PS 89: A Question of Philosophy

Tribeca Trib
January, 1998

Carl Glassman

Phoebe is not yet two, but her mother, Liz Berger, is already thinking about an elementary school for her. And she knows now that she would like to have a choice.

"How do I know that PS 234 is going to be the right school for her?" said Berger, a new member of Community Board 1's Youth Committee. "I have a lot of friends whose kids are happy there. And I know parents who said they pulled their kids out in the upper grades. I don't know what my daughter's going to be like. Maybe its going to be right for her. Maybe its not."

With discussions set to begin this month among parents, community board members and District 2 officials, the issue of school choice (will PS 89 and PS 234 be available to children on both sides of West Street?) will almost certainly be a contentious one.

One argument for bringing both elementary schools into one zone is the belief by some that one school's approach to teaching may serve their child better than the other's.

"Obviously, when people talk about choice, in large part they talk about having options in terms of the educational approach that the school should take," Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1, told the board's Youth Committee last month in its discussion of the upcoming Jan 8 board hearing on PS/IS 89. "We should make clear that in no way is this intended to be a knock at 234. They do a great job. But I think it's fair also to think that other children should have an option. This is a nationally debated issue."

The issue Goldstein refers to is the recent controversy in California over some of the same educational questions posed by the opening of a new school in Battery Park City.

For example, PS 234 is one of many schools throughout the country that use math teaching methods adopted by the California Board of Education in 1992.

Backlash in California

These progressive methods, based on concepts published in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, ascribes little long-term benefit in the rote learning of basic skills. Instead, they seek to foster "higher" thinking by guiding children toward their own discoveries of fundamental math principles. But, say detractors, some children fail to make these discoveries or make them too slowly; and in the absence of basic skills instruction, they end up learning nothing.

Last month, responding to groups of parents who complained that the state's progressive methods were failing their children, the California Board of Education approved a new set of math standards tat returned to an emphasis on "basics" including rte memorization of multiplication tables and mastery of long division. Because 10 percent of the country's public school students attend California schools, textbook publishers are expected to respond to the conservative tide and the impact could be felt nationwide.

A Palo Alto parent group called HOLD takes some of the credit for the reversal. HOLD pressured the local school district into offering traditional alterative to its progressive sixth grade math classes.

"The parents love it and the children like it and the teachers teaching the regular (progressive) program report that as a result of the traditional option, none of the parents are complaining this year," said HOLD leader Bill Evers.

California's Board of Education had approved a similar reversal in 1986, reintroducing phonics to reading instruction after parents complained that the "whole language" approach, also promoted in Tribeca schools, was not adequate fro all children.

Many PS 234 parents say that the school, in response to some of the same criticisms heard in California, has begun to place more emphasis on homework, spelling and memorization of multiplication tables.

Differing Opinions

A difference of opinion within this neighborhood over the progressive approach of PS 234, considered by District 2 officials a model school for the district, surfaced publicly in recent months in a series of letters to the Trib. Parents critical of the school's methods raised some of the same concerns as California parents, saying the school is undemanding and tries to promote creativity and self-esteem at the expense of basic knowledge and skills. Some complained that they had to hire tutors. Defenders of PS 234 wrote that the school helped their children become excellent problem solvers who went on the excel in middle school.

In an interview, the school's principal, Anna Switzer, dismissed the critical letters as "full of misinformation."

"By every standard measure as well as by every touchy-feely measure, the school is exemplary," said Switzer. Standardized scores for 1997 have yet to be released but, she pointed out, third-grade reading scores from the previous year show the school to be among the city's top five public elementary schools, as measured by the percentage of third graders who read well above grade level. In math, PS 234 has been singled out as a demonstration school for the district.

"There's a district philosophy," said Switzer."That's our philosophy."

"Our schools are different because there is a board and a superintendent who are committed to higher thinking skills." said District 2 spokesman Andrew Lachman. "And that means that our schools indeed look more like each other than they do like some schools elsewhere where there is basically, totally a lecture mode and there are kids sitting in rows."

According to District 2 philosophy, he said, children learn best when allowed to discover basic concepts for themselves and that learning is facilitated by working in groups. Children, he said, should be told to find solutions among themselves and look to the teacher for help only when another student cannot provide the answer. He calls it "learning how to learn and learning how to think rather than memorizing and parroting."

In 1996, District 2 poured more than $7.25 million into staff development, a means of teaching teachers methods promoted by the district. District 2 officials point to improvement in its test scores, among the best in the city, as evidence that the high-priced program is paying off.

