepaper that hangs from the ceiling. Desks are grouped by fours. Many of the teachers are working to improve their practice.

“It’s harder to find research that says the program makes the difference than studies that show it’s professional development and teacher knowledge that make the difference,” contended Adele Schroeter, the principal of PS 59, which draws its students from a predominantly middle-class neighborhood. “What a struggling reader needs is more meaningful time reading a book with the support of a skilled teacher.”

Still, other people disagree.

“Without specificity and without a coherent building of skills and understanding, there is just a huge opportunity for students’ not gaining the knowledge and skills they need,” said Elizabeth Carson, the founder of Honest Open Logical Debate About Mathematics Education Reform, a watchdog group that has protested the city’s choices in both math and reading. “This is too wishy- washy.”

But proponents of the city’s plan defend the programs as rigorous. “This is highly predictable, structured teaching,” said Lucy McCormack Calkins, the director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. She and her colleagues have been helping to train some 8,000 of the city’s teachers in teaching reading and writing. “We’re explicitly teaching kids the skills that strong readers and writers use.”

And while the city is not mandating step-by-step procedures for instruction, administrators are pushing teachers to adhere to key program components. Teachers, for example, are expected to design classroom spaces that are conducive to reading and deep discussion. Dubbed the “rocking chair rule” in the local press, that principle has drawn complaints for implying that certain furnishings are required, an interpretation school officials dismiss.

Each day must also include writing sessions and “read alouds,” in which students delve into deep discussions of texts as a tool for developing understanding and critical-thinking skills.

All those requirements have a specific purpose, said Leslie Zackman, an instructional superintendent who is helping teachers in 11 elementary schools study the curriculum and employ strategies for teaching it.

“This is not about implementing a mandated curriculum,” she said. “It’s about empowering teachers with the knowledge and skill to put this in place with understanding.”

Some Critics Appeased

At PS 72, where the approach is still new, that has meant counseling teachers on how to prepare students to participate actively in read- aloud discussions and understand the value of reading. At PS 59, which has been incorporating the strategies for more than five years, the class discussions are noticeably more sophisticated, and disruptions less frequent. Teachers there, Ms. Zackman said, are working on refining their techniques to help pupils think more critically about texts and draw deeper meaning from them.

Also at the East Harlem school, phonics instruction tends to play a greater role.

“The [instructional] program doesn’t make the difference,” said Ms. Diaz, who contended that teachers incorporate the basic skills her students need. “Phonics still remains the one core we have to hit in a systematic way every day.”

As the school year gets under way, even some of the plan’s early critics now see promise because of improvements to the overall academic plan.

“What they’re trying to do is be far more comprehensive in their approach,” said Joanna Uhry, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Fordham University in the Bronx.

Last February, she and several other local scholars, including three members of the congressionally charged National Reading Panel, wrote a detailed letter to Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, arguing that the Month-by-Month Phonics program did not have a strong enough phonics component.

“They are,” Ms. Uhry said, “taking the best of ‘whole language'—the writing process, a student- centered approach—and the best of good phonics instruction.”


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