Winter ~ The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy

Is a controversial curriculum, entrenched in New York City’s public schools for two decades, finally coming undone?

Illustration by Kiel Danger Mutschelknaus

In the first spring of the pandemic, as families across the country were acclimating to remote learning and countless other upheavals, I sat down on the living-room sofa with my daughter, who was in kindergarten, to go over a daily item on her academic schedule called Reading Workshop. She had selected a beginner-level book about the alliterative habitués of a back-yard garden: birds and butterflies, cats and caterpillars. Her decoding skills, at that stage, were limited to the starting letter of each word, and all else was hurried guesswork – pointing at “butterfly,” she might ask, “Bird?” and start to turn the page. I coaxed her to look at how the letters worked together, to sound them out, starting by taking apart the first few phonemes: bh-uh-tih, butt. She didn’t appear to be familiar with this approach. She seemed to find it frankly outrageous.

Our subsequent reading workshops followed the same script. She would pick out a book, flip around, guess, bluff, and try to match words to pictures, while I plodded along behind her, grunting phonemes, until her patience frayed. I ascribed our ongoing failure to any number of factors – I wasn’t a teacher, for starters. (My kid wasn’t the only one bluffing.) She perhaps wasn’t ready to read. There were ambulance sirens wailing outside, forever.

I looked online for help, and learned that our Brooklyn public school’s main reading-and-writing curriculum, Units of Study, is rooted in a method known as balanced literacy. Early readers are encouraged to choose books from an in-classroom library and read silently on their own. They figure out unfamiliar words based on a “cueing” strategy: the reader asks herself if the word looks right, sounds right, and makes sense in context. My daughter was taught to use “picture power” – guessing words based on the accompanying illustrations. She memorized high-frequency “sight words” using a stack of laminated flash cards: “and,” “the,” “who,” et cetera.

It seemed to me that, rather than learning to decode a word using phonics, by matching sounds to letters with close adult guidance, a reader following this method is conditioned to look away from the word, in favor of the surrounding words or the accompanying illustrations – to make a quasi-educated guess, perhaps all on her own. It seemed possible that my kid’s scattered, self-directed reading style wasn’t entirely a product of her age or her temperament. To some extent, it had been taught to her.

Units of Study was developed by the education professor Lucy Calkins, the founding director of Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which she started in 1981. Calkins trained thousands of teachers in Units of Study, becoming so synonymous with the curriculum that educators often refer to it – and even to balanced literacy itself – by the shorthand “Teachers College” or simply “Lucy Calkins.” The curriculum has dominated New York City’s approach to early reading for nearly twenty years. But literacy rates remain dismal: as of 2019, only about forty-seven per cent of the city’s students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in reading, according to state exams, including just thirty-five per cent of Black students and less than thirty-seven per cent of Hispanic students. “Lucy Calkins’ work, if you will, has not been as impactful as we had expected and thought and hoped that it would have been,” David Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, told reporters in the spring. (Calkins declined my requests for an on-the-record interview.)

Children now entering kindergarten in New York City may be taught differently. As of this school year, which starts on September 8th, the Department of Education (D.O.E.) will add a mandatory dyslexia screener for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and require elementary schools to include a phonics component in their reading-and-writing curricula at least through second grade. (Calkins’s Units of Study in Phonics supplement, which was first published in 2018, is excluded from the list of approved phonics curricula, according to a D.O.E. spokesperson.)

These developments reflect a long-standing consensus among researchers that intensive phonics and vocabulary-building instruction – an approach often referred to, nowadays, as the “science of reading” – are essential. Although an estimated sixty per cent of early readers in kindergarten through second grade in the United States are enrolled in schools that use programs aligned with balanced literacy, in the past two years, eighteen states have passed laws that mandate training for teachers in phonics-based instruction.

There has never been much peer-reviewed research to support Units of Study or other balanced-literacy curricula. In 2020, the education nonprofit Student Achievement Partners published a meticulous vivisection of Calkins’s program: “there are constantly missed opportunities to build new vocabulary and knowledge about the world or learn about how written English works,” the authors noted. “The impact is most severe for children who do not come to school already possessing what they need to know to make sense of written and academic English.” Last year, the curriculum-review nonprofit EdReports came to similar conclusions, and gave its lowest rating (“Does Not Meet Expectations”) to Units of Study and another popular balanced-literacy program, Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, which, according to one survey, is used in some forty-four per cent of classrooms nationwide.

