New Reading Curriculum Is Mired in Debate Over Race and Gender

Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University, has long been a controversial figure in the education world for her approach to teaching reading. Her eagerly anticipated new curriculum was meant to address her critics with a more research-backed, phonics-based approach to literacy.

But the curriculum has run into a new problem, this one mired in the debate over state laws that restrict how race, gender and other identities are taught.

Her publisher, Heinemann, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has decided to halt publication of the kindergarten through second-grade curriculum, known as “Units of Study,” after an internal debate over a fundamental question: Should curriculums accommodate these conservative laws?

The decision to stop publication could affect as many as a quarter of the country’s elementary schools. And it illustrates the countervailing pressures facing educational publishers: on one hand, right-wing legislation limiting the curriculum; on the other, pressure from progressive educators to produce materials that deal more explicitly with race, gender and other forms of identity.

Heinemann and Professor Calkins had become concerned after focus groups with educators in conservative states said the new materials might violate curriculum laws now in place in more than 15 states, including Florida and Texas.

Examples of the content that caused concern included a suggestion to teachers not to create boys’ and girls’ groups during class activities, and a reference, also in teacher materials, for educators to remain mindful of children’s racial backgrounds and identities, according to several sources who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. The phrase BIPOC was also flagged, which is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

The publisher and Professor Calkins’s team began to edit the materials to avoid violating state laws, and planned on making a limited number of changes, Professor Calkins said during an online meeting last week with educators in her network. Other major publishers have done the same.

But that process was stopped amid protests from other authors on the Heinemann list who questioned whether such revisions would best serve diverse groups of students.

Among the authors who have distanced themselves from Heinemann is Sonja Cherry-Paul, a co-founder of the Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy. For another publisher, she adapted the best-selling young-adult book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, into a children’s edition, “Stamped (for Kids).”

In a statement posted on Twitter on Monday, Dr. Cherry-Paul and her institute co-founder, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote, “Due to irreconcilable differences regarding the work of equity, inclusion and antiracism, effective immediately, we are ending our professional development and publishing relationships with Heinemann.”

Dr. Cherry-Paul had worked as director of diversity and equity for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that Professor Calkins leads at Columbia. Dr. Cherry-Paul left that position in May, and the job remains unfilled.

In a July 7 email obtained by The New York Times, Vicki Boyd, then the publisher’s general manager, called the editing process “inherently flawed, at best, and, at worst, a violation of Heinemann’s deeply rooted values.”

Referring to the protest among Heinemann authors, she wrote, “We have been meeting with members of the author community one on one over the last week to listen to their questions and concerns.”

Ms. Boyd is now leaving Heinemann, according to the company.

In a written statement, Heinemann said that it remained committed to publishing the new Calkins curriculum later this year and that “under new leadership, a comprehensive editorial review of the upcoming edition of ‘Units of Study’ is being conducted, in strict adherence to H.M.H.’s content, equity, inclusion and diversity guidelines.”

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project said in a written statement: “It is important to both protect teachers and to hold fast to our values. Neither Calkins nor Heinemann waver in their support of children and educators of color and the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community.”

Professor Calkins’s curriculum is popular in liberal states like New York and California, but also in conservative ones like Texas and Florida, which have laws intended to shield children from discussions of concepts like structural racism, white privilege and transgender identities.

In Florida, parents can sue school districts for violating these laws, and schools would have to cover the cost.

The Florida laws went into effect on July 1, so it is not yet clear how they will be carried out. But many educators are fearful of becoming the target of an actively engaged conservative parent movement, and of losing their jobs.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is also a proponent of phonics, signing an executive order in 2019 that requires core reading materials to be scientifically researched and incorporate explicit, systematic and sequential approaches to teaching phonemic awareness and phonics.

Professor Calkins’s new reading curriculum — now delayed — addressed that concern, after decades of downplaying its importance. But critics have called for her to send free corrections to the many thousands of schools using older editions of her program.

At the online meeting last week, Professor Calkins expressed regret about the publication delay and said that although she wanted her curriculum to be used nationwide, she did not want to make revisions on issues of diversity and equity that she considered unethical. She indicated that she disagreed with state laws limiting what could be said about race and gender.

Still, Professor Calkins said she felt a “moral responsibility” to get more research-driven reading strategies in front of as many young children as possible this fall, according to Margaret Goldberg, a California literacy coach who attended the meeting. The discussion in the meeting was confirmed by The Times with other sources.

Professor Calkins offered to provide schools that had ordered her new curriculum with abbreviated kindergarten and first-grade lesson plans, which can be used until Heinemann publishes the full version, for which it holds the copyright. She also offered those customers access to a free three-day conference next month to learn new teaching strategies.

During the meeting, several attendees said they had already boxed up their old curriculum materials and were concerned about being left without adequate lesson plans for the coming school year, which begins as early as August in some Southern states.

For critics of Professor Calkins’s long reluctance to emphasize phonics, the latest problems only add to their sense of frustration. Ms. Goldberg pointed out that without new curriculum materials, thousands of schools and teachers nationwide might not realize that Professor Calkins was advising a major shift in literacy strategies, in part because she had not sent out free corrections for any of her old curriculum materials.

The publication delay comes as millions of young children across the country lag in foundational reading skills after more than two years of pandemic disruptions.

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