In her quest to revamp rather than close the city’s lowest performing schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña is weighing in on how they teach students to read and write.

Fariña has asked some of the schools to use a writing program she favors, set aside uninterrupted reading time for students each day, and send teachers to be trained in particular methods — directives that reflect her strong opinions about reading and writing instruction and her deep commitment to the approach championed by Teachers College. The guidance, which promotes parts of an approach that fell out of favor with the previous administration, also represents one of Fariña’s most direct attempts as chancellor to influence what happens inside classrooms.

“Reading is not to take a test. Reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview. “And we’ve lost that in our schools. Somehow or other, it was misinterpreted.”

But even as she nudges the struggling schools in her new turnaround program, called School Renewal, down a path she believes will lead to improvement, she is careful to say that principals will retain authority over their curriculums. Her caution reflects the administration’s eagerness to avoid comparisons to a previous chancellor’s school-improvement plan, which was faulted for dictating across-the-board changes.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“Non-negotiables”

At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

To help some struggling schools improve their writing instruction, Fariña has turned to her mentor, Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
To help some struggling schools improve their writing instruction, Fariña has turned to her mentor, Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Fariña and Kotch, who co-authored a 2008 book in which they called Calkins a mentor, are adherents of an approach to reading and writing instruction long advocated for by Calkins’ group, called “balanced literacy.” The city is paying Teachers College $500,000 for Calkins’ writing materials, which will be used by 65 Renewal schools.

The daily “independent reading” time Fariña is calling for and the student-selected books are two key components of balanced literacy, where teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing.

The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago under former Chancellor Joel Klein. (As Klein’s deputy, Fariña helped carry out the policy, and Calkins was called in to train teachers.) But, eventually, Klein began to worry that the approach provided students with too little background information to make sense of their books, so he had some schools try a literacy program focused on building students’ background knowledge.

In 2013, when the city endorsed certain curriculums as aligned to the new Common Core standards, it included the information-focused curriculum but no traditional balanced-literacy programs, which tend to rely on classroom libraries over textbooks. Calkins’ writing materials also did not make the list.

Fariña has promised to review those recommended materials, but she has yet to shake up the list. Still, by asking a group of schools to adopt Calkins’ writing program, she is asserting some control over the materials and practices they use.

“Laura [Kotch] and Carmen are trying to push back to what we know is very important for children’s development as readers and writers,” said Principal Alison Coviello of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, a Renewal school that uses balanced literacy.

Balanced literacy meets the Common Core

A tenet of balanced literacy is that students must not only master the technical skills of reading and writing, but also they must learn to love doing it. Some proponents of balanced literacy say that joy has been abandoned as textbook publishers and educators scramble to meet the requirements of the Common Core.

In particular, they say class time spent “close reading” passages and writing in response to prompts — both skills assessed on the state’s Common Core exams — should be balanced with time for students to write about personal experiences and read books they select. In fact, Kotch is working with the publisher of ReadyGen, one of the city-approved Common Core curriculums, to add more time in the program for independent reading.

“I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” Fariña said last month. “I want to know that independent reading is a child curling up with a book and just learning to love that reading.”

Those changes trouble some critics of balanced literacy, who argue that parts of it are incompatible with the Common Core.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Avoiding past mistakes

Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program on a recent panel.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program during a recent panel discussion.

While elementary and middle schools in the turnaround program learn to use the Teachers College writing methods, Renewal high schools will be trained in a writing program called Writing is Thinking. That program is modeled on an approach used by New Dorp High School on Staten Island, which made writing a key part of its school-wide reform efforts. All of the Renewal schools will also receive math training.

City officials insist that even as the schools are trained in particular methods, the trainings will be tailored to each school’s needs and the schools are free to use the teaching methods as they see fit. And at the December meeting, Kotch said that schools do not have to scrap their chosen literacy curriculums in order to add daily independent-reading time.

“We’re not asking you to undo anything you have in place that you think works well,” she said. “But we are asking you to think about finding that balance again, which has been lost in these curriculums which are very often whole-class.”

The administration’s insistence that it is not dictating the exact steps every low-performing school must take is partially an effort to dodge the sort of criticisms that were lobbed at a turnaround program created by former schools chief Rudy Crew in the 1990s.

His Chancellor’s District program flooded a group of struggling schools with extra resources, but also new requirements, prompting some critics to attack it as a blunt, top-down reform. On a recent panel, Crew expressed doubts about that approach.

“Everybody got the same memo, everybody got the same dollars, everybody got the same requirements,” he said. “And then you were sort of off to the races to do the best that you could with what you had.”