Both reports bore down hard on the programs’ inattention to phonics. Last spring, Calkins announced that she would revise the main Units of Study programs for kindergarten through second grade in order to add daily phonics instruction. (A spokesperson for Calkins wrote, in an e-mail, “We must always work – together – towards constant improvement. This is why we are incredibly excited for the publication of the new edition of the Units of Study curriculum as this extends our proven approach by incorporating also our latest learnings and research.”)

It’s startling to realize that panels of experts had to argue the case that teaching children to read involves careful attention to the relationships between sounds and letters, or enhancing their vocabulary and knowledge of various subjects. It’s stranger still that, in many school systems and for many years, this was the losing argument.

Horace Mann ~ NOT my favorite ‘educator’

The reading wars in America date back at least as far as the nineteenth century, when progressive education reformers “believed that children would find it far more interesting and pleasurable to memorize words and read short sentences and stories without having to bother to learn the names of the letters,” as the education historian Diane Ravitch writes in her book “Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform.” Alphabet and phonics instruction, the thinking went, was enervating and, in the long run, unnecessary. The education crusader Horace Mann, who sparred with the phonics-fixated schoolmasters of Boston, went so far as to claim that children were frightened by the alphabet, which he described as a horde of “skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions.” (In fact, the brain of a very young child does perceive letters differently than an adult brain: not as fixed, flat symbols but as three-dimensional objects rotating in space. That’s why kids who are learning to write so commonly exchange “b” and “d,” for example, or “p” and “q.”)

An under-acknowledged irritant in the reading wars is the fact that written English is deranged – haunted by Mann’s apparitions, perhaps. Why isn’t “bread” or “said” spelled like “red”? Why can’t “move,” “love,” and “stove” come to an agreement on their pronunciation? Why don’t “daughter” and “laughter” rhyme? Given its brotherhood with “what” and “where,” why isn’t “who” pronounced “woo”? What, exactly, is “enough”? In 1906, Andrew Carnegie funded the Simplified Spelling Board, an organization that advocated for the standardization of English-language spelling; the group included an Ivy League college president, a sitting Supreme Court Justice, and Mark Twain. Soon after, another Simplified Spelling Board supporter, President Theodore Roosevelt, published “The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book,” which included rationalizations such as “fixt,” “kist,” “surprize,” and “thoro.” The project was doomed, owing largely to Congress’s disapproval. Yet the idea that young readers shouldn’t have to learn to decrypt such an inconsistent phonics code took hold, and endured.

The alternative was what came to be called the “whole word” or “look-say” method, exemplified in the notorious Dick-and-Jane primers that were first published in the nineteen-thirties. (“Oh, Mother. Oh, Father. Jane can play.”) “The pedagogical approach underlying these primers assumed that beginning readers learned new words best by associating them with pictures and memorizing them through dutiful repetition,” I-Huei Go wrote, in The New Yorker, in 2019. By the fifties, Go noted, this “method was just starting to face pushback from proponents of phonics-based instruction, most visibly in Rudolf Flesch’s influential polemic ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read.’ ” Flesch argued that look-say didn’t really teach reading at all. “Books are put in front of the children and they are told to guess at the words or wait until Teacher tells them,” he wrote. “But they are not taught to read.” What’s more, Flesch pointed out, the books that the children were guessing at weren’t any good—they were “meaningless, stupid, totally uninteresting to a six-year-old child or anyone else.” (“See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick.”) Flesch’s book, published in 1955, stayed on the national-best-seller lists for thirty weeks.

In the sixties, a psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education named Jeanne Chall spent years compiling a painstaking analysis of historical and contemporary approaches to literacy in American schools, which became the influential book “Learning to Read: The Great Debate.” Chall concluded that phonics instruction was far superior to look-say, especially for students from underprivileged families. But she was more evenhanded than Flesch, proposing that phonics be set aside as early as possible in a child’s literacy education in order to focus more intently on introducing her to great books – to move through the mechanics of reading with some dispatch so that the joys and pleasures of it could be revealed all the more swiftly. “Jeanne Chall settled the argument in 1967,” Ravitch told me. “But the argument never stopped.”

