Saturday, March 10, 2007

Improving Schools

The chancellor of the New York City Public Schools recently announced a new plan to hold principals accountable for improved student performance on standardized exams. ( New York Times, Metro Section, Tuesday March 6th 2007). The Department of Education is paying IBM 80 million dollars to develop a new storehouse for data that will track each of the city’s 1.1 million students. IBM. 80 million dollars. Data storehouse.

It’s hard to believe we are talking about places where young children fall in love with Stuart Little, create Valentines for their classmates, cut pizzas to learn fractions and give out cupcakes on their birthdays. And the result of all that data collection will be a letter grade. Yes, each school will become known as an A to F. That ought to make the real estate agents revise their neighborhood advertisements.

We don’t need better storehouses for data. We need better schoolhouses for children. Principals don’t become better leaders because they are graded. They become better leaders because they know quality instruction and they know how to attract, inspire and support wonderful teachers.

What would you do to improve the education of 1.1 million students if you had 80 million dollars in your pocket? I’d be tempted to add to my shopping cart such essential educational items as luxurious classroom libraries, more plentiful and effective professional development, as well as sufficient funds for field trips- here in New York City- to all our museums, historical sites and Broadway shows. Then too, I’d want all students to have access to such life-affirming and life-changing experiences as quality instruction in art, drama and music. Or cooking, carpentry, gardening, playing chess, etc. (Students immersed in a world of fascinating studies do become committed readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and overall problem solvers. Isn’t that what schools are for? Isn’t that what all parents, those who work at IBM and those who teach in our schools and those who drive our buses and those who cut our hair, isn’t that what all parents want for their children?).

Yes, I’d be tempted to place those high-ticket items on my shopping list, but above all I would use that money to encourage the folks with the most instructional know-how in our city, our best classroom teachers, to want to become principals. I know of no other way to close the achievement gap than to improve instruction. I know of no other way to improve instruction than to have brilliant instructional leaders at the helm of every school. I know of no other way to attract quality teachers than to have a principal who knows how to hire, inspire, and support those great teachers.

(Such brilliant leaders, even on shoestring budgets, but with their priorities in order, often find ways to provide abundant classroom libraries, field trips and specialty classes. And they themselves can offer powerful professional development).

Some of that 80 million, of course, would be used to finance administrative degrees. Some would be used to raise salaries. But some must be used to restore the role of principal to instructional leader. Surely, we can come up with ways to remove the mounds of bureaucratic trivia that are now drowning city principals. If we work hard to attract wonderful educators into the principals’ office, wouldn’t it be shameful if they then had no time to be in classrooms?

Brilliant teachers will not aspire to administrative positions if they know that their days will be filled with answering e-mails, filing reports, filling in surveys, hosting evaluators, and of course, staring at data reports until their eyes burn.

If all schools, in all neighborhoods, in all towns and all cities are ever to be considered “A +,” we must rethink our priorities. Schools don’t become better because we have better systems for data collection. Schools become better because all the adults involved in that community are relentless about improving teaching and learning.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Here we go again

I was more than a little dismayed when I read the following in this morning’s New York Times. “Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“’Pumpkin,’ ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“’Look at the word,’ the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?’”

These are the lead paragraphs in an article entitled, “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash” (Schemo, 2007). The article details a conflict over the teaching of reading in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, the Madison Public Schools refusal to accept Reading First guidelines cost the district $2 million in Reading First funds. As a former resident of Madison, I’m pleased that Madison has rejected the federal intrusion into local reading instruction (“Way to go, Madison.”). Still, I’m disappointed that Madison should be punished to the tune of $2 million for attempting to maintain some semblance of local control over curricular decision-making. I’m also frustrated – very frustrated – by the way the New York Times article positions whole language instruction as antithetical to phonics. This isn’t new, of course. Whole language has long been presented in the media as anti-phonics. Whole language has taken on such a negative connotation that Heinemann, a publisher long associated with whole language, no longer permits its authors to use the dreaded phrase (“whole language”). A former dean took my affiliation with whole language as a prima facie evidence that I did not teach my students at Boston College how to teach phonics. And, despite my best efforts, my own students frequently write about the desirability of combining phonics and whole language when they become teachers. So this has reached the “I’m-sick-and-tired-of-this-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” stage.

No one – and I mean NO ONE – believes that phonics isn’t part of what mature readers do and what beginning readers must learn to do. People do not read with their eyes closed. They attend to the print. However, they simultaneously attend to meaning, the grammatical structure of texts, and their knowledge of the world. And it’s a good thing too since the rules governing the representation of sounds in written English (i.e., phonics) aren’t particularly reliable. But, again, whole language teachers do not ignore phonics. Nor do whole language teachers reject the explicit teaching of phonics. Whole language teachers I know might respond to the child who read “pumpkin” for “pea” by going back the child’s miscue (oral reading error) and asking, “does this make sense?” However, they might also go back to “pumpkin,” cover up “kin” and ask the child to read “pump,” then cover up “pump” and ask the child to read “kin.” “What does it say now?” “Pumpkin.” If that same child regularly had difficulty breaking words into syllables, the teacher might design activities to help the child learn this skill. They might also design other activities to help the child learn how phonics works in the process of reading. In my “Teaching Reading” class at Boston College I use Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, Johnnson, 2003), which is chock full of word analysis strategies, as one of my primary texts. The issue is not whether whole language teachers address phonics. They do. But they differ from the folks who believe that beginning reading instruction must focus solely on isolated phonics instruction, sometimes to the degree that books are seen as an impediment to learning to read. The issue isn’t whether phonics should be taught but when and how. For whole language teachers, phonics skills are best learned in the context of reading connected text since this is how readers actually use these skills. Whole language teachers teach reading this way because their work is informed by a coherent, research-based theory of reading which indicates that this is how people actually read.

There are grounds for legitimate debates in the teaching of reading. But characterizing these debates in terms of pro- or anti-phonics is uninformed nonsense.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2003). Words their way (3rd. ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schemo, D.J. (March 9, 2007). “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash.” New York Times (Online). Available at