The East Side of Manhattan used to embrace an extraordinary variety of neighborhoods, from the Silk Stocking District to the Lower East Side, the East Village, and the Bowery. It also comprised most of District 2 of the New York City Schools. In the 1990’s District 2 saw another new era in education. Diane Ravitch reports that a method of reading instruction came into force called Balanced Literacy, designed, so it was claimed, to bridge the gap between enthusiasts of “whole language” English instruction and those who favored phonics and other traditional methods. It worked the way all plans do that try to bridge the gap between irreconcilable differences or to compromise something that will work with something that won’t.
After about ten years a “study” of the district showed that reading scores had improved and vindicated Balanced Literacy and District 2’s methods of imposing it. Before accepting the study’s claims, let us go over Ravitch’s review of what Balanced Literacy does and how the program was put in place.
The idea is to break up reading into lots of little processes (as usual, called “strategies”). Then the teacher, who plays a marginal role in the classroom, gets the students to recognize those processes while reading books that they choose, alone or with small groups of their classmates, actually saying the name of each “strategy” as it is used in reading. “A student might say, for example, ‘I am visualizing,’ ‘I am summarizing,’ ‘I am making a text-to-self connection’…. In theory, students who become conscious of reading strategies become better readers.” The teachers’ role was minimized in a bit of semi-constructivist enthusiasm that would leave students learning mostly without their intervention.
Ravitch also reports that the district’s program entailed having all staff “focus relentlessly” on the faithful implementation of Balanced Literacy. This “focus” included daily propagandizing, monthly day-long meetings for principals, and frequent inspection tours of classrooms by principals and district officials to see that the teachers were following their instructions, with penalties imposed on those who did not. In the course of his tenure (1987 – 1998), the superintendent of District 2 replaced two-thirds of the district’s principals and half its teachers, many of them, Ravitch suggests, for not teaching Basic Literacy as demanded.
After the 2000 Census figures became available, further “studies” took note of new demographic data for the neighborhoods of the district. These studies showed that many of them had gentrified and that most of the improvements in reading could be explained by demographic changes rather than by the effectiveness of Basic Literacy. Some note was made of the district’s poorer schools and how Balanced Literacy appeared to be a complete failure there. The original study praising District 2’s embrace of Balanced Literacy cost six million dollars and a number of years to undertake, and it led to the widespread adoption of methods District 2 had used before the new studies had a chance to catch up with it. The usual Study Wars ensued.
As I read Ravitch, I imagined the poor kids at their books: “Driven by hunger…I’m visualizing…a fox tried to reach some grapes…I’m making a text-to-self connection…hanging high on the vine…I’m making a prediction…but was unable to…I’m making a text-to-self connection… although she leaped with all her strength…I’m making an inference…As she went away the fox remarked…I’m making a prediction… ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet.’…I am summarizing.” Next I imagined the poor teachers working at schools that had been turned into re-education camps, monitored day-in-day-out by gimlet-eyed commissars for signs of deviationism, listening to their students stammering out their self-reflexive lines but mandated not to intervene with techniques approved by experience. I thought of the students from educationally shaky backgrounds, who would need extra intervention by the teachers but would not get it because of the constructivist chaos of the lessons. It is unimaginable till reported.
It is also avoidable. People in the field of teaching should have a strong enough sense of history and humanity to be able weigh and choose among alternatives for education, rejecting what is harebrained, vicious, or fanatic and approving what is sound, innovating cautiously at need rather than in a succession of paradigm shifts followed by Cultural Revolutions. They would do so without waiting for battlefield reports from the Studies Wars. As Hofstadter puts it, some things are “better vindicated by the educational experience of the human race than by experimental psychology” or, by extension, the other “scientific” disciplines often used in the Ed Biz in lieu of good sense, a cultivated imagination, and a sense of reality. I’d rather trust a historian, a critic, or an educated generalist of large and generous views on what can be accomplished—or not—in education than I would a specialist of narrow attainment and ungenerous tendency.
In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Sir Isaiah Berlin distinguishes the narrowness of the hedgehog from the subtlety and finesse of the fox (clearly a different fox from the one at the grape arbor). It’s the hedgehogs who in Gulliver’s Travels do their tailoring by trigonometry—and who in the Ed Biz gain credibility with schemes such as I have just outlined. We need more foxes and fewer hedgehogs in teaching.
 in The Death and Life of the American School System
 an educationist doctrine that students must “construct” their own lessons with a minimum of teacherly interference.