By the early nineteen-eighties, the literacy pendulum was swinging back toward what was then known as the whole-language movement, which, in the U.S., was led by a pugilistic University of Arizona professor named Kenneth Goodman. Goodman believed that, ideally, learning to read was a self-directed and self-willed act; he posited whole language as a rejection of “negative, elitist, racist views of linguistic purity” and compared advocates of phonics to flat-Earthers. But, throughout the eighties and nineties, researchers compiled evidence that rigorous instruction in phonics was superior to early-reading programs that did not emphasize phonics. The National Reading Panel (a commission formed by the National Institutes of Health, at the request of Congress) and the National Academy of Sciences published reports to that effect. “Whole language proponents could no longer deny the importance of phonics,” the education reporter Emily Hanford has written. “But they didn’t give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process.” Whole language was rebranded as balanced literacy, in which, according to Hanford, “phonics is treated a bit like salt on a meal: a little here and there, but not too much, because it could be bad for you.”

The pivotal National Reading Report appeared in 2000, the same year that Calkins published “The Art of Teaching Reading,” which extends to nearly six hundred pages and where much of her philosophy of literacy – honed by the decades she spent providing professional-development services to educators through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project – can be found. In the book, Calkins walks her audience through a typical reading workshop, beginning with teacher-led “minilessons,” which are guided by questions such as “How can we choose ‘just right’ books?” or “How can we make more time for reading in our lives?” Even very young students are sometimes asked to deduce an author’s thoughts and intentions: why she chose a particular descriptive word; how she might personally feel toward her characters.

Then, the class moves on to independent reading, which is generally meant to last for at least thirty minutes, although “emergent and beginning readers may not be able to sustain reading” for that long. “This – actual reading time – is the most important part of the reading workshop,” Calkins writes, adding, “Children can’t learn to swim without swimming, to write without writing, to sing without singing, or to read without reading.” As the students page through books that they have individually selected from the classroom’s mini-library, the teacher moves among them, checking in on their progress or gathering small groups “for a strategy session around a shared text.”

What Calkins was proposing, it seems to me, was literacy by vibes. Her reading workshops bet that a youngster could, to a great extent, guide herself toward reading fluency through proximity or osmosis, eventually achieving what my colleague Kyle Chayka has called “the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience.” Even the chapter about phonics in “The Art of Teaching Reading” contains a vibes-y digression on high-frequency words, in which Calkins notes that “children who are thriving as readers and writers at the end of first grade usually seem to ‘just know’ ” these words.

For many teachers, balanced literacy was a welcome turn away from lesson plans in which all children at a certain grade level read the same stories and answered the same predetermined questions, leaving teachers with less room for creativity and spontaneity. “It used books that kids would actually read, which made it more meaningful for them,” Nadine Bryce, an associate professor of literacy at Hunter College and a Teachers College alumnus, told me. “It was new and refreshing and innovative.”

A major proponent of balanced literacy was Carmen Fariña, who was the New York City schools chancellor under Mayor Bill de Blasio until 2018. Fariña logged twenty-two years as an elementary – and middle-school teacher in the public schools, including a legendary stint at P.S. 29, in Brooklyn, where she turned empty washing-machine boxes into cozy independent-reading nooks and kept a “forbidden” cache of titles by Judy Blume and other provocative authors that kids could read by special request. For Fariña’s students, reading wasn’t a chore or a drill – it was a treat. “The last twenty minutes of most school days is wasted time in a classroom, so we used it for free reading,” Fariña told me. “The kids leave the school gentler, quieter, and if they’re reading a good book they want to go home and finish it.” The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who was Fariña’s fourth-grade student at P.S. 29, in the early nineteen-seventies, dedicated his first novel to Fariña; “The Art of Teaching Reading” includes Calkins’s reverent account of Fariña’s tenure in the nineties, as principal at P.S. 6, in Manhattan, where she dramatically raised reading scores using a balanced-literacy approach.

