Teaching Opinion

Successful Schools Avoid False Choices

By Karin Chenoweth — October 12, 2009 6 min read
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I know I am not the first to notice that education as a field tends to get whipsawed between what seem like incompatible alternatives: We can teach phonics or surround children with literature; we can teach skills or content; we can prepare students for the workforce or for college; we can provide schools that are equitable or schools that are excellent. The examples are endless.

For the past five years, I have been examining schools that have, for the most part, sidestepped these battles. They are schools I have visited as part of my work for the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. The job involves identifying and writing about schools with significant populations of low-income children and children of color that are also high-achieving or rapidly improving. In many of these, just about all of the students meet or exceed state standards, and achievement gaps are narrow, or sometimes nonexistent.

Ultimately, there’s no magic to how these schools achieve success. As one teacher told me, “It’s not rocket science. You figure out what you need to teach, and then you teach it.” She makes teaching sound easy, the way Tiger Woods makes golf look easy.


My point, however, is that in visiting these schools, I’ve been struck by how free they are from the frustrating controversies other schools get mired in. Take, for example, the phonics-vs.-whole-language debate.

I know, I know, whole-language programs are gone, most of them replaced by “balanced literacy” programs. But, as one education professor once told me in a conspiratorial half-whisper, “We call it ‘balanced literacy’ because we’re not allowed to use the term ‘whole language.’ ” Some balanced-literacy programs really do strike a balance between teaching phonics and surrounding children with the printed word. But some are simply phonics-averse whole-language programs in disguise, and it is difficult to tell which is which without delving into questions of what materials and training are provided.

What I have found interesting about these places is that they tend to avoid questions about the philosophy of reading instruction. Rather, they approach the issue with what I consider a cheerful empiricism. “We have a good balanced-literacy program,” said Molly Bensinger-Lacy, the principal of Graham Road Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va., where 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. “But we were finding that that wasn’t sufficient.”

Teachers at Graham Road who faithfully taught Fairfax County’s prescribed reading curriculum found that many of their students, most of whom speak a language other than English at home, were stumped when asked to decode a word they had not seen before, even if the word was in their vocabulary. The students were having a hard time hearing the sounds of English and identifying them in words. Now teachers in kindergarten and 1st and 2nd grade carefully supplement their regular reading instruction with phonemic-awareness instruction, including rhyming games, songs, and an occasional round of the old game “I’m packing a suitcase and in it I put …,” in which every item named must begin with a particular letter.

In other words, when their students didn’t learn, the Graham Road teachers changed their practice. They based their teaching not on a preset philosophy, or a set of program prescriptions, but on what would best help their students learn.

This appears to work. In 2008, every Graham Road 6th grader met Virginia’s state reading standards; 70 percent exceeded them. That is laudable for any school, but for a school that mostly serves the children of very recent, low-income immigrants, it is remarkable.

Here’s another example of a school that has bypassed a familiar stumbling block: Public School/Middle School 124 in the Queens section of New York City. As part of the city school system, it is expected to teach its students a district curriculum that emphasizes skills rather than a set body of content. Many years ago, Valarie Lewis, who was then the assistant principal and is now the principal, saw that, as she put it, “teachers were teaching 150 percent, but they weren’t getting the results.” She explained: “Teachers would teach skills, but if [the children] didn’t have background knowledge, it didn’t stick.”

She and the school’s then-principal, Elain Thompson, brought the Core Knowledge program to the school. Its curriculum, developed in part by E.D. Hirsch Jr., focuses on providing students with a great deal of background knowledge, from nursery rhymes to Newton’s Laws. “Teachers still need to teach the skills,” said Judy Lefante, the school’s Core Knowledge coordinator, “but we’ve worked hard through professional development to make sure they teach skills through content.” Skills such as making inferences, drawing conclusions, and separating facts from opinion, for example, are all worked on within the science and social studies content areas.

The results are remarkable: Student achievement at PS/MS 124 is almost indistinguishable from that of wealthy, white schools, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of its mostly African-American, Latino, and South Asian students qualify for free lunches.

The point is this: Arguments that for too long have fostered false dichotomies, pitting one practice against another, can be resolved—but only if educators have as their clear goal ensuring that all their students become educated citizens, and then focus closely on what it takes to help them reach that goal.

Here’s a final example of what I am talking about. For decades, high schools have steered students into either college-preparatory classes or technical and workforce training. This was done on the theory that people either work with their hands or with their brains. But at Imperial High School, in the Imperial Valley of California, Principal Lisa Tabarez said that helping students become productive citizens means helping them work “with their hands and their brains.”

The high school uses college-preparatory classes as its default curriculum, but it also requires each student to take at least one semester of a vocational class. Computer-graphics classes, marketing and business, woodworking, and agriculture are popular. Unlike vocational teachers at many schools, those at Imperial consider themselves just as much a part of the academic program as any other teacher, and they align their curricula to California standards. Students learn mathematical concepts, formulate coherent arguments, read instruction manuals, and apply the scientific method to real-world problems to help them meet the standards—all as part of their vocational classes.

What are the results? Just about every one of Imperial’s students passes the California high school exit exam and goes on to graduate, most of them enrolling in a postsecondary institution. Other schools with similar working-class Hispanic enrollments are lucky to graduate 70 percent of their students.

Tabarez summed up what Imperial does this way: “Every single student who comes before us has the ability to learn. As educators, we must accept our daily responsibility of taking students, at whatever level and place in their lives they may be, and helping them to learn—to learn how to become productive, contributing members of our society through the opportunity of education.”

And that means avoiding false choices. The nation’s children don’t need phonics or literature; they don’t need skills or content; they don’t need to work with their heads or their hands. They need it all.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Successful Schools Avoid False Choices


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