Lucy Calkins Retreats on Phonics in Fight Over Reading Curriculum

The curriculum, which goes on sale this summer, also includes a 20-page guide for teachers summarizing 50 years of cognitive research on reading.

“All of us are imperfect,” she said in an interview at her office, perched above Columbia’s campus. “The last two or three years, what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.”

It may not inspire political campaign ads the way critical race theory does, but the debate over how to teach children to read — perhaps the foundational skill of all schooling — has been just as consuming for some parents, educators and policymakers. Through decades, classroom practice has lurched back and forth, with phonics going in and out of style.

Margaret Goldberg, a Bay Area literacy coach and leader in the science of reading movement, said Professor Calkins’s changes cannot repair the harm done to generations of students. Even before the pandemic widened educational inequality, only one-third of American fourth and eighth graders were reading on grade level. Black, Hispanic and low-income children have struggled most.

“So many teachers like me have believed that a professor at Teachers College, an Ivy League institution, should be up-to-date on the reading research,” she said. “The fact that she was disconnected from that research is evidence of the problem.”

How Professor Calkins ended up influencing tens of millions of children is, in one sense, the story of education in America. Unlike many developed countries, the United States lacks a national curriculum or teacher-training standards. Local policies change constantly, as governors, school boards, mayors and superintendents flow in and out of jobs.

Amid this churn, a single charismatic thinker, backed by universities and publishing houses, can wield massive power over how and what children learn.

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