"Balanced Literacy" is Bad Choice for New York City

By Lorraine Skeen

The New York Sun
February 12,2004


Future at Stake

"The Education-School Alchemists" is right on the mark [Andrew Wolf, Opinion, February 6, 2004]. My opinion is based on the 20 years I spent as an elementary school principal in East Harlem and my more recent experience (until the end of 2003) as a local instructional superintendent in the Bronx. The "Balanced Literacy" program seems to have been created by academics with little consideration for what is really best for inner-city schools.

The advocates of Balanced Literacy base their procedures on an idealized public school environment that may exist in a school like P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side. The students there bring with them an experiential background and linguistic strengths that are far richer than those at, say, P.S. 75 in the Hunt's Point section of the Bronx.

The emphasis in Balanced Literacy on procedure and its lack of content provide little real opportunity for inner-city students to learn to read well and to expand their knowledge base beyond their immediate environment.

When Schools Chancellor Klein restructured the Department of Education bureaucracy, many applauded, assuming that more of the available funds would get to the classroom. But this goal is being obstructed through the choice of Balanced Literacy as the mandatory curriculum for most of the schools.

The funds saved in the restructuring are going to consultants such as the Aussie group for coaching and professional development conferences. One has to ask why the teaching of reading under the Balanced Literacy Program has been made so complex that it requires teachers and principals to be retrained.

Other funds are going to the University of Pittsburgh group to conduct "learning walks." My experience with the latter caused me to question whether some members of the group have any real practical experience in elementary schools. The article is right also to point out the conflict of interest inherent in the position of Columbia Teachers College.

In spite of its shortcomings and the lack of research on its effectiveness, Balanced Literacy might give satisfactory results at P.S. 6 because the children there have a stronger home learning environment. The irony is that P.S. 6 is exempt from the mandatory curriculum. The tragedy at P.S. 75, where the children really need a content-rich, phonetics-based program, is that there is no exemption.

There is not just money at stake here, but also the future of New York City.

Lorraine Skeen

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