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.”

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Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”