Education Fads: Female-Brained v. Male-Brained

This NYT story is about how Carmen Fariña,the septuagenarian lady whom Mayor de Blasio has put in charge of NYC schools, has hired another lady of a certain age, Lucy Calkins, to de-David Colemanize reading instruction in New York while nominally keeping Coleman’s Common Core brand name.

New York Schools Chief Advocates More ‘Balanced Literacy’

The reading lesson began like any other. Tara Bauer, a teacher at Public School 158 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks.

But a few sentences in, Ms. Bauer shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like “buoyant” and identify the book’s structure.

“Turn and talk,” she said as she raced around the classroom, prodding students to share their impressions.


This sounds very much like my 7th grade English class at St. Francis de Sales in Sherman Oaks in 1970: the teacher played us a side of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu album and then we wrote about how it made us feel.

Education theorists usually have a very hard time remembering that people who thought much like them have been in charge for a long, long time and that most of their ideas have been tried (unsuccessfully) several times before. I don’t know how many times I’ve lived through cycles of fads based on the assumption that the reason for mediocre test scores is because American schools have been run like madrassas until last week, but now we’re finally going to emphasize critical thinking skills and put our chairs in a circle for the first time ever.

… And Ms. Fariña is facing sharp resistance from some education experts, who argue that balanced literacy is incompatible with the biggest shift in education today: the Common Core academic standards.

During her almost six months as chancellor, Ms. Fariña, a veteran of the school system, has reduced the role of standardized tests, increased collaboration among schools and shepherded through a new contract for teachers that includes more training and more communication with parents. But her push for a revival of balanced literacy may have some of the most far-reaching implications in the classroom.

Ms. Fariña, who relied on balanced literacy as a teacher and a principal, said in an interview last week that she did not believe it was at odds with the Common Core, a more difficult set of learning goals that has been adopted by more than 40 states.

My hunch is that the reason Coleman was able to sell Bill Gates on imposing his Common Core on most of the country was that most educational materials are both kind of obtuse and very female-brained, while Coleman’s is sharp and noticeably male-brained. So, Coleman stood out to Gates as being more like a McKinsey consultant (which he used to be) than the typical educrat. Notably, Coleman is raising the ratio of nonfiction to fiction and, whether he admits it or not, is implement E.D. Hirsch’s old Core Knowledge idea that kids should be learning facts rather than just expressing their feelings.

My observation that Calkins obviously hates Coleman turns out not to be an original one. From Chalkbeat NY last spring:

The influential Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins was nearing the end of a talk about the new Common Core reading standards earlier this year when suddenly she let loose some barbed remarks.

Her target was David Coleman, the president of the College Board and one of the Common Core’s lead writers, whom she called “an expert in branding.” She later described a well-known model lesson by Coleman where high school students are asked to pore over the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address for several days, parsing the meaning of the individual words and phrases in the speech.

“To me, it basically represents horrible teaching,” Calkins said at the January event.

Coleman, like most intellectuals, thinks the solution for America’s woes is for all students to Be Like Me. He is proud of being just about the best bar mitzvah boy ever. From The Jewish Daily Forward:

Coleman gleaned many lessons from his bar mitzvah, said Jason Zimba, a Common Core co-writer and lifelong friend who taught mathematics at Bennington College, where Coleman’s mother Elizabeth served as president.

“The idea that the child’s serious attention to this venerated, beautiful text is valued by the adults and even the rabbi is to David a beautiful thing,” Zimba said. “I’ve listened to him talk about that.” …

The experience of conducting a deep exegesis at age 13 framed Coleman’s thinking about education. “The idea that kids can do more than we think they can is one of Judaism’s most beautiful contributions,” he said. Asking 13-year-olds to give a prepared speech in front of people they love is a bold charge, not unlike encouraging disadvantaged kids who don’t see themselves as academically minded to take AP courses. “I wish kids could encounter more stretched opportunities like that in school — all kids,” he said.

Hence, Coleman’s Common Core is designed to bring out the Inner Bar Mitzvah Boy hiding inside all American children.

That’s slightly, uh, insane; but on the other hand, personally, I think it’s about time to give masculine thinkers some more influence over such a feminized enclave as education: diminishing marginal returns and all that. But you’re not supposed to notice that any of the areas where feminine thinkers dominate because women are powerless and oppressed and all that.