In a balanced-literacy classroom, “the kids are choosing books that engage them,” Andrea Castellano, a teacher in Brooklyn, said. “They’re going to the library and saying, ‘I like this book. I’m reading this book.’ ” A typical minilesson, Castellano told me, might prompt the children to compare and contrast characters. “You give them the concept, and they’ll go off on their own in small groups. Everyone is reading something different, because everyone is on a different reading level. The teacher is moving from group to group, conferring, making sure that everyone is reaching the learning target.” She went on, “It’s all about centering the children and their preferences. There’s an amount of engagement in Teachers College that I have never seen in any other curriculum.”

The decisive moment for the ascendance of balanced literacy in New York City came in 2003. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had seized control of the public-school system. His chancellor, Joel Klein, was a lawyer who had served in the White House and the Department of Justice but had little experience in education, save for one year as a math teacher in the late sixties. Klein mandated the Teachers College method in the vast majority of elementary schools, along with a modest supplementary program called Month-by-Month Phonics. Teachers College had high-ranking enthusiasts in the D.O.E., including Diana Lam, Klein’s deputy chancellor of instruction until 2004, and Fariña, who succeeded Lam. But, at that time, “balanced literacy was simply an instructional approach, largely reliant on training and coaching,” Natalie Wexler writes in her 2019 book, “The Knowledge Gap.” “Its components weren’t codified in writing.” In other words, Klein had signed up for a curriculum that didn’t yet exist. Oddly, he issued his balanced-literacy decree despite a view of the reading wars as something of a six-in-one proposition. “I think it’s a ‘less filling/tastes great’ debate,” he told James Traub, of the Times. “I don’t believe curriculums are the key to education. I believe teachers are.” According to Wexler, Calkins drew up the first iteration of Units of Study in three weeks, ahead of the 2003-04 school year.

Balanced literacy, Traub wrote, was part of “one of the greatest experiments ever attempted in progressive education.” To many expert observers, however, the results of that experiment were in before it began. Susan B. Neuman, who was then the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, under George W. Bush, told me, “We went to New York and said, ‘Stop using this program!’ ” In fact, after Klein announced the switch to balanced literacy, a group of prominent reading experts, including three who had served on the National Reading Panel, wrote an open letter that called Month-by-Month Phonics “woefully inadequate” and unsupported by research.

Calkins now maintains that Units of Study has always included some degree of phonics instruction, and that Teachers College has long encouraged school districts to choose their own supplemental phonics curricula. But, as recently as 2019, the Web site of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project stated, “Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.” Some of that time may instead be devoted to memorization of “predictable” texts: One book commonly used in Units of Study repeats the phrase “Look at the . . .” with each entry ending on the name of the animal that is illustrated on that page – no decoding necessary. At times, Calkins’s public statements have seemed to endorse a gnomic, fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to literacy. “A few months into kindergarten, a child can ‘read’ a book that says, ‘I can read the newspaper,’ and ‘I can read the recipe,’ if the child relies on the pattern of the repeating text, on the pictures, and on first letters,” Calkins wrote in 2019. “The child is approximating reading.”

Tim Shanahan, who is the distinguished professor emeritus in education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, was one of the co-authors of the withering Student Achievement Partners report on Units of Study. He began his career as a first-grade teacher. “For a lot of teachers – and I remember this from when I was becoming a teacher—there is something romantic about this idea of kids just unfolding on their own,” he said. “The problem with teaching reading,” he went on, “is that in some sense almost everything works. It doesn’t necessarily work well. But there are always going to be kids who manage to learn to read with a minimum of support and instruction.”

These students are more likely to be growing up in homes full of books, Shanahan said, among adults with the time and ability to read aloud to them. It is most likely these lucky children, in fact, who at some point “just know” how to read – who bear out Calkins’s theory of literacy by vibes, because these kids are already marinating in those vibes at home. “And that’s where this gets to be noxious,” Shanahan said. “It’s undoubtedly true that many kids will learn to read with this program. But it’s also probably true that the percentage of kids who learn to read will be lower, and the average achievement level will be lower.”

It’s a common belief among early-reading experts that roughly forty per cent of children can learn to read fluently without much direct instruction. “Those are the people who grow up to say, ‘I don’t remember how I learned to read; I just did it,’ ” Leah Wasserman, a pediatric speech-language pathologist in Brooklyn, told me. “But about sixty per cent need some level of explicit instruction, and those kids are not going to do well with Teachers College. If a kid doesn’t know how to match letters and sounds, or to sound out and segment and blend, they’re not learning to read. They’re not going to naturally intuit how to do that in twenty or thirty minutes of free reading.” And because those blocks of time are mainly devoted to silent reading, children aren’t demonstrating their understanding of letter sounds – they aren’t, to borrow a term from math class, showing their work.

