I’ve come to bury Lucy Calkins, not to praise her.
Columbia University’s Teachers College announced this month what once seemed unthinkable: It’s “dissolving” its relationship with Calkins, sending the controversial literacy guru and her cash-cow publishing and consulting empire packing.
The divorce came a few months after the New York City Department of Education made the equally dramatic announcement that henceforth all the city’s elementary schools would be required to adopt one of three approved reading programs, none of which were Calkins’ “readers workshop” model, which has dominated reading instruction in city schools for the past quarter-century.
Dominated but didn’t improve reading ability in any meaningful way, particularly among the city’s black and Hispanic students.
About two-thirds of New York’s Asian and white students passed the most recent round of state reading tests.
For black and Hispanic students, the figure was closer to one-third making the grade.
I’ve been a persistent Calkins critic for 20 years, ever since I was trained in her methods as a Bronx public-school teacher, where I saw its shortcomings firsthand.
I shed no tears over her long-overdue defenestration. But it’s a mistake to think simply showing Lucy the door will bring an overnight change in city schools’ reading scores.
To be sure, any of the three phonics-based reading programs the DOE is imposing on its elementary schools represents an improvement over Calkins’ methods.
But it will take years to undo the damage, and it will be an uphill struggle every step of the way.
The “reading wars” tend to be framed as phonics vs. whole language.
We’ve known for decades that phonics works; children should be taught to “decode” text, not guess at unfamiliar words.
But phonics is just the starting line.
It is not a defense of Calkins to note that in five years teaching fifth grade at one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, I never had a single student who could not “decode” text.
My students could all “read,” some with greater fluency than others.
Their bigger struggle was understanding what they read.
Why? Because, while reading comprehension might feel like riding a bike — once you learn how, you can ride any bike — it’s way more complicated than that.
It requires a good vocabulary, a wealth of “background knowledge” across subjects, familiarity with language structures and other factors that take years to grow and deepen.
There are no quick fixes.
Calkins’ greatest sin against generations of kids is not even her reluctance to embrace phonics. It is her fuzzy-headed notion kids would become good readers if we simply filled their heads with stories, put engaging books in their hands and helped them fall in love with reading.
But reading only what interests you doesn’t give you the breadth of knowledge good readers have.
And it’s going to be hard to get teachers to change practices that feel like they should work.
Resistance will be widespread. New York magazine quoted a Park Slope principal who told parents she planned to actively resist Tweed’s reading push and “keep doing what has worked for us.”
She won’t be the only one.
Nor should we assume for a moment New York City schools have seen the last of Lucy Calkins, who has been left for dead more than once.
In 2008, Chancellor Joel Klein grew disenchanted with the city’s “balanced literacy” approach and oversaw a successful pilot of E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge curriculum but failed to get it widely adopted.
Five years later, the New York State Education Department left Calkins’ curriculum off its list of recommended reading programs but then-Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a Calkins acolyte, pulled it from the grave.
Columbia didn’t put Calkins out of business.
She’s formed a new company called Mossflower Literacy and taken most of her Teachers College staff and lucrative publishing and consulting contracts with her to go on serving her loyal followers, who continue to insist — all evidence be damned — her methods work.
Mayor Eric Adams and his chancellor, David Banks, deserve a round of applause for keeping their promise to mothball balanced literacy and “go back to a phonetic approach” to teaching reading.
But delivering fully on that promise is going to take years, perhaps over more than one mayoral administration.
New Yorkers shouldn’t expect a sudden rise in test scores, and even be skeptical if it happens, because that’s just not the way reading works.
There are no quick fixes.
It will take patience and political will to ensure this time, Lucy Calkins’ methods remain dead and buried.
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public-school teacher.