The New York City (NYC) Reads school initiative is a major undertaking that Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks promised would be transformational in terms of literacy, reading, and basic algebra instruction. Most teachers seemed to agree, but are a little unsure about the rollout so far.
“The most basic thing we can do at our schools is ensure that all our students learn how to read and have the resources to thrive, but with more than half of our city’s public-school students reading below grade level, now is the time to act—and that is exactly what we are doing today,” said Adams in a statement.
This year, 15 selected ‘phase one’ school districts will begin implementing the new curriculum and the remaining 17 school districts of ‘phase two’ will start next year.
Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning at the Department of Education (DOE) Carolyne Quintana is confident that the NYC Reads program will be a singular city-wide curriculum that’s research-based curricula, supported by intensive coaching and professional learning for educators, and culturally responsive. Quintana said, at a recent town hall with NYC educators, that this spring teachers were offered training and there were make-up trainings held this summer for those that missed out or were new hires. Every teacher should have at least eight coaching sessions in addition to several professional hours of training on NYC Reads programming and materials before and during the school year.
There will be a set reading curriculum for every grade level, said Quintana.
Early childhood programs will use the ‘Creative Curriculum’ alongside ‘Teaching Strategies GOLD’ and ‘Ages & Stages’––a developmental “screener” that’s tailored to each child’s strengths, interests, and needs. Elementary English Language Arts (ELA) classes will have a choice between three curricula options: ‘Wit and Wisdom’, ‘Into Reading’, and ‘Expeditionary Learning.’
Kate Gutwillig is an elementary ELA teacher in Manhattan. She has been teaching for over 20 years. Previously, she said, city schools were using a theory-based approach to teaching reading designed by Lucy Calkins, a leading literacy expert at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Calkins created this “balanced literacy” curriculum with independent study components decades ago, which city public schools chose to adopt in 2003.
“If you were really lucky and learned to read on your own and didn’t need any extra help and it just came to you, then this curriculum would work for you,” said Gutwillig. “But many, many children are not like that, especially working class in New York City. Their parents are working many jobs. Maybe there’s trauma. Maybe there’s a learning disability. Maybe you just immigrated here. There’s so many unique populations.”
Gutwillig said that people were too “enamored” with Calkins to realize that the curriculum wasn’t inclusive enough. “What would happen is that certain children would get stuck and there was no assistance in the curriculum,” said Gutwillig.
The new curriculum options will be more about the “science” of reading and phonics-based, she said, speaking from her experience teaching both styles.
Schools will also increase their focus on algebra with illustrative math, center students with disabilities and multilingual learners, and aim to incorporate more culturally diverse learning materials under the ‘Hidden Voices’ initiative. Hidden Voices spotlights narratives within the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders (AAPI), LGBTQIA+, African diaspora, and Black American communities, said Quintana.
“Reading is a social justice and racial equity issue,” said Quintana.
About two-thirds of Black and brown students in NYC schools are not reading at grade level, she said.
According to national trends in a survey conducted by Educators for Excellence (E4E-NY), schools have “significant” staffing shortages across all positions, a constant need for teachers to give up their planning periods to cover classes, report having little say in selecting curriculum, and find curriculum doesn’t meet the academic or social-emotional needs of their students. Teachers of color, in particular, are far less likely to stay in education.
Teachers polled in the town hall by E4E-NY said that they thought the NYC Reads curriculum was critical. However, they also said that the implementation of the program could use more collaboration with teachers, timely data releases, year round coaching, more transparency, and a clearer timeline.
Gutwillig pointed out that the NYC Reads materials she’s seen could also be more culturally responsive and carefully include more figures and narratives of color that reflect students in the city.
April Rose is an elementary ELA teacher in Queens with over 20 years of experience. Her school pivoted during COVID to adopt a new reading curriculum. The school piloted the program in two classrooms and saw improvements in students. Rose said that the texts were insightful and rich, and cut down on the need for supplemental materials.
“The only thorn, which goes to the fact that no curriculum is perfect and that you have to do what’s in the best interest for students, is that we had to try out the writing part and found that it was a little too disjointed,” said Rose.
Jeta Donovan is a partner at The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and a former educator in New York City. She oversaw the implementation of a new reading and instruction curriculum statewide in Tennessee in 2019. Despite challenges with such a massive undertaking, Donovan said after a few years of staying the course and shifting mindsets, students showed marked improvements. She advised that new course materials are not enough and that teachers would need immense support from DOE.
“I think New York City is making a really historic investment in teacher professional learning and coaching as a part of this initiative and I can’t understate how important that will be to the success of this project,” said Donovan. “And I say this as a former DOE teacher myself, I know it’s important that teachers not only feel supported but will see the impact on student learning as a result of that ongoing professional coaching.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visitinghttps://bit.ly/amnews1.