What’s more, Susan Neuman told me, some clever members of the sixty per cent may be able to feint their way through books for early readers, and so the true extent of their lack of decoding skills may not emerge until as late as third grade. (In 2011, a national study of four thousand students found that a child who is not reading proficiently by third grade is four times as likely to drop out of high school or graduate late as those who are, or eight times as likely if that child is also Black or Hispanic and affected by poverty.)

There’s a strong chance that some of the students whom Neuman describes have undiagnosed dyslexia, which affects about twenty per cent of the population. (Mayor Eric Adams, who has made services for children with dyslexia a major focus of his schools efforts, did not discover that he had the learning disability until he was in college.) “Lucy Calkins caters to kids who have no challenges,” a Brooklyn elementary-school teacher, who is also the parent of a child with dyslexia, told me. “If everything isn’t smooth sailing, you’re sunk. There’s no support for you. ‘Just look at the pictures’ – well, guess what, the pictures go away.”

Castellano and Fariña both affirmed the importance of integrating phonics into the Units of Study mix. And Fariña emphasized that the Lucy Calkins method, like any literacy curriculum, doesn’t exist in a vacuum: interventions for English-as-a-new-language learners and dyslexic children, speech-and-language specialists, a strong social-studies component, and heavy investment in books for classroom libraries are all needed. (As a teacher, Fariña spent her own money on books.) Even some strong advocates of balanced literacy acknowledge that teachers can feel overwhelmed by its demands, particularly with a crowded public-school classroom of thirty or more kids. “If a teacher shows up in the morning and tries to do it by rote, they’re going to end up saying, ‘Kids can’t learn this way.’ This is hard work,” Fariña said.

As Castellano put it, “There is a classroom-management aspect to this – systems and structures that you have to put in place to allow children that much freedom. It requires professional development. You have to have a relationship with your students where you can say, ‘You’re going over there to do your work, and I’ll know if you’re not doing your work.’ ”

“It’s very easy to fake balanced literacy,” Mia Hood, a teacher educator in New York City, said. “You can walk into a classroom and hear all this beautiful talk about books and characters. But if you really listen hard, you think, Are they really getting this?” Still, Hood, a Teachers College alumnus, believes that the approach can work, if schools make the effort to “professionally develop teachers and help them really listen to kids when they talk about books.” Bryce, the literacy professor at Hunter, struck a similar note, suggesting that critics of balanced literacy should scrutinize how teachers implement the method, not the method itself. “The heart of the issue,” she said, “is the type of teaching that is offered. In places where teachers have larger class sizes, they have to be a lot more creative. They have to help students to help themselves.”

Calkins has often mounted a similar defense of critiques of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: that the schools that don’t get the desired results from the program are not doing it right, likely because Calkins hasn’t trained their teachers herself. But professional-development sessions with Teachers College are pricey. According to reporting by Dana Goldstein, of the Times, “schools paid up to $2,650 for a seven-hour visit from a consultant with Professor Calkins’s group and were encouraged to purchase 20 visits a year” – which would bring the annual bill to well over fifty thousand dollars. In all, Goldstein wrote, New York City “paid $31 million between 2016 and 2022 for services from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.” (When asked about pricing, Calkins’s spokesperson said, in an e-mail, “Each school that works with TCRWP designs a Professional Development package that meets its needs and budget.”)

I have to assume that my daughter and I, alone in our living room during remote learning two years ago, missed out on most of what works about a Teachers College reading workshop. I had no training, to say nothing of tutelage from Calkins herself. Nor was there any way for us to approximate the social, collaborative aspects of Calkins’s method. In chatting with Castellano and Fariña, I began to wonder whether Teachers College was ideally suited to the kind of memorable, charismatic teacher you might encounter once in a lifetime: what Sidney Poitier was to Lulu, what Robin Williams was to all those kids standing on their desks, what Carmen Fariña in fourth grade was to Jonathan Lethem, what Mrs. Moskal in third grade was to me.

