Teaching My Baby To Read

Home » Education about Education » It’s the Teacher NOT the Curriculum, that Makes the Difference!

It’s the Teacher NOT the Curriculum, that Makes the Difference!

I recently came across a blog called Out in Left Field whose author espouses the polar opposite of all my views on educational theory.  Katharine Beals, PhD, rails against Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math in particular. Here are links to my own views on why I love Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math

Katherine Beals takes shots at Bill Gates whom she describes as being misguided, misinformed, and possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome.  She also rails against Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, also known as “The Math Guy” on NPR. I haven’t read any of Professor Devlin’s books, but I now want to read all of them!  I’m not so sure about Dr. Beals’s book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, but I might try reading it anyway just to fairly consider a point of view so opposite than my own.  (Note: if you have a child on the Autism spectrum, this book would be of a lot more interest to you.  Read the reviews on Amazon, and see why.)

Out in Left Field bugs me for a variety of reasons; she blasts teachers as sometimes being too stupid to teach math, she thinks academics often don’t know what they are talking about, she implies that many mathematicians are cowardly for not speaking up against Reform Math, and she repeatedly professes a belief that rote learning of traditional algorithms is the best way to create mathematical thinkers.  But what really bothers me, is Dr. Beals’s general thesis that Reform Math and Balanced Literacy Instruction are B-A-D- Bad! 

Teaching with a point of view is not bad, not mater which pedagogy you choose.  I could spend the next fifteen minutes telling you why I support the particular education philosophies she hates, but that would be a waste of time.  What I know, is that it’s not the curriculum that helps children learn, it’s the teacher

If you give me a group of well-fed, middle class Kindergarteners from moderately stable homes I will teach them to read.  If you me a Whole Language curriculum.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Phonics Based program.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Balanced Literacy program.  I will teach them to read!  Magic pedagogy is not creating readers, good teachers are.

Educators have to teach whatever curriculum the school district hands them.  Good teachers deliver the curriculum as instructed, and then use common sense.  They see that little Johnny over there is going to be able to read by seeing a new cereal box in front of his breakfast bowl each morning.  Great!  Let’s make Johnny some patterned books.  Little Suzie over there?  She really needs more phonics.  Bring out the phoneme cards.  The reason I like Balanced Literacy Instruction is that it includes both.  Teachers have to be flexible!

Now, if you give me forty third graders coming back and forth from Mexico, sleeping next to refrigerators, scared by roving pit-bulls on the playground, no working smoke-detector in my classroom, a principal who downloads pornography in the middle of the school office, no support services whatsoever, and then fail to give me my first paycheck, I’ll give you my 110% best but I can’t make any promises.  Even if you give me a phonics based program like Open Court, I might not be able to teach all of those children to read unless you, the community, give me some help.   I’m a teacher not a miracle worker.

When I was teaching math at a Constructivist Charter school and I had kids who said, “I’m going to solve this subtraction problem in the traditional way,” and started to borrow and carry, that was just fine with me.  It wasn’t okay with all of the teachers at my school, but I was fine with certain kids using traditional algorithms when they wanted to.  Kids who have trouble verbalizing, kids who can think faster than they can write, kids who don’t do well in group learning situations… these are students that good teachers make common sense accommodations for. 

Good educators teach in ways that accommodate the differentiated learning style of each student.  Some kids are going to need to be taught algorithms as a life-raft they cling to.  Other kids will become the high-schooler in Academic League who can just look at the question and know the answer.  It is unfair to force any one style of learning on all of your students, but it’s not bad to lead into instruction with pedagogy to provide framework and support.  As far as pedagogy goes, I think Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivism have a lot to offer.

P.S.  Ironically, both Dr.Beals and I love Story of the World.  🙂



  1. jenbrdsly says:

    Comment from Jean that somehow got eaten by my SPAM filter:

    So what does this mean for kids with teachers who aren’t very good?

    I’m thinking especially of my niece right now; she is currently in a classroom run by a ‘mean’ teacher. Not just a strict one, but a bona fide scary, mean woman who singles children out for punishment. The stress of being in there is enough to render it impossible for the kids to learn much. Her behavior in the past 10 days has been of the kind to warrant firing, but of course that’s difficult. My niece’s parents almost took her out for homeschooling when they found out it was this teacher, but settled for close supervision and frequent talks with the principal. Sadly the principal has been very disappointing. If, in the near future, you hear of a media storm about a terrible teacher, it will be this woman. But we’re hoping she’ll just leave now before it gets to that. (This is a highly-rated magnet school, btw.)

    OK, that may have been a little rant, sorry. But…what about the children without good teachers? Do you feel that a solid curriculum will at least give them *something?* Or do you feel that curriculum is completely beside the point?

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Ooooh! Now we are into the territory of should teachers have tenure, which is a whole different subject. (I would say no/maybe on the tenure issue, btw.)

      Good curriculum absolutely makes the difference! As far as curriculum goes, I really like a lot of the programs that OILF bashes and praises. What it really comes down to is the teacher. Could a teacher really mess Investigations up? Yes! Could a parent really mess things up teaching Singapore? Yes! Good curriculums are not magic bullets.

      OILF really misrepresents Balanced Literacy Instruction. She presents an example of Whole Language, calls it Balanced Literacy, and conveniently leaves out the fact that Balanced Literacy classrooms include a ton of phonics. I for example, used a program called Systematic Sequential Phonics They Use when I taught under that pedagogy, in addition to the Wright Start books with Guided Reading Levels.

      • Jean says:

        Well, I agree that curriculum is not a silver bullet, but I think solid teaching comes down to both: a good teacher and a good curriculum/solid content. We are never going to have all teachers be good teachers, so I hope we can at least have good curriculum for the kids who don’t get the good teachers.

        I’m not actually against tenure for teachers, but I think the current system of seniority is quite flawed, and the fact that teachers are nearly impossible to fire is just wrong. The school district here gets around it a little by giving *everyone* a pink slip every spring, and then re-hiring the people it plans to keep. That’s not too good either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow me on Twitter