News Story

Educator behind embattled reading theory to keynote Troy School District conference

Parents blame ‘units of study’ program for their children’s reading woes

Lucy Calkins, the education professor whose work was disowned by Columbia Teachers College earlier this year, is set to appear as a keynote speaker at a Troy School District conference this weekend, called the Midwest Literacy Coaching Mini-Institute.

Some parents in the Southeast Michigan community say their school district needs to update its curriculum to embrace phonics, the reading method Calkins’ teaching program is widely accused of having downplayed.

Calkins estimated that one-fourth of the nation’s elementary schools use her approach, called “units of study,” according to a May 21, 2022, account in The New York Times. But her work has also faced criticism from those who favor the Science of Reading method, known as phonics. The newspaper said Calkins had made “a major retreat, adding that she has started to include phonics in her curriculum.

In September 2023, Columbia announced that the Teachers College would end its relationship with the project that has housed Calkins’ work. The New York Times summarized the change this way: “Amid Reading Wars, Teachers College Will Close a Star Professor’s Shop.”

The change could not come soon enough for Michele Maleszyk, a former teacher and parent of a first grader in the Troy district.

Maleszyk says she has asked officials to change their reading curriculum, but they have not. She said she emailed the news from Columbia to the district’s school board and Richard M. Machesky, superintendent of the school district. Those requests have gone unheeded.

“We do not choose curriculum based on individuals, university base, vendors, or other non-research-based factors,” Machesky wrote in response to the parent. “We rely upon many highly trained and well-educated individuals in our Teaching and Learning Department to help monitor student progress, provide professional learning and support for staff. These are the individuals that are also best suited to determine what is science-based research and what is not.”

Maleszyk and other parents have spent money on personal tutors to overcome the troubles their children have had in reading, which she blames on the curriculum.

“Critics of (Calkins’) ideas, including some cognitive scientists and instructional experts, said her curriculum bypassed decades of settled research, often referred to as the science of reading,” the Times reported on Sept. 8. “That body of research suggests that direct, carefully sequenced instruction in phonics, vocabulary-building and comprehension [are] more effective for young readers than Dr. Calkins’ looser approach.”

Students in the Troy district have not performed well under that approach.

More than 85% of third grade students scored proficient or higher on the state’s standardized reading test in the 2012-13 school year, before the district adopted its current reading curriculum in fall 2014. The comparable proficiency rate fell to 74% in 2018-19, according to MI School Data.

The percentage of third-grade students who were proficient or advanced in reading dropped again, to 69%, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021-22. Last year, 66% were proficient or advanced in reading.

Despite the changes at Columbia, the Troy School District is scheduled to host Calkins as a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference. Calkins announced her appearance on her website. The event is scheduled from Sunday to Tuesday and will cost participants $360 for the three-day event.

The school district did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.