Lucy Calkins ran a beloved — and criticized — center at Teachers College for four decades. It is being dissolved.
In the urgent debate over how U.S. schools teach children to read, few figures have been as central as Lucy Calkins, the Columbia University professor and curriculum entrepreneur.
For four decades, her organization, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and her widely purchased curriculum inspired passion among many educators. But there was also fierce pushback. Critics said Dr. Calkins downplayed phonics and overlooked a large body of scientific research on how children become skilled readers.
Now her group has been dissolved by Columbia University’s Teachers College, according to a recent announcement. Her organization, which was housed on campus and consisted of a nonprofit branch and several private companies, has long shared some of its revenues from consulting and publications with the college.
It marks the end of an era for Teachers College and perhaps another setback for balanced literacy, the embattled movement in which Dr. Calkins is one of several prominent leaders.
“Moving forward, TC wants to foster more conversations and collaboration among different evidence-based approaches to literacy, and ensure our programs are aligned with the needs of teachers and school districts looking to partner,” the statement read.
Dr. Calkins, 71, remains a tenured professor, on sabbatical. Last week, she announced the formation of a new company, the Mossflower Reading and Writing Project, to continue her work consulting with schools. A number of her staff members from Teachers College are joining the new entity, which is independent of Columbia.
The rupture in the relationship between Teachers College and Dr. Calkins comes amid intense political pressure on schools of education to better align teacher training with research.
Since 2019, 42 states have passed laws requiring schools or teacher training programs to use research-backed reading strategies.
Those bills presented a challenge to Dr. Calkins and her organization.
Critics of her ideas, including some cognitive scientists and instructional experts, said her curriculum bypassed decades of settled research, often referred to as the science of reading. That body of research suggests that direct, carefully sequenced instruction in phonics, vocabulary building and comprehension is more effective for young readers than Dr. Calkins’s looser approach.
Her curriculum had teachers conduct “mini-lessons” on reading strategies, but also gave students plenty of time for silent reading and freedom to choose their own books. Supporters say those methods empower children, but critics say they waste precious classroom minutes, and allow students to wallow in texts that are too easy.
Some of the practices she once favored, such as prompting children to guess at words using the first letter and context clues, like illustrations, have been discredited.
Over the past three years, several prominent school districts — including New York City, the nation’s largest — dropped her program, though it remains in wide use.
In an interview, KerryAnn O’Meara, the new vice president for academic affairs at Teachers College, said the school made the decision to part ways with Dr. Calkins’s consulting group this summer, as part of an effort to reorganize its broader work on reading instruction. The college hopes to hire new faculty members with more expertise in the cognitive science of reading, and launch new training programs for teachers, potentially online, she said.
“When you create a center or institute, sometimes that work grows and becomes a little siloed,” Dr. O’Meara said. “There are a lot of ways we are looking at how we can improve.”
Some of Dr. Calkins’s former deputies are staying at the college, where they will form a new division called Advancing Literacy, and will train teachers using a broader range of curriculums and practices, the school said.
Dr. Calkins declined an interview request. In an email to The New York Times, she wrote that she created her new company “as a way to renew my commitment to side-by-side work with teachers in schools apart from the complexity that comes from being part of a large university.”
She has also launched a website, Rebalancing Literacy, which takes on what she says are misconceptions about her work and the research on reading.
In recent years, Dr. Calkins and her allies have argued forcefully that while phonics is important, policymakers and the news media have emphasized it too much, to the detriment of instruction focused on other reading skills.
Still, in a 2022 interview with The New York Times, Dr. Calkins acknowledged learning from her critics. She said that for many years, she was fully immersed in grade-school classrooms and had not focused on cognitive science research. “I don’t think that I thought about an M.R.I. machine as part of how you get to know a reader,” she said.
At universities across the country, leaders in curriculum and instruction rarely work closely with experts in brain science, who in turn have not often translated their knowledge into classroom materials.
The problem is a two-way street, said Rachael Gabriel, a literacy professor at the University of Connecticut. For scholars in the sciences, she said, there may be little professional reward in partnering with elementary-school teachers.
Dr. Calkins holds a Ph.D. in English education and began her career as an expert in writing. She based her ideas about reading largely on the work of Marie Clay, a literacy theorist from New Zealand, and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, education professors at the Ohio State University, who publish curriculum that has also come under fire.
All of the educators are associated with balanced literacy, which has been dominant in the colleges of education that train the country’s teachers.
This year, Dr. Calkins rolled out a new version of her reading curriculum for the early elementary grades. It includes structured phonics, and gives young children books with richer content from history and the sciences. Even some longtime critics saw the changes as a step forward, though it is unclear how many schools have actually adopted the new materials.
The move did little to quiet the debate around her and balanced literacy more broadly.
Timothy Shanahan, a leading literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the breakup between Dr. Calkins’s consulting group and Teachers College was a reminder of a common problem in academia: Universities can find themselves in an awkward position when they become closely associated with a faculty member’s business entity.
He praised the college’s statement committing to a diversity of approaches in reading, saying, “That is exactly what universities should be.”
Mark Seidenberg, a neuroscientist and reading expert at the University of Wisconsin who has long been critical of Dr. Calkins’s ideas, cautioned that there is a long way to go.
“Places like Teachers College have an opportunity to really contribute something, but it means going outside their established boundaries,” he said, referring to the need to hire faculty with expertise in reading through the lens of psychology, cognitive science and linguistics. “It was easier to identify what was wrong with the previous approaches, like Calkins, then to figure out what is next.”