Lucy Calkins vs. Phonics: the Common Core Creators Strike Back

I’ve been so wrapped up in trying to finish my AP English book updates these last few weeks that I somehow missed a new front in the reading wars: Emily Hanford recently published another American Public Media article, this one casting a critical look at Columbia University Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins and her enormously lucrative and influential Units of Study program.

Although Calkins claims to be in favor of phonics (when appropriate, as long as it doesn’t interfere with children’s love of reading), her guides for teachers promote a series of methods that effectively embody the three-cueing system.

The cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg, a specialist in reading problems who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an excellent blog post in which he methodically dismantles Calkins’s attempts to distance herself from three-cueing methods, and demonstrates the extent to which Calkins engages in semantic game-playing. His reading of Calkins’s work also hints at the depth of her misunderstandings about phonics, some of which are rather astounding. I think they’re very important to highlight, and I’d like to do so in another post.

I’ve had a sense of the extent of Calkins’s influence for a while (my own elementary school actually used the Writer’s Workshop model, back in the ‘80s), and I also want to write more about that topic later; for now, however, I’d like to consider some of the implications of Hanford’s article, some overt and some lurking between the lines.

First, the very fact that Calkins has gone on the defensive and is now claiming to be in favor of phonics implies a shift in the direction of the conversation surrounding reading pedagogy. I think that the pressure generated in part by Emily’s series of articles has gotten more people aware of the fact that solid methods for teaching reading do exist and are backed by a significant body of (legitimate) research, and that those methods are not being utilized in U.S. classrooms to anywhere near the extent that they could be. Depending on the criteria, I’ve found statistics ranging from below 25% to more than 50% regarding the percentage of elementary-ed programs that teach phonics. At any rate, it’s increased over the past 15 or so year but is still far from 100%, and it’s probably safe to assume that some of those programs are not providing comprehensive preparation.

Given the massive body of evidence in favor of phonics accumulated over the years, though, I’ve been curious about why Calkins is often given the same kind of authority as experts like Seidenberg and Louisa Moats and Marilyn Jäger Adams. (I began researching the back story, and I’m getting a better picture of how the present situation came about. The two-second version: NYC cronyism, mayor’s office, Joel Klein, Carmen Farinã.) For example, Dana Goldstein’s recent NY Times article seemed to pooh-pooh the science of reading—or, should I say, the “science” of reading—because phonics, unlike Calkins’s work, doesn’t teach students to love reading. Apparently, knowing how to figure out what words say is incompatible with enjoying a book. It’s hard to imagine a more clueless stance (even from a Brooklynite who went to Brown—oops, sorry, couldn’t resist, bad Erica!), and a quick glance through the comments revealed that NY Times readers really weren’t buying it. Virtually every single person called out the sheer ridiculousness of the science/love dichotomy. That’s certainly an encouraging sign.

Particularly after that article, I had to wonder why, given how pervasive Calkins’s methods are in American classrooms (I believe it’s something like 15% of schools use her programs), they had never been subjected to any actual scientific scrutiny. Why, for example, had no one ever looked at a cohort of kids who learned to read via Units of Study vs. a cohort of kids who did, say, Wilson Fundations and followed them over the long term? Given how many kids’ educations are at stake, wouldn’t that, you know, make sense?

To the best of my knowledge, no one has actually tried to put Calkins head-to-head with a scientifically backed program in a long-term study; however, a group of well-respected researchers, including Marilyn Adams (Brown!) and Claude Goldenberg (Stanford emeritus), have now written a report panning her work pretty thoroughly.

As Hanford reports:

Reviewers concluded that the program’s approach to knowledge-building and language development is “too unsystematic to ensure that all students would encounter adequate challenge or receive sufficient supports for successful progress, particularly in grades K-2.”

For students who come from homes where they’re exposed to sophisticated oral language and who acquire knowledge from well-educated parents, the lack of explicit instruction in these areas might not be a problem. But other students may be left behind, according to reviewer Marilyn Adams, a prominent reading researcher who is a visiting scholar at Brown University. “Students who enter school having had fewer opportunities to grow academic knowledge and vocabulary depend critically on such opportunities to catch up and move forward,” Adams wrote.

And even students who develop vocabulary and knowledge at home could be learning more than what Units of Study provides. “All students are short-changed when knowledge-building opportunities are missed,” Adams wrote.

So this is good news, right?

Maybe not so fast.

I started reading Emily’s article with immense interest, but then, when I hit the third paragraph, my heart sank:

The report was released by the nonprofit educational consulting group Student Achievement Partners (SAP). The group asked prominent reading researchers to review Calkins’ Units of Study, more commonly known as “reading workshop.” It appears to be the first time a group of reading researchers has reviewed a curriculum and determined whether the lessons reflect more than 40 years of scientific research on how reading skill develops.

