Columbia University quietly slinks away from its responsibility for the illiteracy crisis it helped impose on generations of Americans

Illiteracy is a serious and growing problem in the United States: 21% of adults were illiterate in 2022, and 54% of adults have a literacy below sixth-grade level.  Illiteracy traps people (and nations) in poverty.  This, despite the fact that the United States spends more money on primary and secondary education than any other industrial nation.

One of the main reasons our literacy skills are so abysmal is the rejection of traditional phonics-based pedagogy in favor of trendier, "ground-breaking" or "leading edge" methodologies pushed by prominent schools of education at prestigious universities.  Educational fads pushed by highly credentialed advocates and widely adopted by public schools desiring to be regarded as at the forefront of education.  There's no glory — and there are few budget increases — in sticking with tried-and-true methods that made earlier generations highly literate.

One of the major voices pushing disastrously ineffective literacy teaching has been the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  For more than four decades, generations of students have been crippled in their literacy skills by the pernicious pedagogy pushed on them from Columbia's Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan.

Columbia Teachers College.

Recently and very quietly, Columbia has closed down the Reading and Writing Project and put its founder and leader, Lucy McCormick Calkins, on an "indefinite sabbatical."  I am not privy to the details of this arrangement, but normally, a sabbatical includes pay, at a full or partial level.  But it does place Professor Calkins out of active teaching with the imprimatur of Ivy League Columbia behind her.

The New York Post has a terrific editorial calling out Columbia for the incredible damage it has inflicted on the nation without any acknowledgment, much less apology or restitution.

Columbia University is trying to quietly walk away from a disaster it imposed on generations of American children. 

The least we can do is call out the damage done.

Just before the Labor Day weekend, Columbia announcedthat it's "dissolving" the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and sending its creator, Lucy Calkins, off on indefinite sabbatical.

For decades, Calkins and her colleagues pushed "literacy" programs based on ideology, not science; programs failed the children who most needed help. 

Her "balanced literacy" approach gave short shrift to phonics — by teaching children to look at pictures and guess words, for example, instead of sounding them out — and failed to foster the building of knowledge and vocabulary vital to learning the love of reading.

It's only taken government schools' bureaucrats 42 years – the Columbia Reading and Writing Project was founded in 1981 – to recognize reality and reject the approaches it advocated. In the meanwhile, Calkins and the Project reaped rich rewards:

Begun in 1981, the think tank and teacher training institute has since trained hundreds of thousands of educators across the country. Calkins is one of the original architects of the "workshop" approach to teaching writing to children, which holds that writing is a process, with distinct phases, and that all children, not just those with innate talent, can learn to write well. She is author of some 20 books, including the best-selling The Art of Teaching Writing (250,000 sold). According to the project web site, books by its leaders are "widely regarded as foundational to language arts education throughout the English-speaking world."

While her influence is geographically broad, Calkins is perhaps nowhere more powerful than in New York City, where the project began as a consulting service to a few elementary schools and grew into a highly profitable venture. According to Andrew Wolf of the New York Sun, Calkins charges $1,200 to send one of her assistants into a school for one day. In 2003 schools chancellor Joel Klein appointed her and the project, through a no-bid three-year $5.4 million contract, to the task of revamping the way literacy skills are taught in more than 100 district schools, including most of those in Brooklyn and Queens, the project's mission is to retrain — through onsite workshops, leadership seminars, curricular materials, and an intensive summer institute — primary and upper-grade teachers, administrators from principals up through district superintendents, and central department policymakers.

Columbia's decision to junk the project no doubt was influenced by its rejection of the showcase by the NYC Public School System:

Score one huge win for Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams: The city Department of Education is at long last insisting that schools use phonics and other proven strategies to teach kids to read.

Too bad about all the kids who for decades wound up illiterate because the DOE trusted utterly misguided "education experts." 

Banks, to his credit, aimed to do this from the start. It's a grim sign of how dysfunctional the system is that it's taken this long

And still is: The new New York City Reads program will roll out in just 15 of the city's 32 community districts this fall, reaching all of the city's 700 elementary schools only in September 2024.

Roughly half of all NYC public school children in grades 3-8 are behind in reading; it's worse for kids from low-income families, as well as black and Hispanic students.

The Post editorial concludes with a reminder that academics pushing harmful ideas never get held responsible for the damage they do:

If Columbia University could be held liable for the harm done to generations of American kids, it would lose its entire $13 billion endowment and more. The least it could do is offer an abject apology.

Full disclosure: I served as a visiting associate professor at Columbia University for two years.

Photo credit: Unknown photographer via Wikipedia.  CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

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