The surprising obstacle to overhauling how children learn to read

As New York embarks on an ambitious plan to overhaul the way children in the nation’s largest school system learn to read, school leaders face a daunting obstacle: skepticism from educators.

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 depends in part on whether school leaders are willing to embrace a seismic shift in their philosophy about how children learn.

Already in New York, the rollout has frustrated managers. Schools Chancellor David C. Banks is forcing schools to drop strategies he says are a major reason why half of students in grades three through eight are failing to read.

But principals will lose control over the selection of reading programs in 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 times, but which experts and the Chancellor say does not focus enough on fundamental skills.

Whether schools ultimately embrace or resist the city’s push will help shape the Chancellor’s campaign legacy: Will New York’s plan fall victim to the swings that come with every new administration? Or will this become a watershed moment in the reading wars?

“The linchpin is the principal and vice-principal,” said Wiley Blevins, an early reading specialist who has helped train local teachers. “They understand what’s going on, are properly trained and have the buy-in.”

He added: “If you don’t have it, it’s going to fail.”

The tensions in New York mirror those other cities have faced as they push to embrace the science of reading. Leaders across the country have learned that they must balance between acting with urgency to address a national reading crisis and taking the time to persuade principals and teachers to rethink their entrenched beliefs.

“You’re basically asking people to change their identities,” said Aaron Bouie III, who oversees the elementary curriculum in a suburban Ohio neighborhood that’s been revamping reading instruction over the past three years.

Yet Mr. Bouie’s district and others across the country have proven that early frustrations can be overcome.

Districts that previously revised reading instruction detailed their rationale for the change, but also limited expectations for rapid progress, leaders said. They recruited experienced teachers early on and used their influence to convince others. And they said they had carefully crafted messages for principals, teachers and families.

“I always say my first two years were public relations,” said Kymyona Burk, the former director of literacy for the state of Mississippi, where reading scores have gone from the worst in the nation to the most improved.

“It’s all about transparency,” she said, “even when you don’t have all the answers.”

In New York, nearly all elementary schools will adopt one of three reading curricula chosen by local district superintendents over the next two years. For some school leaders in New York, how they first learned about the plan — sometimes during district-wide Zoom calls — has been a sticking point.

A survey by the Head Teachers’ Union last month found that three in four headteachers are disappointed with the deployment.

“How do you build that trust now?” said Henry Rubio, the head of the union. “I don’t know.”

When the city asked all elementary schools to select a phonics program last fall, Nina Demos, PS 503 principal at Sunset Park, said she “really appreciated” the decision and the balance of the rollout. between “autonomy, agency and cohesion”.

The school taught phonics alongside a popular, balanced literacy program that the city will no longer allow. Now being asked to adopt a new program, Into Reading, Ms Demos says she still has too little information.

“I’m just wondering, ‘Where’s the data-based evidence that this is the best option?'” Ms Demos said, adding that she had only learned that Into Reading had received high marks from a national curriculum review group.

Ms Demos was also frustrated by the initial turmoil of the rollout: she was told in March that schools would be allowed to keep the writing units they were using, she said. But last week he was told that Into Reading’s writing components should be adopted instead.

“Every time I start planning,” she said, “what I plan changes.”

Mr Banks, himself a Bronx manager in the 2000s, said he understood the frustrations.

“I get it. But I also look at the data,” Mr Banks said, adding: “The system has already provided a level of autonomy – and it hasn’t worked.

About half of all districts will adopt new programs in September. Teachers began virtual professional development this month, while training is expected to ramp up this 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 where there may be more opposition — such as Manhattan’s District 2, which includes TriBeCa, Chelsea and the Upper East Side — the department has granted an additional year for the change to take place. takes place.

Kevyn Bowles, director of PS 532 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which uses a balanced literacy approach, said there was too little transparency in the process by which the city chose its three program options.

Principals in his district expect to be asked to adopt Into Reading in two years. But Mr Bowles fears the program is already being used in some nearby schools where many children are struggling.

“How can this be improved?” he asked, adding, “I’m not confident. But it will really depend on superintendents and other district leaders to engage in a meaningful way.

Not everyone will need convincing.

Many New York teachers said they needed better classroom materials and called for a more centralized approach to the curriculum. Above all, their union also supports the move. And many local parents – especially those whose children are dyslexic – have been open about the need for change.

Some directors, like Joanna Cohen, had already rethought their approaches.

She was “nearly evangelical when it came to balanced literacy,” she said, as someone who had a passion for reading and writing as a child. But in 2019, “her foundation was shaken” when she first read about how popular reading strategies diverged from scientific research.

Since becoming the principal of PS 107 at Park Slope, a balanced literacy school, she has inspired more teachers to train in the science of reading. It hasn’t always been easy.

Because scores were generally high — nearly 80% of students pass state tests — “we just got used to” some students not reading well, Ms. Cohen said. But “the momentum created,” she said. “And at this point, I don’t feel any resistance.”

Even after educators are persuaded, other obstacles can impede progress.

Many teaching colleges still teach flawed strategies like encouraging kids to guess words using picture clues. And teachers are often concerned about the quality of training in new approaches offered by outside organizations.

The city will also need to monitor the schools’ progress in adopting the new programs.

“You don’t want to turn classrooms into a surveillance state, but you also don’t want to find yourself in a situation where books are sitting on the shelf and not being used,” said Morgan Polikoff, an expert in curriculum material who studied New York approach.

Some states like Colorado and Arkansas have taken strict — and sometimes unpopular — approaches to surveillance with more robust enforcement plans. Others have relied on softer incentives and incentives.

But even when overall support may be high, school buy-in is crucial in determining whether individual classrooms end up bringing about substantial change.

“There are quite a few principals I know who say, ‘I’m doing what I’ve been taught to believe for all these years. Period,’ Lucy Calkins, a balanced literacy leader, told educators during the at a Teachers College event in March “You can say no. And people all over the country are doing it.”

Still, she added, “If your kids aren’t growing up, you have to change your teaching.”


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