One of New York City’s legendary politicians, Herman Badillo, spoke to the New York Association of Scholars recently and gave an interesting and at times provocative talk based on his new book, One Nation, One Standard, in which he addresses the underperformance of Hispanic young people in our schools. Badillo’s wife, an experienced public school teacher, was also on hand and offered her insightful comments along the way. Badillo is responsible for much of the improvement in the CUNY system in recent years, chiefly by removing remedial courses from the four year colleges and confining them mainly to the two year colleges, and he had to fight off many hysterical and unfair attacks from the Left in order to do this good work.
Badillo may have shocked many in attendance when he said that there is absolutely nothing the United States can do to prevent massive Hispanic immigration in the coming decades. He said that never in history has an economically motivated immigration proven susceptible of being stopped, and the United States will simply have to absorb the poor of the Hispanic countries on an ongoing basis in the coming decades to the point that our Hispanic population will grow to an even more significant proportion of the total than it is now. This is at least in part because many of the Hispanic countries, particularly Mexico, are not showing themselves capable of creating thriving captialist economies. Compounding the problem is that Hispanic countries do not offer much by way of education due to their residual feudal past, according to Badillo, so that the United States is facing the challenge of having to educate these newcomers and their children, some of whome arrive at advanced ages with no schooling whatsoever, in order to make them capable of functioning in a modern techno-capitalist society and to avoid the creation of the huge underclass that present Hispanic drop-out and failure rates portend.
Since the subject of the talk was not immigration, the audience members let that point pass in order to focus on education. Badillo argues that tracking in the New York City public schools–yes, to the surprise of some, there is tracking in today’s public schools–has resulted in a two tiered system based on race, with white and Asian students learning and going on to college, while black and Hispanic students are left behind. Input from the audience, which included a number of experienced public school teachers aside from Mrs. Badillo, suggested that the problem is not in the tracking, which might actually be helpful to teachers and students, but in the pedagogies being used in all the classes, even the more advanced ones. But while the students in the more advanced classes are able to learn anyway and so do better overall, the students in the more basic classes fall woefully behind without the careful, thorough, step-by-step teaching that arises from proven pedagogies like those based on phonics.
Later, one NYAS member shared with me the strongly worded letter he wrote to the UFT newsletter in response to an article that seems no longer to be online but the gist of which can be gained from the letter. The letter is months old but the issues are still current, as are the villains in the story, including Columbia Teachers College, which has as much to answer for as ever and seems to be a perennial fount of bad ideas.
Sept 22, 2005 To the Editor:
Kudos to Sol Stern and Dr. Sally Shayvitz for continuing to expose the disastrously inept reading methodology adopted by Chancellor Joel Klein (“Balanced literacy comes under fire at forum,” April 28). [This was in the UFT newsletter but no longer appears to be available online.]
Dr. Shayvitz and other distinguished cognitive scientists personally briefed Klein on the numerous scientific studies vindicating the effectiveness of explicit, direct phonics instruction in reading programs, urging him to adopt a phonics-based, reading curriculum.Klein cavalierly ignored the experts, choosing instead a Columbia Teacher’s College regurgitation of the failed “whole language” concept, misleadingly called “balanced literacy.” When the public expressed misgivings, Klein chose to add mendacity to obscurantism by holding a press conference repeatedly telling the public that there was no scientific proof to support the effectiveness of phonics.It isn’t surprising, therefore, that when confronted with the manifest failure of balanced literacy, Klein’s reading lackey, Medea McEvoy, the ironically titled director of literacy of the Department of Education, follows her boss’ lead, ignoring distinguished cognitive researchers while defending the work of a discredited pedagogical charlatan, Lucy Calkins, author of balanced literacy. “There isn’t one scientifically proven way of teaching reading,” crows McEvoy. She’s right; there are several: They are all phonics-based, and balanced literacy is not one of them.Parents and teachers need to recognize that Mayor Bloomberg, Klein, McEvoy, and Calkins have turned the Department of Education into a veritable “Axis of Illiteracy,” bent on experimenting on — rather than educating — children. Parents and teachers must mobilize to fight for an effective, scientifically validated reading curriculum. Our children need sound, phonics-based instruction if they are to become educated, fully functioning members of society, rather than easily exploited, illiterate drudges, fit only to clean Lucy Calkins’ apartment or mow Klein’s lawn. As teachers, we must defend the kids. We must teach them phonics now.
John Alisse, PS 21, Queens