The Surprising Obstacle to Overhauling How Children Learn to Read
NEW YORK — As New York embarks on an ambitious plan to overhaul how children in the nation’s largest school system are taught to read, schools leaders face a significant obstacle: educators’ skepticism.
Dozens of cities and states have sought to transform reading instruction in recent years, driven by decades of research known as the “science of reading.” But the success of their efforts has hinged in part on whether school leaders are willing to embrace a seismic shift in their philosophy about how children learn.
Already in New York City, the rollout has frustrated principals. The schools chancellor, David C. Banks, is forcing schools to abandon strategies he says are a top reason half of students in grades 3 to 8 are not proficient in reading.
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But principals will lose control over selecting reading programs at their schools, and their union has criticized the speed of change. And many educators still believe in “balanced literacy,” a popular approach that aims to foster a love of books through independent reading time but that experts and the chancellor say lacks enough focus on foundational skills.
Whether schools ultimately embrace — or resist — the city’s push will help shape the legacy of the chancellor’s campaign: Will New York’s plan fall victim to the pendulum swings that come with every new administration? Or will it become a watershed moment in the reading wars?
“The linchpin is the principal and the assistant principal,” said Wiley Blevins, an early reading specialist who has helped train local teachers. “Them understanding what’s happening, being properly trained and having buy-in.”
He added: “If you don’t have that, it’s going to fail.”
The tensions in New York mirror those that other cities have confronted as they push toward adopting the science of reading. Leaders across the nation have learned that they must balance acting with urgency to address a national reading crisis with taking time to persuade principals and teachers to rethink entrenched convictions.
“You are fundamentally asking people to change their identity,” said Aaron Bouie III, who oversees elementary curriculum in a suburban district in Ohio that has been overhauling reading instruction for the last three years.
Still, Bouie’s district and others across the nation have proven that early frustrations can be overcome.
Districts that previously overhauled reading instruction detailed their rationale for change, but also limited expectations of rapid progress, leaders said. They got veteran teachers on board early and relied on their influence to convince others. And they said they painstakingly crafted messages to principals, teachers and families.
“I always say that my first two years were PR,” said Kymyona Burk, the former state literacy director in Mississippi, where reading scores have risen from among the nation’s worst to the most improved.
“It’s all about transparency,” she said, “even when you don’t have all of the answers.”
In New York City, nearly all elementary schools will adopt one of three reading curriculums chosen by superintendents of the local districts over the next two years. For some school leaders in New York, the way they first learned of the plan — at times on districtwide Zoom calls — has been a sticking point.
A principals’ union survey last month found that three of four school leaders are disappointed with the rollout.
“How you build that trust now?” said Henry Rubio, the head of the union. “I don’t know.”
When the city required all elementary schools to select a phonics program last fall, Nina Demos, the principal of PS 503 in Sunset Park, said she “really appreciated” the decision and the rollout’s balance of “autonomy, agency and cohesion.”
The school taught phonics alongside a popular balanced literacy curriculum that the city will no longer allow. Now that she is being asked to adopt a new program, Into Reading, Demos said she still has too little information.
“I’m just left wondering: ‘Where is the data-driven proof that this is the best option?’” Demos said, adding that she has learned only that Into Reading received high marks from one national curriculum review group.
Demos has also been frustrated by the early turbulence of the rollout: She was told in March that schools would be allowed to keep the writing units it was using, she said. But last week, she was told Into Reading’s writing components must be adopted instead.
“Every time I begin planning,” she said, “what I’m planning for is changing.”
Banks, a Bronx principal himself in the 2000s, said that he empathizes with the frustrations.
“I understand it. But I also look at the data,” Banks said, adding, “The system has provided a level of autonomy already — and it hasn’t worked.”
About half of all districts will adopt new curriculums in September. Teachers began virtual professional development this month, while training is expected to ramp up in the summer. All schools will be offered at least 26 days of programming for educators, officials said.
In districts where the transition will be more significant, and there may be more opposition — such as Manhattan’s District 2, which includes TriBeCa, Chelsea and the Upper East Side — the department has allowed an additional year for the change to take place.
Kevyn Bowles, the principal at PS 532 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which uses a balanced literacy approach, said there has been too little transparency in the process by which the city chose its three curriculum options.
Principals in his district expect they will be asked to adopt Into Reading in two years. But Bowles is worried that the program is already used in some nearby schools where many children struggle.
“How can this be made better?” he asked, adding, “I’m not confident. But it will really be dependent on superintendents and other district leaders to meaningfully engage.”
Not everyone will need to be persuaded.
Many teachers in New York have said they need better classroom materials and have called for a more centralized approach to curriculum. Crucially, their union also supports the move. And many local parents — particularly those whose children have dyslexia — have been outspoken about the need for change.
Some principals, like Joanna Cohen, had already rethought their approaches.
She used to be “almost evangelical about balanced literacy,” she said, as someone who had a passion for reading and writing as a child. But in 2019, “her foundation was rocked” when she first read about how popular reading strategies diverged from scientific research.
Since becoming the principal at PS 107 in Park Slope, a balanced literacy school, she has pushed more teachers to be trained in the science of reading. It hasn’t always been easy.
Since scores were generally high — nearly 80% of students pass state tests — “we had just become accustomed” to some students not reading proficiently, Cohen said. But “the momentum built,” she said. “And at this point, I don’t feel any resistance.”
Even after educators are persuaded, other obstacles can hinder progress.
Many colleges of education still teach flawed strategies like encouraging children to guess words using picture cues. And teachers often worry over the quality of training in the new approaches that outside organizations offer.
The city will also have to monitor schools’ progress in adopting the new curriculums.
“You don’t want to turn classrooms into a surveillance state, but neither do you want to end up in a situation where books are sitting on the on the shelf and not used,” said Morgan Polikoff, a curriculum expert who has studied New York’s approach.
Some states like Colorado and Arkansas have taken strict — and at times unpopular — approaches to oversight with more robust plans for enforcement. Others have relied on looser incentives and encouragements.
But even when overall support may be high, school buy-in is crucial in shaping whether individual classrooms eventually make substantial changes.
“There are quite a few principals I know who are saying, ‘I’m doing what I’ve come to believe in all these years. Period,’” Lucy Calkins, a balanced literacy leader, told educators at a Teachers College event in March. “You can say no. And people all over the country are doing so.”
Still, she added: “If your children are not growing, you need to change your teaching.”
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