Earlier this year, Schools Chancellor David Banks pledged to replace a popular but controversial reading curriculum that many critics say is not effective in teaching the building blocks of literacy.

But as the new school year enters its second month, parents at multiple schools say their kids are still using the curriculum by Columbia University’s Teachers College. The program, known as the Calkins curriculum, has been criticized for not placing sufficient emphasis on phonics. It includes strategies like guessing words from pictures, which some experts say can prevent children from learning crucial reading skills.

Heather Dailey said her son at P.S./M.S. 219 in Queens continues to use the curriculum. She worries he is learning phonics in a way that puts students with learning differences at a disadvantage.

“It’s very frustrating … the audacity of a school system to knowingly use a curriculum that’s failing many students,” Dailey said.

Banks shared his qualms with the curriculum in an interview with Gothamist in March.

“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.”

Even before the pandemic, around 65% of Black and Latino students did not score proficient in reading on the state tests for the third through eighth grades.

The curriculum “has not been as impactful as we had expected and thought and hoped that it would have been,” Banks said at the time. “We'll be pulling it as we have something that we believe in more strongly ready to go.”

The city's education department now says schools must simply supplement the curriculum with stronger lessons on phonics.

“It's perfectly fine to use it,” wrote Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson, in an email, “as long as phonics is there and at the base of programming.”

Supporters say the program instills a love of literature by giving children time to immerse themselves in books, and students in many schools that use it do well.

But the lessons have come under intense scrutiny in recent years as brain research has shown that phonics is the essential building block of reading.

Critics argue the curriculum glosses over phonics by making kids try to read independently before they can actually read words on the page. They say it teaches strategies like guessing words from clues, which can mask gaps in literacy.

Gothamist spoke to multiple parents who said administrators confirmed the curriculum is still in use at their schools. The education department was unable to say with certainty how many schools are using it.

Some parents and education activists said they were disappointed and had hoped the school system would replace the entire curriculum immediately.

“You can add more phonics, and that’s great, but if you don’t eliminate the old practices that we know don't work, you’re not going to solve the problem,” said Sarah Part, a policy analyst with Advocates for Children. "We need to see a shift in the underlying philosophy behind how we teach reading, and that requires a lot of teacher training and support."

“We’re dooming our children to another year of falling behind,” said Paullette Healy, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “It’s a critical time.”

The curriculum, called Units of Study from Teachers College, was developed by Lucy Calkins, an education professor.

It is widely deployed across the country. New York City schools were encouraged to adopt it during the Bloomberg administration. The city spent $31 million on materials and training from Calkins’ institute at Columbia between 2016 and 2022, according to The New York Times.

The audacity of a school system to knowingly use a curriculum that’s failing many students.
Queens public school parent Heather Dailey

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said he agrees with the city’s decision to add phonics but offer public school principals flexibility to continue using the Calkins curriculum if they choose. "I think people do appreciate figuring out what works best for their community," he said.

He disagrees with the curriculum’s strongest critics that it should be totally dismissed. “It’s not as cut and dry as anyone would make it sound,” he said. “Teachers College has a wonderful writing program. And that’s critical, too, to acquiring language.”

Schools would need more time and resources to thoroughly alter reading instruction, he said. “If gears are going to be switched we need a runway,” he said. “And funding is always critical in terms of training and materials.”

While the Adams administration has made boosting literacy a top priority, it has not yet called for a systemwide overhaul of instruction. This year, Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, pledged millions of dollars for dyslexia screenings and pilot programs to support students with reading challenges. But he has also implemented budget cuts at most of the city’s schools because of declining enrollment.

Dailey worried the recent budget cuts to schools undermined the administration’s goal of phasing out the Calkins curriculum.

“I think a lot of schools are still using it because that’s the curriculum they have and they don’t have money to buy new ones,” she said.