Reading & Literacy

Teachers College to ‘Dissolve’ Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Project

By Sarah Schwartz — September 05, 2023 4 min read
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The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the instructional consultancy housed at Columbia University and founded by the popular and controversial literacy icon Lucy Calkins, will soon be shutting its doors, Teachers College announced Sept. 1.

The college is dissolving TCRWP and Calkins will step down as director. Calkins, who remains a tenured faculty member at Teachers College, will be on sabbatical for the 2023-24 academic year.

Teachers College is creating a new division offering reading and writing professional development, the Advancing Literacy unit, which several former TCRWP staff will lead, according to the college’s announcement.

It’s a big shift for the college, which has been TCRWP’s home since it launched four decades ago, and for Calkins, who built her reputation in the literacy world on the project’s workshop approach. And it comes as Calkins has come under fire over the past few years from education researchers and some teachers who say that her approach is not aligned with the evidence base behind how children learn to read.

In an interview, Calkins said she made the decision to move on, in part to focus on “trying to address the reading wars.” Teachers College did not make anyone available for an interview before publication.

“I’m proud of the work that we’ve done with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. It’s been a talented group of people working with enormous dedication to make a difference,” Calkins said.

“For me a big plus in all of this is that I made the decision on what’s really a passion project of mine, which is to try to get past the—what I regard as—fake reading wars and to try to find common ground,” she said.

Calkins and her team will continue offering professional development services through her company, now called Mossflower. Many of the staff listed on the former TCRWP website are also on the staff list for Mossflower.

Calkins has also launched a new website, Rebalancing Literacy, which she says she hopes “brings people together and supports civil conversation.”

Who is Lucy Calkins?

Calkins has become a divisive figure in the literacy community, as the “science of reading” movement has picked up steam over the past few years. In general, that movement endorses a systematic, explicit approach to teaching students letters and sounds, coupled with efforts to give all kids a broad base of content knowledge critical for comprehending what they read.

Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading have long taken a different approach. The workshop-style curriculum prioritizes student choice and independent learning. Teachers demonstrate the skills and habits that good readers have, and then students practice them on their own in books of their choice, with teachers acting as guides. The materials are popular, with 16 percent of K-2 teachers saying that they use the materials in a 2019 EdWeek Research Center survey.

But in the last couple of years, education researchers and curriculum evaluation organizations have argued that the materials don’t explicitly teach the letter-sound knowledge that many kids need to learn how to read words—and they have argued that the curriculum’s practice of matching kids with books at their purported reading “level” can prevent equitable access to rich, complex text.

Last year, Calkins launched a revised version of her Units of Study that aimed to address some of these concerns. It received mixed reviews—some from educators and experts who thought the changes represented a big step forward, and others who believed they did not go far enough.

On the Rebalancing Literacy site, Calkins doubles down in response to her critics and accuses journalists of making false claims about her products.

“In the last year, there have been a lot of podcasts, articles, editorials, programs, that are scaring the public into thinking that somehow half the teachers in America have been hoodwinked into teaching reading in a way that deprives kids of the essentials that they need,” she says, in a video on the site.

“They’re actually suggesting that kindergarten and 1st grade teachers are not teaching kids their ABCs. That is absolutely inaccurate. Teachers are being undermined by those messages, and kids’ lives are being affected.”

What will this mean for schools?

For the 2023-24 school year, the work of TCRWP will transfer to the new Advancing Literacy unit, which is part of Teachers College’s Continuing Professional Studies division. It will provide professional learning both for schools that use the Units of Study curriculum and those that use other materials, according to the Teachers College statement.

The college did not specify, however, whether the Advancing Literacy unit will use TCRWP’s workshop approaches and other materials.

“[Teachers College] will ensure that its professional development programs are informed by the latest research and evidence and that the College continually finds new ways to translate faculty scholarship into timely assessments, interventions, and research-based practices,” the college’s announcement reads.

Education Week asked a spokesperson for Heinemann, the company that publishes the Units of Study, whether the dissolution of TCRWP will affect customers.

“Heinemann looks forward to partnering with Dr. Calkins and her colleagues and continuing our collaboration with Teachers College as they embark on this next phase of supporting educators across the country who use Units of Study resources,” the company responded in a statement.

“We remain committed to supporting the innovation and ongoing development of the Units of Study reading and writing programs.”

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