NY POST "Right On Reading" Diane Ravitch
New York Post
RIGHT ON READING
By DIANE RAVITCH
September 1, 2008 --
LAST week, Schools Chancel lor Joel Klein announced the start of a pilot program that will introduce a new way to teach reading to children in kindergarten, first grade and second grade in 10 low-performing schools. Good for him!
The program, developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation, stresses the importance of content knowledge, along with phonics and vocabulary. Most of us learned to read with some form of phonics - that is, by learning the sounds of letters and then "sounding out" new words.
So the Core Knowledge Program may not sound revolutionary to most parents - but it's a stark contrast to Balanced Literacy, the reading program that Klein mandated across more than 800 elementary schools in 2003.
Balanced Literacy remains the city's standard today - after all, Mayor Bloomberg and Klein awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to train thousands of the city's elementary teachers in this unproven method.
Yet Balanced Literacy doesn't stress content knowledge, vocabulary or phonics. And we now know that it didn't work.
Last fall, the federal government released the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress - and they showed that New York City students made no progress in reading in fourth grade or eighth grade from 2003 to 2007.
When the city Department of Education gives letter grades to schools, it bases the marks mainly on whether the schools made progress in their test scores. By this measure, Balanced Literacy gets an F.
On the federal test, there were no significant gains in reading for black students, white students, Hispanic students, Asian students or lower-income students. Forty-three percent of fourth-graders in New York City were "below basic" - the lowest possible rating.
Worse yet, the year before Balanced Literacy was imposed citywide, our fourth-grade students did make significant gains on the national test. But those gains ceased once Klein installed his program.
The launch of the Core Knowledge program suggests that Klein has finally recognized the failure of Balanced Literacy.
In contrast to Balanced Literacy, which has no specific curriculum, Core Knowledge teaches specific content knowledge. For example, children in kindergarten will learn nursery rhymes and fables while learning about Native Americans, plants, farms and seasons. Children in first grade will learn about astronomy, Mozart, Mesopotamia and Egypt and colonial biographies. Children in second grade will learn about ancient Greece , Greek myths, insects, holiday stories, westward expansion and civil rights.
And while they're learning to read, they will gain important knowledge about the world through activities and projects, not rote memorization.
Some may well wonder whether little children can understand such big topics, but the experience of Core Knowledge schools for the last decade shows that they can.
Indeed, they not only can do it, but mastering all this knowledge prepares them to become better readers as they move on to the next grade. The more children know, the better prepared they are to read more challenging subject matter and to understand it.
E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, has long maintained that children in the United States suffer from a "knowledge deficit." Children need to know lots about science, history, geography, the arts, the world and their society so that they can understand new words and new ideas. The content knowledge that children acquire in the Core Knowledge reading program will enable students to learn more in science, social studies and other subjects. As children learn more about science and history, they also improve their vocabulary and comprehension.
The other aspect of the Core Knowledge reading program that is a significant difference from Balanced Literacy is its emphasis on phonics.
Forty years ago, the eminent reading expert Jeanne Chall demonstrated in her book "Learning to Read: The Great Debate" that beginning readers need to learn the connection between letters and their sounds, as well as the alphabet. A generation of research into reading has proven her right. "Decoding skills" - understanding how to sound out letters and words - should be learned early, as a foundation for lifelong reading.
Congratulations to Joel Klein for recognizing that New York City 's children suffer from a "knowledge deficit." Ten of the city's elementary schools will benefit. Meanwhile, though, most of the city's children will continue to use the failed Balanced Literacy method.
We can only hope that Chancellor Klein will insist that all schools begin to teach history, geography, science, civics and the arts and do it soon.
Diane Ravitch is a research professor at the New York University School of Education, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation (for which she receives no compensation).