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A Is for Apple, B Is for Brawl

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Since then, the New York curriculum under Fariña has moderated a bit, carefully incorporating phonics in a way that doesn’t violate the whole-language ethos. Starting in kindergarten, children like Enami at P.S. 29 begin the school year by taking a brief diagnostic reading test called ECLAS-2. If a problem is detected, the children are sent off for “interventions,” or phonics-based instruction in small groups, in those skills. Phonics is also coming into the classroom before the intervention phase—not with every child, but in targeted ways to get specific results. At one point, when Enami was having trouble saying the word least, her teacher gave her a phonics-inspired tip: “When e comes before a, e says his name.” Enami says least with no problem now.

“We need to be centrists,” says Fariña, who has even reached out to Sally Shaywitz to study the effectiveness of a particular intervention program called Fundations. “Kids come to us in various sizes with varying needs. None of us are reading the Times on Sunday on the same page at the same pace and with the same interest, and neither should kids be doing that in their classrooms.” It seems that the NRP has found its way into the New York schools, after all, albeit through a back door.

To some phonics advocates, of course, this still isn’t enough. “How many schools is Fundations in?” asks Diane Ravitch. “Lucy Calkins has trained about 10,000 teachers. Has the chancellor made any announcements that Fundations is going to be a standard along with Balanced Literacy? I would like to hear some evidence that it’s in more than just a few schools. They have a potpourri. I’m not sure what’s standardized.”

Ravitch is especially angry because she believes New York is spinning its test scores. Advocates like Calkins cite the National Assessment for Education Progress—the so-called nation’s report card that compares all school systems’ standardized test scores to one another—to show how New York’s fourth-grade literacy scores have gone up the 7 percentage points since 2002, when Bloomberg took over the schools. But Ravitch notes that the big leap in those fourth-grade scores happened from 2002 to 2003, before the reforms were put in place. “From 2003 to 2005, there was no significant gain,” she says. What’s more troubling, she says, is that the 49 New York schools that Klein allowed to use the evidence-based Trophies program increased their state fourth-grade scores, on average, by 20 percent, double the increase of the rest of the school system.

Fariña still believes that a program front-loaded with phonics can lead to rote teaching, which in turn leads to poorer teachers. Most of all, Fariña remains devoted to the proposition that the vast majority of kids just don’t benefit from being drilled. “I want kids not only to learn how to read, I want them to want to read,” she says. “And I don’t think that all the skill and drill that’s happened over the years will lead to that if we don’t do the other piece of it.”

The fact is, New York is most likely to remain a whole-language town. Federal mandates and MRI scans aside, progressive education is part of the academic culture here.

Not that this means peace is about to break out in the Reading Wars.

“Lucy Calkins is key in all this,” says Ravitch. “If someone’s on the payroll at Tweed, you’ve got to expect they’re gonna say the current curriculum is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I mean, it’s like talking to the public-relations department.”

“The big response to Diane Ravitch,” Calkins replies, “is that we’d love to have her visit schools. She’s never visiting schools. You say to her, ‘Which schools have you seen? What do you think about what’s happening in Lauren Kolbeck’s class at P.S. 29? Can you come and look at it and tell me what you think?’ I mean, the level of work that’s happening in her room and across the city—to say they’re not learning skills?”

She stops herself. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about reading without getting caught up in the wars.

“We do have a very divided country,” Calkins says. “In lots of ways.”


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