in focus

How Lucy Calkins, literacy guru and Fariña ally, is fighting to define Common Core teaching

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.

The influential Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins was nearing the end of a talk about the new Common Core reading standards earlier this year when suddenly she let loose some barbed remarks.

Her target was David Coleman, the president of the College Board and one of the Common Core’s lead writers, whom she called “an expert in branding.” She later described a well-known model lesson by Coleman where high school students are asked to pore over the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address for several days, parsing the meaning of the individual words and phrases in the speech.

“To me, it basically represents horrible teaching,” Calkins said at the January event.

The founding director of the decades-old Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Calkins has helped train thousands of teachers and produced widely used teaching materials. More recently, she has watched with dismay as New York school officials, in their quest to usher in the Common Core, have embraced new literacy curriculums inspired by Coleman’s vision.

But in January, Calkins’ longtime friend Carmen Fariña, who has called Calkins her mentor, was appointed head of the city school system. The two met privately at the Department of Education headquarters after Fariña became schools chancellor.

Around that time, Calkins wrote to Fariña urging her to resist the curriculum guidelines written by Coleman and his team, Calkins said in her speech.

“Please, Carmen,” Calkins said she appealed to Fariña, “protect the Common Core from the documents surrounding it, that are people’s interpretations of it.”

Now, Fariña has the power to reimagine the way educators across the city teach reading and writing in the age of the Common Core. Already, the chancellor has promised a top-to-bottom review of the city’s recommended curriculums. And to lead a citywide Common Core literacy training next month, her administration brought in Calkins’ group.

But some critics say that parts of Calkins’ approach and the Common Core are incompatible. The prospect that Fariña’s ascension could expand Calkins’ influence over the school system has already unsettled some of of them, including New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

“I think that’s scary,” Neuman said, “and devastating.”

An influential approach, with its fair share of critics

Some of the city’s top-performing schools — including Manhattan’s P.S. 6, where Fariña was principal, and those in the Brooklyn district where she was superintendent — follow Calkins’ approach. The approach, which falls under the heading of balanced literacy and is sometimes referred to as the workshop model, is known for having teachers corral students onto carpets for brief reading-skill lessons and then send them off to practice with books the students choose.

In 2003, then-Chancellor Joel Klein ordered most schools to adopt balanced literacy and hired Calkins’ group to train teachers. When Fariña became a deputy chancellor the following year, she oversaw the balanced literacy push.

During the long-running “Reading Wars,” critics attacked balanced literacy for what they considered too little teacher-led instruction, especially in phonics. But they have found new ammunition in the Common Core.

First, they say that balanced literacy’s insistence that students spend much of their time reading self-selected books runs counter to the standards’ demand that all students read texts at and above their grade level. Next, they say that the balanced literacy model can strand students without the background information they need to make sense of specific texts — neglecting the standards’ insistence on a “content-rich curriculum.”

“There’s consensus among cognitive scientists that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension and you don’t get that in balanced literacy,” said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and longtime critic of Calkins’ approach. “It focuses on the skills divorced from any content.”

That criticism registered with Klein, who launched a pilot program in 2008 to compare schools using balanced literacy and other methods to ones using Core Knowledge, a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of background information. The study found greater gains in the schools using Core Knowledge, which the state and city went on to endorse as Common Core-aligned.

Calkins has criticized the pilot study as flawed and too limited. In an interview, she defended using ability-matched books, which she said enables struggling readers to work their way up to grade-level texts. And she said that balanced literacy includes “shared texts” at or above grade level, which classes read together and teachers supplement with background information.

But even as some have suggested that Calkins’ approach clashes with parts of the Common Core, Calkins has publicly embraced the standards, co-authoring a top-selling book on the Common Core and teaching educators how to meet them. Scores of city schools still work directly with Calkins’ group to implement her brand of balanced literacy.

“I have no question in my mind that balanced literacy well done can absolutely help children reach the standards as well as anything,” said Chris Napolitan, an assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, which follows Calkins’ literacy model.

A model of Common Core reading takes hold

Whereas Calkins’ sway over instruction is easily detectable in the many classrooms that use her materials and methods, David Coleman’s impact has been more indirect.

This was apparent a few years ago when New York asked publishers who were vying to create new Common Core teaching materials for the state to complete an unusual task: analyze Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson. They were also asked to create teacher-training materials based on Coleman’s model lesson.

Those publishing requirements, tucked into the state’s request for Common Core curriculum proposals, were just one sign of Coleman’s double influence: After he helped craft the standards, he and a group he co-founded guided education officials as they worked to make sure the standards reached classrooms.

One way he and Susan Pimentel, another Common Core author, did that was by developing guidelines for states and school districts to determine whether teaching materials are properly aligned to the standards. The guidelines were published soon after the standards, and they detail the work students should do in class, much of it centered on reading challenging texts multiple times and analyzing them.