At the time that balanced literacy was solidifying in the New York City schools, in 2003, Ellen Campeas was a literacy coach at a high school in Washington Heights. “The program came in like gangbusters and turned everything upside down,” Campeas said. “Once a week, I was released from all my duties and went up to train at Teachers College.” Campeas, who retired in 2018, recalled the presentations as offering a highly scripted, regimented framework for teachers. She didn’t sense the freedom and possibility that Bryce, Castellano, and Fariña describe. “It was dictatorial – Lucy’s way or no way. There was no room for teachers to do what they wanted or address individual needs.”

A teacher whom I’ll call E., who has worked with first and second graders in public schools in California and in the Bronx and Brooklyn, describes reading workshop as a kind of meta-teaching filibuster. “The minilesson will be about, for example, ‘finding your lifelong love of reading.’ Which is great! But a lot of that time could have been spent actually teaching the kids to read.” She went on, “These kids needed intense instruction in decoding and fluency, and instead we’re talking about why Cynthia Rylant”—the author of the Henry and Mudge books, about a boy and his English mastiff—“wrote this way about Mudge. We’re talking about the motivations behind an author’s choice of words, and meanwhile the kids are struggling with the vocabulary, they’re struggling with feeling good about reading aloud.”

In her classroom, E. has seen the same socioeconomic dynamics playing out in Units of Study that Shanahan and other academics observed in their research. “Some of the kids come from pretty rough home lives, with not a lot of people at home to read with them, to give them a foundation of a love of language and literature, because life is hard – Mom is working three jobs, they’re staying with Grandma, who is taking care of five other kids,” E. said. Many of her students are English-as-a-new-language learners, and thus in especially urgent need of a strong foothold in phonics, decoding, and vocabulary. “Lucy Calkins feels like a curriculum built for white kids who have books, whose parents read to them, who have affluence and privilege. But if I brought up that stuff at a staff meeting, it’s, ‘Why don’t you think these kids can do it?’ I do think these kids can do it—just not this way.”

Fariña told me, “I find this idea offensive – that kids who come from poverty areas need a more structured and disciplined approach to learning than middle-class kids do. They may need more time on the decoding skills. But why shouldn’t they be exposed to the same kind of enjoyment about reading as other kids?”

In some New York City schools, the influence of Units of Study began to wane as early as 2008. According to Wexler, Klein grew disenchanted with the program in part because he felt that it prioritized children making personal connections to texts at the expense of acquiring new knowledge. What’s more, in the first four years that the balanced-literacy mandate was in place, reading scores did not budge. “After coming on so strong, it just kind of went away – we didn’t have to do her program anymore,” Campeas said. “You’d go into a bathroom or a storage room and you’d see all the Lucy Calkins books piled up.” But, in many other schools that had already invested large amounts of time and money in Calkins’s curricula and training sessions, Units of Study was now a fact on the ground. In 2015, after Fariña became chancellor, she required a cohort of low-performing schools to adopt elements of the program. Chalkbeat reported that Fariña’s team issued a set of “non-negotiables” to principals at these schools, including reserving up to forty-five minutes of classroom time per day for independent reading and sending their “best and brightest” staffers to Teachers College training sessions.

If New York circa 2022 is moving away from balanced literacy more decisively than it has in the past, the city will be following the lead of a string of school systems across the country, including ones in Arkansas, Colorado, and Missouri, that have recently adopted science-of-reading curricula. The San Francisco Unified School District, which employs balanced literacy throughout its system, recently switched to a science-of-reading framework in its summer-catch-up literacy program for students in kindergarten through third grade. Early last year, the N.A.A.C.P. filed an administrative petition with the Oakland Unified School District, which had been using Units of Study, asking for the system to adopt a “research-based reading curriculum.” “Our Black, Latino and Pacific Islander students,” the petition read, “are four times more likely to be reading multiple years below grade level than our white students.”

Lakisha Young is the founder and C.E.O. of the Oakland reach, a parent-run educational-advocacy group. “We asked parents what was keeping them up at night,” Young said. “What we heard, overwhelmingly, was ‘literacy.’ Black students are lowest on the totem pole for academic outcomes in literacy. We pulled everybody together in a coalition around moving toward the science of reading.” In March, the Oakland REACH received a three-million-dollar donation from the progressive philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Meanwhile, Banks, the New York City chancellor, has convened a Literacy Advisory Council, composed of researchers, educators, students, and parents, to oversee improving literacy education citywide. By all accounts, as one public-school principal told me, “Teachers College does not seem present in that work at all.”

