Chancellor David Banks is calling for an overhaul of how children learn to read in the city’s public schools, saying the approach many schools use isn’t working. 

In an interview with Gothamist, Banks said he wants to move toward what experts call “the science of reading” which focuses on the rigorous teaching of phonics. 

He also plans to replace a popular curriculum from Columbia University’s Teachers College that critics argue is not sufficiently based on evidence, fails to adequately teach phonics and can create bad habits by encouraging students to guess words by using pictures, patterns and memorization. 

“Far too many of our kids do not have a solid, foundational core in literacy,” Banks said. “We've got to do things differently than we've been doing them because we're not getting the results that we need.” 

Banks frequently notes that around 65% of Black and Latino students did not score proficient in reading on the grades 3-8 state tests leading up to the pandemic. 

Now, after a year and a half of disrupted learning, national data from standardized tests and assessments indicate children have fallen even farther behind

“It’s a crisis,” said Katharine Pace Miles, a professor of Early Literacy Development at Brooklyn College. 

A popular but “not as impactful” curriculum

There is no required or universal curriculum in the city’s public schools; different schools, and sometimes different teachers within schools, use different strategies. 

Banks has said he believes schools, especially successful ones, should have some autonomy over how they educate students. But when it comes to literacy, he said he wants to phase out the very popular Units of Study curriculum developed by Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. The think-tank developed Units of Study, which is widely used in the U.S. and beyond, and offers professional development for educators. During the Bloomberg Administration, thousands of city teachers were trained in the approach.

“Lucy Calkins’ work, if you will, has not been as impactful as we had expected and thought and hoped that it would have been,” Banks said. He added the education department will not ask schools to pull the Calkins curriculum or any other before they offer a replacement. 

As Chalkbeat NY reported this week, some schools have already moved to replace that curriculum, citing concerns about its efficacy, but doing so requires retraining teachers in addition to purchasing new materials. 

In recent years, academics and education journalists have increasingly raised alarms about some of the most widely-used strategies to teach children to read, including the Calkins program. The critics argue these curricula, sometimes referred to as “balanced literacy,” do not provide ample opportunity to practice letter-sound relationships, especially now that brain scans have confirmed that decoding words – sounding them out – is the essential building block of reading. 

Balanced literacy programs do include some phonics, but critics say the balance of balanced literacy is off. For example, Calkins’ curriculum calls for short “mini lessons,” followed by a much longer span of independent and/or small group reading, with the teacher circulating in the classroom.

Miles, the literacy scientist, said kindergarteners who can’t read are spending too much of their time aimlessly paging through books and not enough time learning about letter relationships. She said students are also encouraged to memorize “sight words,” and use pictures or patterns to infer meaning, which forms problematic habits that are hard to break.

Miles said she has observed this in her work overseeing a teacher training program where tutors fan out to public schools to address gaps through a program called Reading Rescue/Reading Ready. She also saw it with her own daughter who started kindergarten this year. Miles said her heart sank when her daughter came home with “predictable books” and handouts using sight words, the very strategies she and other researchers have shown are ineffective.

Carolyne Quintana, the city’s new Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning, said strategies that encourage kids to memorize or guess at words can serve as a crutch, allowing them to get by without learning the fundamentals. “Sometimes we don’t catch it in the earlier grades because kids are clever and kids have learned all kinds of coping mechanisms,” she said.

Sarah Part, a policy analyst at Advocates for Children, said the problems with literacy instruction are deepening inequities and widening the achievement gap. She said a large number of parents with means have been hiring tutors to address shortcomings in literacy instruction in school.

“Parents who have resources are going to find a tutor,” she said. “They’re going to get help outside of school. But families who don't have resources …  are very, very dependent on what happens at school.”

"Continual process of revision"

In response to the growing body of research on the science of reading, Calkins said she has been updating her curriculum and informing teachers at partner schools about how to retool their instruction. 

She said her curriculum does include a strong emphasis on phonics.

“We care a lot about teaching phonics explicitly, as does anybody,” she said. “There really is no debate. Phonics is important to teach. … But it's really important that kids are reading texts that allow them to take their phonics into the text. And those texts also need to be rich and interesting.”

She said her think tank at Teachers College will soon release new “decodable books” that are meant to practice letter patterns through interesting content. 

“We are always in a continual process of revision,” she said. “We've listened carefully to the research and have made some changes based on that — pretty important changes for kindergarten and first grade.” 

Calkins said she believes her teachings still excel at igniting a passion for reading and writing: “We’re trying to create a culture where kids are on fire as readers and writers, where they're engaged with important purposes and projects, where they are learning foundational skills and accelerating their development.”

She added that schools that use her curriculum “outperform the city and the state” on standardized tests, and that the American Institutes for Research released a 2021 study backing up her work. 

In a statement, Teachers College said, “The Teachers College Reading & Writing Program is used in many classrooms across the country, and thousands of teachers participate in TCRWP’s professional development workshops annually. It is one of several approaches to literacy instruction at Teachers College. We prepare our pre-service teachers to be adept at planning and delivering lessons that are differentiated, inclusive for all learners, and deeply engaging – whatever literacy program they are using.”

Unclear timeline for changes

The de Blasio Administration had pledged to put $200 million in federal stimulus funds toward a revamped, more culturally responsive curriculum for K-12 that they hoped would be in place by fall 2023. 

But Adams administration officials recently told The Daily News that while it still aims to roll out a version of that curriculum next year, it will probably start with just the middle grades. 

Banks said he is convening a literacy council who will help develop a plan that will be rooted in both phonics and culturally responsive texts – books by a diverse group of authors that feature diverse characters. 

“So the first thing is we put the bat signal up,” he said. “We are in distress, we need help. We gotta move differently. And so now we've got people who are responding to that signal … and we will figure out what we think is our best path forward.”