Traditional vs Progressive

Educators have traditionally assumed that children must first master a body of basic facts and skills- a foundation that would later help theme explore abstract theories and concepts. Hence, the emphasis on textbooks, memorization, tests and drills, and "direct" instruction from teachers who impart a specific body of knowledge and gauge a student's mastery.

Progressive educators often put as much emphasis on students' thought processes and strategies for finding answers or reaching conclusions as they do on the answers students arrive at. Hands-on learning replaces textbooks and portfolios replace final exams. Children check each other's work.

To try to give children a deeper understanding, the "new, new math," as it is sometimes called, emphasizes process (asking the child to discover his own way to solve the problem) over formulas (where the teacher gives students the standard method to learn).

Critics say it is unrealistic to expect children to reinvent for themselves mathematical principles that took centuries to discover. Some parents worry that their children will not learn basic computation and math facts if they are not taught them directly.

District 2's Director of Mathematics (and former PS 234 vice principal) Lucy Mahon, concedes that "discovery learning" is a difficult idea for some to swallow.

"The problem is that people don't trust that. And in a way it makes sense not to trust that," she said. "But it is not the case that you are given a problem and maybe you will discover the formula. You are given a sequence of problems that all relate to the same concept. You come across the concept again and again until you own it. It has a lot more structure than what you read about in the newspaper."

District 2 officials and some of the educators say that it does not make sense to suggest that parents be given a choice between the progressive PS 234 and a school that combines the progressive approach with traditional elements. The progressive approach, they say, already incorporates the best of all methods, and is flexible enough to meet every child's needs.

Ria Seplowin, principal of the Early Childhood Center, said her K-2 school emphasizes working with materials and having children talk about what they are doing. Math, social studies, reading and writing are studied within themes, such as flowers or mammals. As for teaching of basic skills, she said, no single method is considered best for every child. "If you just work form a book that says do this and do that, you are doing the child a disservice." she said.

But some teachers complain privately about pressure from District 2 to follow a narrow interpretation of its philosophy. Workbooks and textbooks are increasingly discouraged, though PS 234 is one of only four out of 25 District 2 elementary schools that so far have banned textbooks completely.

"The kids are figuring out their own strategies, whish is fine for some children, but there are some children who need that basic strategy," said an experienced District 2 second-grade teacher who requested anonymity. "You have to teach it to them. And then they can figure out other ways on their own. But they've got to know one way."

The teacher who works at formerly traditional school, said there used to be frequent arguments between teachers and the staff developers who are hired by District 2 to instruct teachers in the new methods. "This year, I just sort of decided it's not worth fighting," she said. "It just gives you more headaches. Just do what they tell you to do. Teachers start to give up."

A Little of Both

Citywide, schools in other districts have achieved high scores using a variety of methods. As the opposite end of the spectrum from PS 234 is a top-rated school like PS 31 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where students sit at desks in rows while teachers use flash cards and drill them daily on lists of vocabulary words. Combining traditional with progressive is the method at PS 236 in Mills Basin Brooklyn, 15th among the city's 676 schools in reading scores. Ninety-four percent of third grade students at PS 236 perform at or above grade level on standardized math tests.

As at PS 234, children in PS 236 are seated in groups. They take a whole language approach to reading. They learn math with the aid of "manipulatives" such as blocks and tiles to help them visualize mathematical operations. They learn to read using anthologies of children's literature rather than readers.

But the school ahs retained traditional features that are at odds with the District 2 philosophy for its elementary schools. Students at PS 236 compete in spelling bees and schoolwide "math facts" competitions after memorizing the multiplication and division tables they are encouraged to study at home. Teachers uses textbooks, which are supplemented with field trips and hands-on learning activities.

Also in contrast to PS 234, students are grouped by age and ability. Every grade at PS 236 has a gifted class, a class of above-average students, and two classes for students who are pf average ability of need remedial work.

"You have to find a balance," said PS 236 assistant principal Sally Savedoff, who pioneered a program that combines the studies of history and language arts using historical fiction and other materials. "There are certain things children have to know, and there are no tricks. There's no way to learn these things except to just sit own and memorize them."

PS 236, however, is not a District 2 school and the principal selected by District 2 Superintendent Anthony Alvarado will likely have to adhere closer to the district's philosophy and curricula. But within those restraints, some principals insist that it is possible to retain traditional techniques that most progressive educators have dismissed. Jill Meyers former director of District 2's Clinton Middle School who this year became interim director of the district's new Baruch High School, calls herself a "progressive traditionalist."

"I don't believe that everything is portfolio and that every day we do cooperative (group) learning - not every single day in ever single period," said Myers, who is an enthusiastic proponent of testing new methods. "There are times the kids have to take notes from the board. There are times that we give tests. I think you have to be careful not to throw everything out."

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

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