Re: After Holding Back Third Graders, What to Do?

Letter to Mr. David M. Herszenhorn
The New York Times
March 17, 2004

By Elizabeth Carson

Re: "Many of the most prominent experts, like Mr. Levine, say the political debate over social promotion - with conservatives demanding the mastery of basic skills and liberals urging the nurturing of social development - misses the point."

Mr Herszenhorn, I implore you to resist perpetuation of patently false dichotomies in educational values and standards (ie basic skills vs conceptual understanding, or in the context of social promotion, basic skills vs the nurturing of social development) as you did in today's report (After Holding Back Third Graders, What To Do?)

I also implore you to avoid the often politically motivated mischaracterization of all those who favor a classical education as conservative, and all those who favor progressive education as liberal, which you also did in today's report.

While providing nothing to inform critically important public discourse on education, such mischaracterizations do inspire immediate suspicion, distrust and polarization. For many, especially in this town, as you well know, tying conservativism to the valuing of basic skills is one step away from naming all basic skills advocates 'evil doers.' Similarly for many in this town, as you well know, tying liberalism to progressive education is one step away from endowing progressive education advocates with sainthood.

I am a liberal and a strong advocate of the return of basic skills to mathematics education and a system best defined as classical education. I am founder of a grassroots organization of like-minded others, among them parents, educators and mathematicians and scientists. NYC HOLD Honest Open Logical Debate on Mathematics Education Reform

While I have not asked each their party affiliation I do know through the many discussions we've had in the past several years, that our political views are broadly diverse, ranging from left of the Green Party to conservative. If I was to guess the majority political view of members and associates, it would be liberal.

You were at the recent UFT sponsored reading summit and must have heard Dr Reid Lyon, the top reading advisor to a Republican White House, in his introductory remarks to support the President's Reading First initiative, assert that his own political views are liberal.

What is missing from your report is of most concern to our group ( and I am sure is also of most concern to Reid Lyon): The Chancellor's universal reading and math programs (a progressive approached and still experimental ) are setting kids up to fail and so any supports and remediation put into place to help struggling learners, the Mayor's promotional policy in total, holds questionable promise at best, in the face of the egregious flaws in his core programs.

Content deficient programs and too strict adherence to a narrow set of teaching approaches, that favors inquiry and discovery learning to the exclusion of explicit instruction is unfortunately embodied in the Chancellors Children First reforms. On close inspection, the absence of attention to basic arithmetic skills is easily identified in the elementary program, Everyday Math, known as "reform math" of "fuzzy math;" just as the absence of phonics is easily identified in the elementary reading program, given the misleading title, Month by Month Phonics.

Students, if advanced through the grades without these critically important foundation skills, will clearly be unprepared for higher level reading, math and science courses, and left without any hope to fulfill college and career ambitions.

Critics of progressive reforms like NYC HOLD, recognize and fully support the purported goals ( ie, developing critical thinking skills, conceptual understanding, reaching all students, closing the achievement gap, attending to socio-emotional development) and appreciate some aspects of the associated programs and teaching approaches ( inquiry based learning, engaging exercises and projects) But the progressive reforms do not, can not live up to the promise.

The reality is progressive education does not hold a monopoly on either the espoused goals or teaching approaches. NYC HOLD sees the greatest promise in the classical educational model. We recognize classroom instruction must be engaging, meaningful and relevant, and at the same time it must lead to results: knowledge and skills acquisition, conceptual understanding and critical thinking. These components are interdependent, no one less important than the others. When any one of the parts are lacking, efforts to support all students' potential and to close the achievement gap are doomed. We recognize too, efforts to ensure more skilled and knowledgeable classroom teachers is an imperative.

The fundamental flaws in the progressive reform movement undermine any hope of fulfillment of the very goals the movement hoped to achieve. The consequence of the Chancellor's adoption of the approach in most NYC classrooms, dooms the Mayor's efforts to turn around our schools.

I suggest you and your editors re-read James Traub's fine article originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 31, 2000. (below)

Elizabeth Carson

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