It didn’t take long—just days, actually—for the phonics camp to open fire. When Lam and Klein unveiled their reading program in January 2003—Balanced Literacy, with a small supplemental program called Month by Month Phonics—seven reading researchers unconnected to the public schools wrote an open letter to the mayor and Klein, blasting Month by Month Phonics as a phonics program in name only. They called Month by Month “woefully inadequate,” lacking “a research base” and “the ingredients of a systematic phonics program” and putting “beginning readers at risk of failure in learning to read.” Others were still less kind: Sol Stern of the conservative Manhattan Institute and the education historian Diane Ravitch berated Balanced Literacy’s whole-language roots. “Many of the programs and methods now being crammed down the teachers’ throats have no record of success,” wrote Stern, “and are particularly ill suited for disadvantaged minority children. In fact, a cabal of progressive educators chose them for ideological reasons, in total disregard of what the scientific evidence says about the most effective teaching methods—particularly in the critically important area of early reading.”
Parents in the more politically connected parts of town didn’t need to be won over by Balanced Literacy, since more than 200 elementary schools already used it. But the ones who sent their kids to the other public schools were bewildered by a reading program that didn’t have a textbook. “I held four days of hearings on reading,” recalls Eva Moskowitz, then the City Council’s Education Committee chair. In the hearings, she says, the city was hammered for what some called its “loosey-goosey” approach to teaching basic skills.
Phonics could be the closest thing New York gets to a vaccine that can stop kids’ reading difficulties before they start. Why, advocates demand to know, isn’t New York using it?
Parents’ outrage was matched by that of teachers who had been asked to switch curricula in real time with just a few days of training and little day-to-day support. Instead, principals were handing them daily directives from the Tweed Courthouse to reconfigure their classrooms and lesson plans. The workload became staggering, and many teachers resisted, blasting Lam in the press for punishing teachers who didn’t rearrange their rows of desks into cozy clusters or lay “reading rugs” in the corners. To some, Balanced Literacy became a buzzword for a new, bizarre form of tyranny. What was supposed to have been a progressive, flexible technique to unleash a child’s inner reader had become something so claustrophobically scripted that critics predicted Klein would drive the most talented teachers out of the system.
The curriculum, in fact, became a lightning rod for the mayor’s entire overhaul of the schools. Every criticism of the reforms, it seemed, circled back to the reading program. When the mayor tangled with the teachers union over contract negotiations, Weingarten abandoned her early enthusiasm for Balanced Literacy and demanded it be abolished. When the mayor ended social promotion for third-graders in 2004, Ravitch insisted that Klein ditch the scientifically flimsy curriculum. And when Lam abruptly resigned from her job in disgrace—exposed for getting her husband a job in the school system and trying to cover it up—it surprised no one when Sol Stern and others argued that it was time to scrap the “unproven” curriculum Lam brought in.
Cognition experts like Harvard’s Steven Pinker have argued for some time that while learning to talk is an organic process you can generally learn on your own, like walking, reading is more like riding a bike or driving a car. Someone has to take you through the initial steps and get you over the unfamiliarity of the experience; then you have to spend time on your own perfecting the skills until it becomes second nature. The question at the heart of the Reading Wars is how much direct instruction do children really need.
The debate has raged, back and forth, across the country—phonics was out in California, then in again, and battled over in Texas and elsewhere—until finally, in the mid-nineties, NIH launched a project intended to settle the matter. In 1997, Congress asked NIH to create the National Reading Panel (a commission of academics) to consider the question. The panel took three years to review and scrutinize 1,000 recent academic studies of phonics-related reading programs, eliminating all but the most carefully constructed. In 2000, the panel released its “meta-analysis” and concluded that in order to learn to read, all children must master five separate skills: phonemic awareness (separating words into distinct sounds, like the c, a, and t in cat), phonics (learning the sounds letters and letter combinations make), fluency (the ability to read with speed and accuracy), vocabulary (learning new words), and comprehension (understanding what you’re reading). These basic skills were nothing new to most people who taught elementary-school English. What the NRP added to the debate was the notion that direct instruction of these skills was the only proven method for teaching reading.