Commentary: The forbidden art of direct teaching

To the Editor:

Fairfield Public Schools currently use the “Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop Model” in grades K-8 classes that contain students with a wide variety of needs, levels of prior knowledge, and acceleration of learning. The Tri-State consortium recently reviewed Fairfield’s Grades 6-8 Workshop Model Writing Program, and did not laud the implementation of the program in Fairfield. Rather, it pointed out several key areas of improvement — not a surprise to many Fairfield parents who, over the years, have been pointing out gaps in their children’s education.

According to the results of a three-year pilot program, the Reading and Writing Workshop Model, developed by Lucy Calkins, has consistently failed students in New York City. After a shift to the Common Core Standards (standards pushing for content-driven instruction), the Education Department in NYC dropped the Workshop Model, and instead uses a literacy program that focuses on teacher-led instruction of vocabulary, concrete skills and content knowledge.

The Daily News article, “Read it and, finally, don’t weep,” reports the Workshop Model approach failed NYC students over the years: “Only 23% of the eighth graders scored ‘proficient’ or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a figure that hasn’t budged in a decade,” despite a doubling of education spending.

The philosophy behind the Workshop Model is the belief that children must work in small groups and consult each other as much as possible; students should have the freedom to choose books that are “meaningful to them” and at a level that’s “just right for them”; and students must discover their personal “craft” of writing through “self-expression.” The Workshop Model is not about a mastery of discrete skills and content.

Although on the surface some of these concepts sound good, the overarching basis of this mandated teaching method is that teachers must keep instruction to a minimum, since students must “construct” their own knowledge. Teachers are our district’s greatest asset, so why have we reduced their role to that of facilitators?

The Tri-State report raised some questions about teacher involvement in the program, the need for supplemental support in the classroom to reach the diverse educational needs of student learning, and the relevance of data used to evaluate the effectiveness of the Workshop Model on student performance.

Throughout the report it recommends more teacher involvement to help move the writing program forward, acknowledging that the “staff is interested in becoming more engaged in these decisions, and they have productive ideas.” Teachers know what works or does not work in the classroom. Why is the administration not incorporating the teachers’ feedback?

Another topic discussed in the report is the “de-leveling” of middle school English classes, a decision made five years ago by the district leaders — combining all ability levels into one highly populated classroom of 25-plus students. Teachers report limited support from the Language Arts Specialists in each of the middle school buildings, make their task of implementing the appropriate levels of instruction and lesson plans challenging. Moreover, interviewed seventh and eighth grade students report the student variability in the classroom limits their access to teacher feedback. As a result, “they rely more on peer feedback when their teacher does not have enough time to conference with them.”

In a recent article, Is “Differentiated Instruction A Hollow Promise?,” Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, raised concerns about whether or not there is adequate research to provide evidence that “in classroom differentiation” is effective. The article also highlights the increased workload placed on teachers to customize and tailor instruction to accommodate the wide range of student learning found in each classroom. Is this too great of a task to ask teachers to undertake? Our sports teams are divided into numerous levels — varsity, junior varsity, freshmen, and intramural. Each represents a different ability level based on that subgroup’s skill set which helps the coaches narrow the focus of instruction to improve each group’s specific underdeveloped skills. How is our district evaluating the success of the one-size-fits-all classrooms?

The Tri-State acknowledges benchmark assessments, writing prompts, and portfolios gathered by the district, but question if the writing data sources are being utilized to properly evaluate the Workshop Model on student learning. Additionally, the Tri-State recommends that the district “review the purpose of the data teams,” and create a “more systematic approach to data teams across the middle schools.”

How do parents know if the Workshop Model and “de-leveling” are working for all students, if the district does not measure against goals and metrics? Why does the proposed English Language Arts Curriculum contain no defined assessments? Are teachers provided adequate support to effectively instruct all ability levels simultaneously in the same classroom? Will Fairfield continue to use the Workshop Model while other parts of the country are abandoning it? These simple questions deserve answers.


Dawn Llewellyn


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