2004-12-31 / Columnists

The Fuzzies are Coming

Andy Wolfe, who writes on education for the NY Sun , has been one of the leaders of the attack on the BloomKlein curriculum of Everyday Math and the balanced literacy approach to teaching, with it’s so-called Workshop model.

He often stresses that phonics teaching should be the core of a reading program and claims that the teaching of effective phonics have been banned by the DOE. (The phonics vs. whole language reading wars has been going on for many years.) There is a group of critics out there who can be dubbed “the phonics police.” If they had their way, systems that did not use phonics as their core would be banned, in effect doing the same thing the DOE is doing.

I was a phonics proponent but also took a more eclectic approach–do whatever it takes to get it done.

The key is that teachers play a major role in making that decision. But we know teacher decision-making on anything other than the clothes they wear is taboo at the DOE.

I know what would happen when the phonics police control the schools because I taught in District 14, which was a back-to-basics district since the early 70’s, the antithesis of what the DOE is doing today. With all the criticisms of the DOE, there are a number of teachers in District 14 who find the new approach refreshing while still abhorring the oppressive nature of the implementation. What is consistent in both systems is a top-down, dictatorial approach.

Wolfe has been joined by the likes of education critics Diane Ravitch and Sol Stern. Their wrath has been at times right on and at times right off. Wolfe’s belief in the traditional type of education he received during the “golden days” of the New York City Public Schools in the 1950s and 1960s is firm.

He wrote in a Dec. 24 column: “We learned how to read using basal readers like ‘Fun with Dick and Jane.’ We memorized multiplication tables. Our teachers used a time-tested method I have since learned is called ‘teacher-directed instruction.’ Teachers typically stood in the front of the classroom, lectured, and scribbled notes on the blackboard to illustrate their points.

Bright children were grouped together in accelerated classes, and children who lagged behind got help by attending classes with others having similar difficulties. There was no guilt about the concept of meritocracy in administering the tests that determined which students would attend the “elite” specialized high schools.

All of this seemed quite natural, and it seemed to work. Yes, it was true that some students failed, but not nearly as many as today. Some children may have felt badly about not being in an advanced class, but I suspect they got over their disappointments, learning important lessons about life along the way.” In a follow-up email in response to a letter by a math professor in the NY Times critical of the reduction of the passing grade of the Math A Regents Exam (I wrote about this last May), Wolfe comments: “The test becomes meaningless as we keep lowering the bar.

Students will continue to fail math as long as they are taught using ‘fuzzy’ methodology. Jaime Escalante proved that inner city kids CAN learn advanced math. And he didn’t have to lower the bar! He RAISED the standards and level of instruction. Is our future importing scientists and engineers like we do farm workers and domestics?” Wolfe puts a lot of issues on the table and we’ll parse through them bit by bit in follow-up columns. (By the way – it is time to explode the myth of Jaime Escalante, whose story is told in the movie Stand and Deliver – that the average kid in the ghetto will grab onto calculus if only the right, dedicated teacher comes along. (See the website at reason.com for the myth exposed.) For those not aware of the great “fuzzy” vs. “non-fuzzy” math debate, my understanding is it can be boiled down to: are we mainly interested in the correct answer or in the method used to arrive at an answer that is reasonably close. I was both a fuzzy and a non-fuzzy as I explored various ways of teaching math to my 6th graders, pounding times tables every day and trying whatever fuzzy stuff that made sense. Sometimes it worked — for some kids. Ask me to bet it lasted for any length of time and I would not take that bet. Maybe Jaime would have done better.

One of the most successful bouts of teaching I ever did occurred a few years ago when I visited an adult education-training center in Birmingham, Al.  We were asked to do one-on-one tutoring to help people prepare for the GED’s. I worked with a woman who was about 24 years old for about 2 hours working on fractions. I did a lot of trial and error to find out what she knew and what she didn’t know how to do, all the time trying not to offend her with questions that might seem too simple to ask an adult.

She was very receptive – half the battle – the half that is so often ignored in educational debate. In some cases she knew what to do but didn’t understand why. Is that important? Maybe not, according to Wolfe. This is where the fuzzy part comes in. If I say “ give me an estimate – divide 300 by 25. If I get an answer of 200 that is very fuzzy and shows the student doesn’t have a clue. But if I get an answer of 10 it is still fuzzy, but at least I know there is a clue. Now I get the sense that the anti-fuzzy people don’t care what that fuzzy answer is – teach long division and shut up. Just make sure they get the right answer. But the two cases require a very different type of teaching. We ultimately want the right answer but different students may need different routes to get there and that process requires some level of intense teaching to a very small group or to an individual child. Going through the fuzzy stage may be necessary.

In fact, in all my years of teaching I never had the time to spend two hours working with a student in math (or reading) in a one-on-one situation. The experience in Birmingham gave me some insights into what it would take to break the math barrier (and reading too) — intense one-on-one instruction for many students. Given that this may not be practical, then how about addressing the class size issue where a teacher could at least work with kids in small enough groups to make a difference?

But the anti-fuzzies and phonics police drop the class size issue from the equation. They just blame the curriculum. Did kids learn better in District 14 with that old back-to-basics curriculum since 1970 in pre-BloomKlein days? Nada.

Wrestling at the Rock

Far Rockaway HS teacher Michael Weinberg’s letter in last week’s Wave describing the wrestling, or rather, non-wrestling situation at The Rock was poignant. He described how the horrendous and unsafe conditions of the physical space he would have had to work in forced the cancellation of the wrestling season. I saw pictures of the space sent over email and it looked like a construction zone. Weinberg’s story certainly raises questions about procedures at the school. We look forward to hearing more.

Doings at PS 43 in Rockaway (from our correspondent on the scene). The principal of P.S. 43Q (the beloved John Quattrocchi) covered all the 5th and 6th grade teachers during the 7th and 8th period recently for a special meeting with them to address the behavior problems of their students. (Problems in the hallway, etc.) He started off the meeting by saying “...Every day when I drive home I curse each and every one of you out...” We hope Quattrocchi doesn’t have a long drive home. All that cursing could lead to road rage. Of course, none of the problems with the way children are behaving can be placed at the feet of his administration – like the way a school is managed has nothing to do with such things.  We suggest that Quattrocchi try teaching for an extended period of time to demonstrate how it’s done. Who will run the school in his absence? Why not let the misbehaving kids run it? They are doing so anyway.

Note: Don’t you people have anything positive to say about the people running schools in Rockaway? Keep those cards and letters coming.

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