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A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl


So goes the crossfire in the Reading Wars.

The reading wars, of course, aren’t only about reading. Yes, reading skills matter tremendously to New York parents, whether they aim to get their children into Harvard or just to their age-appropriate reading level. But the Reading Wars are also about race and class. Everyone stands to gain from phonics, advocates say, but no one figures to benefit more than children from low-income families who—unlike, say, the kids at elite private schools, most of which use a whole-language approach—often can’t get extra tutoring in the basics. Parents of children with learning disabilities say their children benefit similarly from phonics.

There’s also a political component to the Reading Wars. To phonics advocates, whole language is rooted in the worst liberal traditions: It’s a freewheeling approach that lacks rigor and standards and could even, some say, be the first step down the slippery slope to abominations like Ebonics. And the entire New York City education culture, they say, is permeated by such soft thinking. Whole-language proponents, in turn, say phonics perpetuates authoritarian, patronizing “drill and kill” strategies that insult the art of teaching and turn kids into fifties-style robots, putting them off learning for life.

Where George W. Bush and many red states are phonics supporters, New York is dyed-in-the-wool whole-language country. Influential programs at Columbia and Bank Street College developed variations of the approach before it even had a name. Balanced Literacy, or at least the way it’s practiced in New York, is largely the brainchild of Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, who is looked upon nationally as a godmother of whole-language learning.

The issue in New York is that at the exact moment that Bloomberg and Klein made Balanced Literacy the cornerstone of the curriculum here, phonics scored several major victories in the Reading Wars. A National Institutes of Health–created commission of Ph.D.’s came down squarely on the side of phonics in a 2000 report, influencing the Bush administration to crack down—some say improperly, perhaps even scandalously—on non-phonics programs. And where hard science once had little to say about how various reading methods affected kids, a series of MRI studies done at Yale starting in the late nineties appeared to show that as many as one in every four children, regardless of class, race, or other demographic factors, needs direct instruction in basic skills before he can read. When kids with learning difficulties read with phonics, their brains light up on MRI scans like a Christmas tree. The conclusion, phonics advocates say, is clear: Kids need technical instruction in the basics before being immersed in the world of literature.

That argument doesn’t persuade Klein. He’s cultivating mindful, curious readers, he’s said, not vanilla word-decoders. “I’m quite convinced the curriculum we’re using, with inquiry-based learning, will serve our students throughout the city well over time,” he says. In particular, Klein likes that Balanced Literacy looks a lot like the reading approaches in successful school districts on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side and in most of the city’s elite private schools. In a system where so many great schools coexist with so many horrible ones, Klein is convinced that the solution is not to adopt the practices of the worst schools but to export the best practices of the successful ones and end the educational apartheid.

To phonics advocates, this is like turning your back on the invention of the wheel or the secret of fire. Despite the modest improvements in city reading scores, they say, the reading crisis isn’t going away here: The city’s high-school-graduation rate is still only 54 percent. Phonics, supporters say, could be the closest thing New York gets to a vaccine that can stop kids’ reading difficulties before they start. Why, they demand to know, isn’t New York using it?

It’s safe to say that when Michael Bloomberg came to City Hall in 2002, one of the last things on his mind was the best way to teach kids how to read. Taking over the public schools, as he improbably persuaded the state to let him do in his first six months in office, was more about management changes to him than pedagogy. In the summer of 2002, he hired Klein, a fellow outsider, as his chancellor, and Klein recruited a career superintendent named Diana Lam as his deputy for instruction. It was Lam who brought in Balanced Literacy. Neither Klein nor Bloomberg knew much about the program at the time, except that Lam had used it in cities where test scores went up, like San Antonio, Texas, and Providence, Rhode Island. For a mayor who wanted his first term judged on what he did with the schools, this was a clear plus. In what would be one of their only moments of agreement, Randi Weingarten, the teachers-union chief, agreed at first with Klein’s plan and even went out of her way to praise his bravery. “If the system isn’t working and someone has an idea that could theoretically make things much better,” she said in an interview, “why not try it?”


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