Reading & Literacy Opinion

Research, mandates, and tolerance

By Diane Ravitch — March 15, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I am glad to see that our discussion of Reading First is getting a lot of reaction, and quite a number of interesting and well-informed responses.

I don’t like mandates any more than you do, but I also think it is important to learn from experience and even, when it is cumulative, to learn from research. I think it would be irresponsible, perhaps anti-intellectual, to wave away the very extensive research that has been conducted over many years about reading. The research in “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” for example, should not be lightly dismissed.

Surely there are appropriate mandates: for example, the mandate not to discriminate against people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or disability status; the mandate to provide compulsory schooling; the mandate to vaccinate all children against disease; the mandate to pay taxes, even for government activities we don’t like; and various other legislated mandates that we accept without question.

I don’t agree with you that American schools are “at the top” in reading. International surveys of reading—unlike those in math and science—are suspect because reading—unlike math and science—tends to be culture-bound and therefore difficult to compare across cultures. We don’t see “at the top” performance on NAEP tests of reading in 4th grade or 8th grade. Government surveys of adult literacy report that the ability to read well is declining, even among college graduates. A report last year from the National Endowment for the Arts documented that young people are reading less than 10 years ago. Yes, there is a problem.

I have been appalled (as I know you are) by the mandated imposition of “balanced literacy,” Everyday Math, and Lucy Calkins’ “workshop model” in the NYC schools since September 2004, when Mayor Bloomberg’s program began. Literacy coaches and math coaches were detailed to every school to make sure that every teacher was doing exactly the same thing in every classroom. Every hour, every minute of the literacy and math class was tightly scripted. Teachers were disciplined if they went “off point.” I heard similar stories in San Diego about professional development sessions that seemed to be akin to Chinese re-education camps. Behind this lockstep approach is the belief that there is only one correct way to teach and that those who dare to think otherwise are troublemakers. The results of this mandate that forced balanced literacy and the workshop model on every teacher, whether they liked it or not, have been unimpressive to date. The system can compel compliance, but it can’t compel enthusiasm.

I suggest that here on the ground in NYC, the mandated balanced literacy/workshop model has been far more consequential than Reading First, about which so many fulminate. Forty-five elementary schools in NYC have received Reading First funds. But over 1,300 have been subject to the lockstep, inflexible mandates imposed by Chancellor Joel Klein.

I join you as a charter member of the tolerance-for-uncertainty club. One of my favorite quotations comes from Robert Hutchins. He said that you must always keep listening to the other person because they may be right.

So let’s keep talking. May I suggest that we move on to a discussion of the “Tough Choices, Tough Times” report? I see that Education Week had a discussion with two of its signatories on March 14, so this is timely.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.