Nell Duke, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, told me that, at least among academics, there are no “reading wars.” She compared the notion to the idea that there is a debate among climate scientists about carbon emissions. “The vast majority of researchers recognize the importance of explicitly teaching phonics, phonemic awareness, and spelling in the early grades, as well as the various moves we make to develop reading comprehension and genre knowledge,” she said.

But the reading wars in schools and in the public sphere are very much ongoing, and their cycles, predictable as they are, may persist because they are a proxy for other, more intractable dilemmas. Bryce cited the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which began collecting data on student achievement in various areas of study in 1969. Literacy results, she said, “seem fairly stable, no matter what curriculum is in place. If you look at the data between 1992 and 2019, white and Asian students outperform Black and Latinx and Native American students, and the question is why. I don’t think we can answer the question about children’s progress in school by looking at curriculum per se.” What investigators must examine more closely, Bryce said, “are the social inequities that we have persisting in society.” Those inequities may often be legible across the shelves of a school library. “Kids need to be reading books where they see themselves,” she said. “I’m asking teachers to think about systemic racism as it is manifested in book selection. That conversation is not reflected in the reading wars.”

Last year, New York City spent tens of millions of dollars on various screening tests for measuring children’s progress in school, despite the tests’ drain on teaching time and non-evident utility. Part of the appeal of such screeners, Hood and Duke told me, is that they can be administered relatively quickly to many students. This highlights another central obstacle to effective, joyous teaching: overcrowded classrooms. A famous study from Tennessee, conducted in the eighties and nineties, randomly assigned children to larger or smaller class sizes. “The results from the smaller class sizes were better, as you would have expected,” Duke said. Other, equally unsurprising research has demonstrated the positive and negative impacts of occupational therapy, speech-and-language specialists, the number of books in the classroom, adequate time for recess, and even ambient noise – from busy streets or rattling A.C. units – on children’s literacy development. “Research tells us that all of these different structural factors matter,” Duke said. Some of the efforts to assess children and teachers, she suggested, should be redirected to assessing their learning spaces and the larger, systemic forces at play.

I’ve now spent about two and a half years, on and off, thinking about Lucy Calkins’s literacy program: both the wan, mutant version of it that sprouted in my apartment during the first lockdowns and the enormously influential pedagogy that determined how generations of students learned, or didn’t learn, to read. The move away from that curriculum is overdue. But I’ve come to think that we home in on the shortcomings of Calkins’s methods because dumping them is relatively straightforward. You can’t just fix absurd teacher-student ratios by force of will – you need money and buildings and teachers. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently signalled her support for a bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the state legislature, that would significantly rachet down maximum class sizes – my daughter’s third-grade class of thirty-two, for example, would be capped at twenty kids. But the Adams administration has opposed the legislation, which would require hundreds of millions of dollars to implement.

Likewise, it is hugely difficult to break the habit of chronic lack of funding for public schools. (Mayor Adams’s proposed budget will leave some schools with shortfalls topping a million dollars, despite some seven hundred and sixty million dollars in unspent federal-stimulus funds.) Overcrowding and underinvestment have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown kids; the systemic racism inherent in those failures, and the overt racism of the anti-critical-race-theory hysteria embroiling school districts across the country, cannot be simply undone. (The publication of Calkins’s revised Units of Study has been delayed owing to concerns that some of the material fell afoul of various anti-C.R.T. laws in some states.) You can’t recoup or replace all the teachers who are fleeing the field because of burnout and despair overnight. You can address child poverty almost overnight, to a surprising extent – the short-lived Child Tax Credit did just that—but we have decided that we don’t want to.

“If you can do one thing to improve education,” Diane Ravitch told me, “you eliminate poverty. But people say, ‘That’s impossible. What else can we do?’ ” The question is overwhelming; the answers seem impossible to grasp. But one person is something you can see clearly. One curriculum is something you can hold in your hand.

Written by Jessica Winter for The New Yorker ~ September 1, 2022

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