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Back to May Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 208 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS MAY 2003

Students In Big Apple Get Month-By-Month 'Phonics'
Can year-by-year declines in reading scores be far behind? 
NEW YORK CITY - After asserting that the $12 billion currently being spent on New York City's public schools is more than sufficient to provide a good education for its 1.1 million students, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged in January that reading and writing programs would include "a daily focus on phonics." Since approximately 60 to 70% of black American and Hispanic children in the school system are illiterate despite the financial outlay, his words offered reason for hope. One week later, however, he installed a mandatory whole language and fuzzy math curriculum.

Hallmarks of the new curriculum, which was introduced by the Big Apple's new Department of Education, are Month by Month Phonics and Everyday Mathematics. The former is sure to guarantee students' failure to learn to read, while the latter has triggered parental outrage across the country.

Writing in the Winter 2003 issue of City Journal, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern called the new curriculum "a disaster in the making." Stern stated that "the children in the targeted schools are mainly poor and minority - the very population historically most damaged by such methods." Stern noted that Month by Month Phonics "has little to do with phonics," despite its name. "Sure, you will find a handful of suggestions to teachers about how to weave the occasional word- and letter-sounding cues into daily classroom reading activities," he wrote. "But right from the start, the authors make it clear that they're not enthusiastic about phonics."

Stern pointed out the irony of the fact that Mayor Bloomberg made his promise to install a back-to-basics reading program in the schools on Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, even though Month by Month Phonics was already chosen. "Bloomberg and his hand-picked schools chancellor, Joel Klein, shrouded their approach to reorganizing the school system and to picking the new standard curriculum in almost total secrecy," Stern wrote.

Of New York City's 1,000 public schools, 208 are exempt from the mandatory curriculum. These "high performing" schools will be granted waivers because they already have programs in place that are working.

'Palace Coup' 
Stern explained that what he called Bloomberg's "palace coup" - mayoral control of the New York City public schools - was made possible by the efforts of former mayor Rudy Giuliani and some conservatives, while it was fiercely resisted by progressives. Now, however, progressive educators are singing a different tune. Not only are they enthusiastic about the implementation of Month by Month Phonics, they are unhappy that more than 200 schools will be allowed to opt out of the program. Some of the best schools failed to make the exempt list, they say, while lesser-achievers did make the list. "If the curriculum is proven to be good, why exempt anyone?" seems to be the consensus.

But is the curriculum proven? Stern says not. He called such assertions by Diana Lam, New York City's Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, "bunk," adding that the improvements in reading scores at an elementary school in Brooklyn cited by Lam were overestimated. "Klein and Lam misled the public egregiously by implying that P.S. 172 used Month by Month Phonics throughout the period during which the school's scores went up," Stern explained. "The school only introduced the program two years ago, in 2001. Before then, it used Open Court, a tightly scripted phonics program anathema to progressive educators. A significant portion of the gains that Klein and Lam celebrated, in other words, likely resulted from Open Court."

Month by Month Phonics in Violation of NCLB 
President George W. Bush's reading advisor, G. Reid Lyon, a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, apparently agrees with Stern. Lyon stated that New York City's new reading program "has no proven track record." Lyon told the New York Times: "We can find no published research indicating that this program has been tested with well-defined groups of kids and shown to be effective."

One question that has arisen is whether the Bush administration will allow New York City to receive tens of millions of dollars in federal education funds even though it is in obvious violation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires a phonics-based instructional approach to teach reading.

Fuzzy Math Connection 
According to Stern and many other observers, the combination of Whole Language reading and fuzzy math programs can prove deadly for students. "The text-heavy Everyday Math presumes that kids already possess sufficient reading fluency to grasp complex word problems, which is unlikely in inner-city schools and which the new reading program will make even more unlikely," Stern wrote.

He described how former teacher Matthew Clavel complained that when his district forced him to use Everyday Mathematics in his 3rd-grade class in the South Bronx, "the students who were behind in language acquisition found the word problems 'simply baffling.'"

Clavel related in a recent issue of City Journal that a student told him, "Mr. Clavel, no one understands this stuff." Another teacher lamented that Everyday Math "encourages students to use calculators when the numbers get too big," and that the calculators become a crutch. "If you give a child a calculator in 2nd grade, you're getting him to commit intellectual suicide," she said.

Parents all over the country have raged against Everyday Math and other fuzzy math programs, often to no avail. While some school districts have introduced alternative math programs, in most instances the fuzzy math programs have remained in place, and parents have been forced to tutor their children themselves or to hire tutors.

Month-by-Month Blunder? 
Sol Stern asserted that "Bloomberg's officials have worked hard to promote the image of Month by Month Phonics as an effective new reading program." He added that the New York Times has aided the city's cause, despite the testimony of G. Reid Lyon. "Though the Department of Education guards access to the schools as if they were military bases in Afghanistan," Stern wrote, "it recently allowed Times reporter Abby Goodnough to spend a week observing classes at P.S. 172. Goodnough's article glowingly described all-around satisfaction with Month by Month Phonics at the school."

Stern pointed out that Mayor Bloomberg accepted a significant political risk by taking on the New York City public school system. "He has to decide soon whether he really wants to stake his reputation and so much of his political capital on an untested reading program masquerading as phonics, led by a group of progressive educators who have never demonstrated that they can provide minority children with the basic skills they need to succeed in life."


 
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