New York City schools will make “huge” changes to the reading curriculum

Hundreds of public schools have been teaching reading the wrong way over the past two decades, leaving countless children struggling to acquire a crucial life skill, according to the New York City Schools Counselor.

Now, David C. Banks, the chancellor, wants to “sound the alarm” and plans to force the country’s largest school system to take a new approach.

On Tuesday, Mr. Banks will announce major changes to reading instruction aimed at addressing a chronic problem: About half of the city’s children in grades three through eight cannot read. Black, Latino, and low-income children fare worse.

In a recent interview, Mr. Banks said the city’s approach was “fundamentally flawed,” failing to follow the science of how students learn to read.

“It’s not your fault. Not your child’s fault,” said Mr. Banks. “This is the beginning of a massive transformation.”

Over the next two years, the 32 local school districts will adopt one of three curricula chosen by their superintendents. The curriculum uses evidence-supported practices, including phonics—which teaches children how to decode letter sounds—and avoids strategies that many reading experts say are flawed, such as teaching children to use picture clues to guess words.

The move represents a sea change in a city where principals have historically retained control over the teaching curriculum of their individual schools.

Half of the provinces will begin the program in September; Others will begin in 2024. Exemptions to opt out will only be considered for schools where more than 85 percent of students are proficient in reading, a threshold that only 20 schools meet.

The move marks the most significant overhaul of reading in New York City since the early 2000s, when some of the programs the chancellor is now trying to uproot were launched. It would immediately put the city at the forefront of a growing national movement for reading instruction reform.

Experts, legislators and families have pushed to abandon strategies that a large body of research shows don’t work for all students and to embrace a set of practices known as “the science of reading.”

The stakes are clear: Kids who can’t read well in third grade are at a disadvantage. They are more likely to drop out of high school, face imprisonment and live in poverty as adults.

However, curriculum reform is a formidable undertaking. Perhaps nowhere are the challenges more apparent than in New York City, a sprawling system of about 700 elementary schools and a large number of underprivileged children.

The city has been among the best markets for the much-loved Balanced Literacy curriculum. This approach aims to nurture a passion for books, but has sometimes been criticized for including too little systematic instruction in basic reading skills. Mr. Banks described the approach as “an old method that fails too many children”.

The new plan is backed by the teachers’ union, but attracted immediate skepticism from some teachers, who often say major changes come with insufficient training. It also infuriated the city managers’ union, which called a standardized curriculum approach “pedagogically unsound” in such a large system.

Mr. Banks said New York City never offered the “right blueprint” for reading. He said he left teachers blamed for failures that weren’t their own, and families without answers for what went wrong when their children were left behind.

With national reading scores stagnating, nearly 20 states have prioritized phonics along with work to expand a student’s background knowledge, vocabulary, and oral language skills, which research shows most children need to understand how to decode words and make sense of what they’re reading.

“I’m thrilled,” said Susan Newman, an early literacy development expert and former Assistant US Secretary of State for Elementary and Secondary Education, of the city’s plans.

“This is a bold effort,” she said. “And I think that’s pretty much the right way to go.”

If the New York City Declaration is the starting line, there is a challenging road ahead.

Research shows that the new curriculum alone does not enhance student outcomes. Major changes require teachers to reshape their current practices and understanding of a subject matter through extensive training and coaching. Otherwise, they may rely on their old instincts.

Even the plan’s backers admit a lot could go wrong. Some worry that the other aspect of literacy—writing—needs more substantive attention. Or that unaddressed epidemiological learning losses could impede progress.

And addressing how primary schools teach reading to younger students will not help older students who have missed out on learning these skills.

The city will also need to overcome the frustrations of many school leaders about rolling out the plan, as well as the strong belief some have in the programs they are now using.

Hundreds of elementary schools in 2019 used a popular balanced literacy curriculum from teachers college known as Units of Study, a report from two local news outlets, Chalkbeat and The City. The curriculum received failing marks from one major organization that assesses program quality. But many school leaders appreciate its interest in developing children’s passion for books, as well as its strong professional development offerings for teachers.

Many city managers have publicly defended this approach. Another principal in Brooklyn, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, described the startup as frustrating and said their school saw good results from a modified version of the study units combined with the phonics program.

Henry Rubio, president of the Headteachers’ Association, said a recent survey showed that three in four school leaders were “unhappy” with the plan being rolled out.

“It’s disrespectful to the community and the school leader to get support to make this work,” said Mr. Rubio. “What does that do for confidence and morale?”

Under the plan, all school districts will adopt one of the three curricula that have received high scores from national curriculum review groups.

Administrators weighed factors such as text quality and accessibility for students, said Carolyn Quintana, deputy adviser for teaching and learning, before narrowing down options with a small group of moderators.

The three options have some important differences:

  • Wit & Wisdom is known for its strong focus on building knowledge, which is important for helping students understand what they read. It does not cover basic skills such as phonics and will therefore be paired with a phonics program such as Fundations, which many schools are already using. Baltimore schools, where about 60 percent of the children are low-income, reported modest gains after adoption.

  • Exploratory learning has a clear audio programme, includes texts drawn from concepts in other subjects such as social studies and a more robust writing component. It also contains large amounts of additional teaching materials and guidance that schools may need additional help to digest. The curriculum is used in Detroit, which has seen some progress since its introduction.

  • In Reading is the more traditional option, a “basic” program that uses texts written specifically to teach reading. Some educators and school administrators are concerned about a recent New York University report that found its content “likely reinforces stereotypes and portrays people of color in poor and destructive ways.” Ms. Quintana said the company assured officials that it was “working relentlessly with the reviews.”

Mr Banks said he believes the changes will eventually make life easier for everyone.

Many educators spend many hours researching—or even creating—materials to fill gaps in the existing curriculum. And when children lack stable housing or change schools often for other reasons, it can be hard to get back together when classes use different approaches.

The chancellor has found one key ally in Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers’ union, who has long advocated for a more consistent citywide approach. “We support that idea,” said Mr. Mulgrew.

“But there will be pessimism across the schools,” he added.

This latest shift — and what the chancellor says should be another — represents a major swing in the pendulum in the city’s reading education.

Twenty years ago, during the Bloomberg administration, Chancellor Joel Klein ushered in an era of balanced literacy in the city’s schools, until a lack of progress led to experimentation with other approaches. Years later, another counselor, Carmen Farina, a believer in independent reading time and having students choose their own books, again encouraged schools to adopt these strategies.

Richard Carranza called the city’s patchwork practices futile when he led the system, but his tenure overlapped the first year of the pandemic and Reading moved backwards.

Mr Banks, and the mayor, Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, said reading would be one of the department’s top priorities. Already, Mr. Banks has called on schools to adopt phonics programs and to open many new programs for students with dyslexia.

Teacher training on the new programs will begin this week and continue through the summer, and the training will continue through the school year. Officials said the goal is for teachers to return in the fall with their first unit fully planned. Early childhood service providers will also receive training in the coming months.

The first phase of the startup will include many of the areas where children have suffered the most, such as Harlem (District 5), Northeast Bronx (12), Eastern New York (19) Brownsville (23) and Southeast Queens (32).

Sharon Roberts, a special education teacher at PS 9, Walter Reed School in Queens, said she was “optimistic for the first time” in years.

Ms. Roberts said it had long been left to her to “fill the void” and find materials that fit her students’ needs. But for the plan to work, she said, teachers need to “be treated with respect again.”

“We are tired of being blamed for so many things that are beyond our reach,” she said.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *