A new report from a non-profit group says the New York City Department of Education must urgently revamp literacy instruction across the public school system. 

The report from Advocates for Children – “Reaching Every Reader” – argued the fact that so few public school students are being taught to read effectively is “unconscionable,” citing how less than 47% of all third through eighth graders, and only 36% of Black and Hispanic students, scored proficient in reading on 2019 state tests

“[W]hen students do not attain a level of reading proficiency sufficient to pass the state test, they have not failed,” the report said. “The school system has failed them.” 

The report comes as Mayor Eric Adams' administration has pledged to prioritize an overhaul of literacy instruction. As part of his budget, Adams is proposing $7.4 million for universal literacy screening and the creation of new public schools designed to support students with reading disabilities. Adams has repeatedly invoked his personal struggles with dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until college. 

Schools Chancellor David Banks has also called for dramatically reforming how many schools teach reading. He said he wants elementary school teachers to place a greater emphasis on phonics, and has said the system must move away from curricula that are not based on “the science of reading.” 

For example, Banks has said he wants to see schools drop a popular curriculum from Teachers College that critics say under-emphasizes phonics and can teach students bad habits. 

But the administration has not yet detailed its plans for the literacy screener or dyslexia schools, nor has it offered a comprehensive plan to improve instruction. 

Nicole Brownstein, a spokesperson for the education department, said those details are coming.

“We are excited to continue our partnership with Advocates for Children and promote a proven, culturally responsive approach to teaching children to read and supporting students at risk of dyslexia, and we look forward to sharing more news on this soon,” she said. 

In recent years, literacy experts, policymakers and journalists have honed in on what they refer to as “the science of reading.” Looking at brain imaging, scientists have found that systematic instruction in phonics is most effective in teaching students to read well. But many of the city’s public schools still use curricula that encourage inferring words from pictures and other clues. 

While some students are able to pick up the fundamentals of reading more easily than others, “all students, and especially those with learning disabilities, benefit from direct instruction in letter sound relationships,” the report said. 

Additionally, research has found that teaching literature and lessons that incorporate and reflect a range of students’ identities and backgrounds improves outcomes. 

Advocates for Children said the time is ripe for change, recommending the city draw on the $250 million in federal stimulus funds designated for academic recovery and support to improve literacy instruction. 

The group called for all schools to adopt curricula that include explicit phonics instruction; invest in teacher training to equip educators with science-based strategies and enhance intervention for struggling readers.