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Everything You Wondered About Why Some NYC Schools Are Teaching Reading Wrong, But Were Afraid to Ask

This winter, New York City’s new public schools chancellor David Banks began his tenure with a blunt attack on how most of the city’s schools teach reading. “They’re teaching it wrong.” And in his first speech as chancellor, he called out the city’s reading proficiency inequities as a scandal: “We are in a city with 65% of Black and brown children never reach proficiency and we act like that’s normal, it’s all right.”

Nine years ago—when the Partnership first began its work—we switched our schools’ curriculum to the kind of reading instruction that Chancellor Banks and Mayor Eric Adams now advocate for all New York students. We believed in 2013—and we still believe now—that the most powerful lever to transform student achievement is providing students with an early and comprehensive foundation in phonics, and then immersing them in knowledge-rich literacy curricula, taught well. And our students’ proficiency growth in reading affirms this faith:

So what exactly is wrong with the way many New York children are taught to read?

Back in 2012, Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee authored a collection of blog posts that explained what might be termed “Reading War II”—the sequel to the whole-language v. phonics debates of the 1990s. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two camps in the debate over how to select and assign texts. The first is what I’ll call the “Just Right” or “Goldilocks” books approach. The second I will call the “Grade Appropriate” approach.

The prevailing view among many educators in the United States today is that the best way to improve student reading comprehension is to assign lots of books that are “just right” for individual students. The theory is that every student has three reading levels: an independent reading level (what the student can read without teacher scaffolding or support), an instructional reading level (something just above the student’s independent level, but something that they can access with scaffolding and support), and a frustration level (something that will cause the student to throw up his hands in frustration). In class, the theory goes, teachers should assign (or students should select) books that are pitched at their instructional reading level—not too easy so that they don’t stretch themselves but not too hard so that they don’t get turned off to learning.

Teachers strictly following this approach are challenged to frequently assess student comprehension and carefully monitor student progress, all the while gently pushing them up levels with incrementally more difficult texts.

Makes sense, right?

Not necessarily.

Let’s take, as one example, a ninth-grade student –Maria—who has the equivalent of a fifth-grade reading level. Her peers are reading things like Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway. Maria is reading Maniac Magee. If we assume that both comprehension and cultural and background knowledge build over time, how we will ever get Maria to the same place as her peers? How do you get her from Maniac Magee to Macbeth?

The reality is that the incremental increases in complexity that the “just right” books theory demands simply will never close the gap between Maria and her peers.

Enter the Common Core. The “Grade Appropriate” approach that drives its ELA standards is based on a very different assumption. Teachers who follow the “Grade Appropriate” theory select books, poems, articles, and stories that are appropriate for the grade level, even if that level is above the students’ instructional or independent reading level.

Teaching with this approach can be more challenging, particularly in schools where many students are far behind grade level. A great deal more scaffolding is needed to ensure that all students—including those who are reading far below grade level—are able to understand grade-appropriate texts. 

There are more elements to the teaching of reading than text complexity, of course, and you can read Kathleen’s posts exploring some of these dimensions here, here, and here.

Yet at the heart of what has driven Partnership students’ literacy gains for almost a decade now—and what has helped unlock a whole world of learning for them—comes down to two things: decades of research about the value of teaching grade-level texts, and a Partnership root belief that “We can do hard things.”

As Partnership VP for Academics Maggie Johnson explains, “setting a firm foundation of phonics knowledge in the early grades and then systematically building students’ historical and literary knowledge, book by book, unlocks the ability for students to ‘read to learn’ on their own for the rest of their lives. ”

It may be straightforward, but it’s not easy. As teacher Tali Collins explains, transitioning to the kind of knowledge-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum we use—Core Knowledge Language Arts—is “absolutely challenging.” Tali teaches fourth and fifth grade ELA at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland, a school that joined the Partnership—and adopted the curriculum—two years ago.

“It was particularly difficult to start CKLA in the middle of a pandemic and with an influx of new students, who had to jump into reading about topics they had no prior knowledge of. For example, we started the first unit of fifth grade—”Early American Civilizations”—when students didn’t have background knowledge on what a civilization is or where the Early Americas are.

“But this year, I am seeing the spiral work. This year’s fifth-graders, for example, could compare what they learned about the feudal structure of Europe in the Middle Ages to some of the hierarchies in Early American Civilizations.”

Tali Collins teaching this winter.

Tali adds that the complexity give students so much more than background knowledge that fuels their literacy. “They know this approach is challenging—and they are discovering that they can do it. So many other curricula talk down to kids, and they know it.”

If Banks and the New York DOE follow through on what promises to be a challenging transformation of reading instruction in New York, we hope hundreds of thousands of students will reap the benefits that Partnership students like Tali’s have already experienced.