Confessions of a Recovering Public School Superintendent
Three years ago after 30 years in public education, I became the Head of Windward School, an independent school in Westchester County. I was motivated to make this change for personal as well as professional reasons. I was well aware of Windward’s excellent reputation for teaching children with language-based learning disabilities and was eager to be part of this good work. After 11 years experience as a superintendent of schools, I felt that it was time for new challenges and new learning. I knew that the learning curve at Windward would be steep, but I did not anticipate that being at Windward would cause me to change my closely held beliefs about how children learn and what constitutes effective instruction.
Like many educators during the 1970’s, I believed in the principles of the progressive movement and fell under the spell of whole language. The wide-spread adoption of whole language by schools is not surprising given its endorsement by state education departments, schools of education and groups such as the National Council of Teachers of English. More recently the whole language movement, in response to a barrage of criticism, re-invented itself as “balanced literacy” claiming to combine the best practices of both whole language and direct reading instruction. This seductive blend of approaches has been adopted by many well intended school districts including the one where I was superintendent. This jazzed-up version of whole language once again received support from teachers, publishers, schools of education, and state education departments. With this type of encouragement, it seemed not only reasonable, but prudent, to adopt a balanced literacy approach. The only problem with this tempting hybrid approach is that there is no scientific research to support it.
At Windward the Orton Gillingham based reading program provides direct, intensive, systematic, and comprehensive instruction in a hierarchy of discrete reading skills with particular emphasis on how to apply phonics to decode written words. I once believed that phonics instruction was strictly drill with little concern for comprehension, but now I know that knowledge of phonics allows readers to become fluent and fluency is the key to reading comprehension. Having once been lost in the whole language maelstrom, I am now fully committed to championing the research-based instructional program that is the basis of our students’ success and the hallmark of Windward.#
Dr. Jay Russell is the head of the Windward School in Westchester County, New York..