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New York schools will introduce “massive” changes to reading curriculum

According to the New York City school chancellor, over the past two decades, hundreds of public schools have been teaching reading the wrong way, resulting in untold numbers of children struggling to master a crucial life skill.

Now Chancellor David C. Banks wants to “sound the alarm” and plans to force the country’s largest school system to rethink.

On Tuesday, Mr. Banks will announce major changes to reading instruction to address a persistent problem: About half of city children in grades three through eight are illiterate. Black, Latino, and low-income children fare even worse.

In a recent interview, Mr Banks said the city’s approach was “fundamentally flawed” and did not follow the science of how students learn to read.

“It’s not your fault. It’s not your kid’s fault. It was our fault,” said Mr. Banks. “This is the start of a massive reversal.”

Over the next two years, the city’s 32 local school districts will adopt one of three curriculums chosen by their superintendents. The curricula use evidence-based practices, including phonetics — which teaches children how to decode letter sounds — and avoid strategies that many reading experts find flawed, such as B. Teaching children to use picture clues to guess words.

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

Half of the districts will begin the program in September; the others begin in 2024. Exceptions to the opt-out will only be considered for schools where more than 85 percent of students can read, a threshold only about 20 schools meet.

The move represents the most significant reading overhaul in New York City since the early 2000s, when some of the programs the chancellor is now trying to uproot were first rolled out. He will immediately put the city at the forefront of a growing national movement to reform reading education.

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

The use is clear: children who cannot read well until the third grade are at a disadvantage. They are more likely to drop out of high school, be incarcerated, and live in poverty as adults.

Nonetheless, curriculum reform is a massive undertaking. Perhaps nowhere are the challenges more evident than in New York City, a sprawling system of some 700 elementary schools and a large population of disadvantaged children.

The city is among the top markets for a popular “balanced literacy” curriculum. The approach aims to encourage a passion for books, but has at times been criticized for lacking systematic instruction in core reading skills. Mr Banks called the approach an “old way that has failed with far too many children”.

The new plan has the support of the teachers’ union but has immediately drawn skepticism from some teachers, who often say big change comes with insufficient training. It has also drawn the ire of the city managers’ union, which has called a unified curriculum approach in such a large system “pedagogically unsound”.

But New York City has never offered the “right blueprint” for reading, Mr. Banks said. It has blamed teachers for mistakes that weren’t their own, he said, and families with no answers about what went wrong when their children relapsed.

As national reading scores stagnate, nearly 20 states have prioritized phonetics alongside work to expand students’ background knowledge, vocabulary and oral language skills. Research shows that most children need to understand how to decode words and understand what they are reading.

“I’m excited,” said Susan Neuman, an early literacy expert and former US assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, of the city’s plans.

“It’s a brave attempt,” she said. “And I think that’s the way to go.”

If New York City’s announcement is the starting line, there’s a challenging road ahead.

Research shows that a new curriculum alone does not improve student outcomes. Major changes require teachers to reshape their existing practices and understanding of an issue through intensive training and coaching. Otherwise, they can fall back on old instincts.

Even supporters of the plan admit that a lot can go wrong. Some worry that the other side of literacy – writing – needs more attention. Or that unaddressed pandemic-related learning losses could impede progress.

And addressing how elementary schools teach younger students to read will not help older students who have failed to learn those skills.

The city also needs to overcome the frustration of many school leaders at the introduction of the plan, as well as the fervent belief some have in the programs they are now using.

Hundreds of elementary schools used a popular Teachers College balanced literacy curriculum known as Units of Study in 2019, according to a report by two local news outlets, Chalkbeat and The City. The curriculum has received poor marks from a major organization that assesses program quality. However, many school leaders value his attention to developing children’s passion for books, as well as his robust offerings for teacher professional development.

Several city managers have publicly defended this curriculum. Another Brooklyn school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called the introduction demoralizing and said her school had had good results using a modified version of Units of Study coupled with a phonics program.

Henry Rubio, head of the school leaders’ union, said a recent survey showed three in four school leaders were “unsatisfied” with the implementation of the plan.

“It’s the lack of respect for the community and the principal to get support to make this work,” Mr Rubio said. “What does that do to trust and morals?”

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

Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, said officials weighed factors like text quality and student accessibility before narrowing down options with a small panel of superintendents.

The three options have some significant differences:

  • Wit & Wisdom is known for its strong focus on knowledge building, which is important in helping students understand what they read. It doesn’t cover basic skills like phonetics, so would be coupled with a phonetics program like Foundations, which many schools already use. Schools in Baltimore, where about 60 percent of children are low-income, reported modest gains after implementing it.

  • Expeditionary Learning has an explicit phonetics program and contains texts based on concepts in other subjects such as social studies and a more robust writing component. It also contains significant amounts of additional teaching materials and guidance that schools may need additional help to absorb. The curriculum is used in Detroit, where some progress has been made since its inception.

  • Into Reading is the most traditional option, a “basic” program that uses texts written specifically to teach reading. Some teachers and school leaders have been concerned about a recent New York University report, which found its content “likely to reinforce stereotypes and portray people of color in an inferior and destructive way.” Ms Quintana said the company had assured officials it was “working tirelessly on revisions”.

Mr Banks said he believes the changes will ultimately “make life easier for everyone”.

Many teachers spend many hours locating or even creating materials to fill gaps in the existing curriculum. And when children don’t have stable housing or often change schools for other reasons, it can be harder to get back on when classrooms have different approaches.

The chancellor has found a key ally in Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers’ union, who has long advocated more unified citywide action. “We support this idea,” said Mr. Mulgrew.

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

The postponement marks the last – and what the chancellor says should be the last – great pendulum swing in the city’s reading education.

Twenty years ago, during the Bloomberg administration, Chancellor Joel Klein ushered in the era of balanced literacy in city schools, until a lack of progress prompted him to try other approaches. Years later, another chancellor, Carmen Fariña, who believes in independent reading time and lets students choose their own books, again encouraged schools to adopt these strategies.

Richard Carranza called the city’s patchwork impracticable when he headed the system, but his tenure overlapped with the first year of the pandemic, and reading took a back seat.

Mr Banks and Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, have said reading would be a top priority for the administration. Mr Banks has already encouraged schools to introduce phonics programs and opened several new programs for students with dyslexia.

Teacher training on the new programs begins this week and will continue through the summer, and coaching will continue throughout the school year. The goal is for teachers to return with their first fully scheduled unit in the fall, officials said. Early childhood professionals will also be trained in the coming months.

The first phase of the rollout will include several areas where children are struggling the most, such as Harlem (District 5), the Northeast Bronx (12), East New York (19), Brownsville (23), and Southeast Queens (32 ).

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

Ms. Roberts said she has long been left to “fill the void” and find materials appropriate to the needs of her students. But for the plan to be successful, teachers “must be treated with respect again,” she said.

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


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