“As far as I know, [this review] is new and different and necessary,” said Sue Pimentel, a founding partner of SAP.

Now, it may be technically accurate to describe SAP as “a nonprofit educational consulting group,” but, well… Let’s be real: these are the people who brought you Common Core; Sue Pimentel was one of the lead writers of the ELA standards, along with College Board head David Coleman. These are people responsible for creating an epic debacle in the American education system. They are the least objective group imaginable.

The problem is, in this case they also happen to be right.

Back when I wrote my response to Emily’s original article about the difficulty of implementing high-quality phonics instruction in American classrooms, I included these remarks:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that the concept of expertise in education has been so thoroughly muddied. Over the past decade, well-intentioned but clueless billionaires (Gates, Zuckerberg) and their cronies (David Coleman) have bumbled into the education system, convinced that their disruptions and innovations would magically fix American schools. Despite their lack of knowledge, or perhaps because of it, they have blithely presented themselves as authorities, and they have the money and power to inflict enormous amounts of damage. After being subjected to their constant and ineffectual reforms, as well as their condescension, it’s understandable that teachers would become defensive when confronted with perceived attacks from outsiders and want to protect their students from yet more turmoil. 

The problem is that Ph.D.s in cognitive science like Seidenberg and UVA’s Daniel Willingham are in a fundamentally different category from the fake “experts” wreaking havoc on the American educational system.  They may not work with young children in a classroom on a daily basis, but they’ve spent decades studying what reading is, how we learn to do it, and what can potentially go wrong. To lump them together with slick, ignorant, tech-driven “reformers” is unfair and ignorant, and it allows the type of approach touted by Reeves to continue unchecked. It also contributes to the idea that science is nothing more than a matter of opinion, or a partisan tool. And to make things even worse, some of these researchers’ work is cited by defenders of programs such as Common Core, tainting it by association.

By associating themselves with SAP, the scholars involved in the Calkins report have effectively destroyed any credibility with the phonics-skeptical camp (not that they had all that much in the first place). Faced with the research, its members will merely claim that the report cannot be taken seriously because it exists only to bolster support for new standardized tests, new materials, new vendor contracts etc. Obviously, a group with such a huge financial stake in American education would sense which way the wind was blowing and want to position themselves advantageously.

Let us not forget that states are still using Common Core standards (which, by the way emphasize phonics, further tainting it in the eyes of its opponents); they’ve simply been renamed the Ohio State Standards or whatever in order to avoid controversy. But CC hasn’t really gone away, even if it’s largely stopped making headlines, and its creators are undoubtedly still looking for ways to bring the market to scale. As Mark Seidenberg has pointed out, this could very well result in lots of ineffectual, poor-quality programs getting marked with a “Science of Reading” stamp of approval, resulting in basically the same situation we have now: teachers not getting trained properly; kids not learning to read well; and the adults at each other’s throats, unable to agree about what constitutes scientific evidence and effectiveness.

But to claim moral purity on the other side is a stretch. In 2003, Calkins received a $5.4 million no-bid contract to revamp the curriculum in NYC schools and implement her programs; her influence has only spread from there. So there is a lot of money at stake in the progressive-ed world as well. Not to mention the existing market of materials based around balanced literacy/ three-cueing pedagogies, a market that is presumably immense given how thoroughly this approach is entrenched. If states start demanding more phonics-heavy material, that’s a whole lot of market share that gets threatened.

You see? Two can play this game.

For the record, I am not actually suggesting that most of the people on the balanced literacy side are driven by financial concerns—I don’t believe that’s the case, outside of individuals associated with the textbook-industry—merely to point out that when the idea of potential bias is weaponized, any idea one disagrees with can be conveniently dismissed as illegitimate. (Fake news, fake news! No, you’re the one who’s giving fake news! No, you! No, you! And so on.) As I’ve written about before, the fact that some groups might want to exploit legitimate findings for financial gain does not by itself negate those findings; it’s possible to embrace certain realities for ends that are less than spotless.

At any rate, it’s hard not to see what happened in the world of education as essentially a dress rehearsal for what happened in the world of politics, except with the Left/Right polarities reversed.

What do you do when an influential group of people gets pulled in by baseless theories; accuses detractors of unfair bias when they are not taken seriously; appoints true believers to positions of power and allows them to disseminate their ideas on a broad scale; and continues, for decades, to abide by them in spite of all evidence suggesting they do not actually work? 

And here you thought this was just about teaching five-year-olds to spell c-a-t.