New York State officials told would-be curriculum developers to align their materials to the guidelines, known as the Publishers’ Criteria. City officials then used the guidelines to evaluate dozens of existing literacy programs, eventually endorsing four as Common Core-aligned.

The city commissioned the publishing giant Pearson to design one of the endorsed programs, a new curriculum called ReadyGen, to match Coleman’s guidelines. The “Publishers’ Criteria were very prominent” in the design process, said P. David Pearson, a literacy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum.

“We as districts have chosen to embrace the Publishers’ Criteria because our teachers and students have a right to excellent materials,” then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a 2012 announcement.

Eventually, nearly 90 percent of elementary and middle schools that bought new materials last year ordered from the city’s recommended curriculum list, which did not include Calkins’ materials.

With officials following Coleman’s lead, Calkins cries foul

Recently, Calkins has been firing back. After the city declined to endorse her materials last year, Calkins spoke to a group of principals whose schools follow her approach, challenging the prominent role that Coleman, Pimentel, and their group have played.

“The Common Core I believe is a really precious thing,” she told them. “And I don’t want it to go down by equating it with the Publishers [Criteria],” which, she added, “was written by just two people who are not educators.”

Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins' group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins’ group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.

In their 2012 book about the Common Core, Calkins and her co-authors argued that the Publishers’ Criteria “directly contradict” the standards’ premise that some instructional decisions be left to educators. They also pointed out that Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by Coleman, Pimentel, and another Common Core writer, received an $18 million grant to guide implementation of the standards.

In her speech this January, Calkins argued that Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson violates principles valued by “experienced educators”: it limits student choice, gives short shrift to reading strategies, and ignores students’ interests and skill levels. Echoing other critics, she noted that the lesson’s directions tell teachers to “plunge” students into the speech without explaining its context, forcing students “to rely exclusively on the text.”

“Until you have a whole city teaching that way and you get unbelievable results,” Calkins said, “I don’t think you create a curriculum based on it.”

Coleman declined to be interviewed for this story. Pimentel, however, provided a five-page rebuttal to Calkins’ critiques.

She argued that the Publishers Criteria is a tool for curriculum developers, but not a curriculum, and “does not usurp teacher choice.” She noted that the Gettysburg lesson was only the first of many model lessons her group created, and that it was designed for teachers to adapt. And she said this “close reading” approach, which privileges the words on the page over students’ prior knowledge, is effective.

Calkins’ group, meanwhile, “has little to no evidence for the effectiveness of its approach, in spite of an over 30 year existence,” Pimentel wrote.

In her talk to principals last year, Calkins faulted the state for asking curriculum developers to adhere to Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines. She added that she had assigned a half-dozen staff members to analyze the state-commissioned reading materials, which are posted on a state website called EngageNY.

“We’re taking on Engage New York,” she told the group.

A state education department spokesman noted that many states and districts used the Publishers’ Criteria to guide their curriculum decisions.

Calkins also helped launch an online forum for teachers to critique the state’s new Common Core reading test, which Pearson designed. In her January speech, she criticized the test’s Coleman-inspired emphasis on close reading, which she said forced students to repeatedly refer back to specific lines in the test passages to answer questions, rather than use their own understanding of the texts.

“Is that how we want to teach reading?” she asked.

Without committing to Calkins, Fariña signals her allegiance

As the debate over the best way to teach Common Core-aligned reading and writing drags on, Carmen Fariña could begin to settle that debate within the city’s classrooms.

So far, she has left the city’s recommended curriculum list in place for next year. But in a message to principals, she guaranteed a “comprehensive review process to identify additional Common Core-aligned instructional materials” — which could include those produced by Calkins’ group.

“I think Lucy’s program will make it back into the mix,” said Pearson, the professor who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum. He added that Calkins has a “convincing argument” that her approach can help students meet the new standards.

As Fariña reevaluates the curriculums, she has pledged to offer educators more Common Core training. Next month, that will take the form of a two-day conference for principals on middle school literacy run by Calkins’ team.

It is also possible that Fariña’s administration could encourage schools to adopt elements of Calkins’ approach even if they choose to stick with materials or teaching practices associated with Coleman’s vision.

After all, the differences between the two camps often amount to a matter of emphasis. For instance, Calkins says close reading has a place in literacy instruction, and Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines say that students should sometimes get to read books they choose that are at their own skill level.

“Everything kids read cannot be grade-level complexity,” said David Lebin, a consultant with Student Achievement Partners. “To get a volume of reading, you have to have texts at different levels.”

For her part, Calkins seems confident that her group will play a larger role under Chancellor Fariña in helping schools meet the new standards.

“Yes, the city’s moving in our direction,” Calkins said during an interview in February. “Obviously.”

Want the latest in New York City education news? Sign up for our morning newsletter here.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.