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New York City public schools will now be required to actually teach kids to read

New York City has announced that the city’s public elementary schools will now be forced to use a curriculum that actually teaches children how to read.

On Tuesday, David C. Banks, the chancellor of the city’s Department of Education, unveiled new rules governing reading instruction in New York City public schools, mandating that schools adopt one of three evidence-based reading programs. A school can only apply for an exception to the new rules if more than 85 percent of its student body is deemed “proficient” in reading—a distinction held by only around 20 schools in the entire city.

The move comes in the wake of increased criticism toward how reading is taught in American schools, sparked by a sharp national decline in post-COVID reading scores, and a popular podcast from American Public Media that detailed the failures of the commonly used “balanced literacy” approach.

Notably, Banks implemented new rules last year requiring that New York City public schools include phonics in their reading instruction. However, the new guidelines build on these changes, ushering in what is effectively a ban on balanced literacy—a popular, though unscientific, approach to teaching reading that some experts say undermines the skills children are taught in phonics instruction.

Balanced literacy, which also goes by other names like the “whole language” method or “three cueing,” focuses on having children read whole words, rather than sounding them out. The method also encourages children to simply guess unfamiliar words by relying on context from factors like pictures in a book. In contrast, phonics teaches children to read by focusing on the sounds that different letters and groups of letters make.

“The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it,” journalist Emily Hanford noted in “Hard Words,” an episode from the Educate podcast about why science-backed reading methods aren’t being adopted in American schools.

“The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk,” Hanford adds. “But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain isn’t wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters—phonics.”

Even though research has long shown phonics to be the most effective way to teach reading, the balanced literacy approach has been surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Public schools—like other government agencies—have little incentive to innovate, even in the face of new evidence. And most American parents who realize their children need better reading instruction can’t simply enroll their children elsewhere.

“Government agencies tend to be sluggish monopolies, with little incentive to improve and subject to political influence,” wrote Cato Institute Senior Fellow David Boaz last year. “Private organizations, especially profit‐​seeking businesses, are under constant pressure to serve customers better than their competitors. Businesses fail to meet that test every day and go out of business. When’s the last time you heard of a failed government agency being shut down? That includes schools. Private schools must keep families happy or they can go elsewhere, and the school could be forced to shut down. Public schools, no matter how unhappy parents are, are almost never closed. As long as the tax money keeps coming in, they stay in business.”

“You can bet that if schools had to depend on satisfying customers, there wouldn’t be many that decided to skip phonics and math for 10 years and then say, ‘We made an honest mistake,'” Boaz added. “Long before 10 years had passed, the students and their families would be gone.”

Making matters worse, cities and states with powerful teachers unions frequently find it difficult to impose important changes to outdated curricula. While the New York City teachers union actually supports this latest measure, union leaders frequently oppose similar laws or policies—citing concerns that the rules limit teacher autonomy.

Despite pushback, the gap between what scientific research shows and what kids are actually being taught has gained wider attention following the national decline in reading scores following the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in 2022, Hanford released a six-part podcast, Sold a Story, that made national headlines after it covered in granular detail the rise of “balanced literacy” and its contribution to dismal reading ability among American schoolchildren.

New York City’s new policies are designed to tackle the city’s poor reading scores—which officials view as at least partially caused by the prevalence of unscientific reading curricula in New York City schools. In 2019, only 27 percent of New York City fourth-graders tested as “proficient” or “advanced” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam. Forty-three percent of fourth-graders were deemed “below NAEP basic” level in their reading skills. And while the pandemic was largely to blame for the drop in national reading scores, the city’s low scores have remained roughly consistent since 2003.

“Teaching children to be confident readers is job number-one,” said Banks on Tuesday. “Literacy is the foundation for all learning, and it is absolutely essential to a clear path to our students’ bold futures…. It is our collective responsibility to ensure every child has the tools, resources, and support needed to unlock their full potential and open every door of opportunity.”

Especially with New York City reading scores at their lowest in two decades, continuing to teach children to read with a scientifically debunked method isn’t going to help repair the severe educational deficits left by COVID-era school closures. With these new rules, many more New York City schoolchildren may actually learn to read proficiently.

Since 2020, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented policies around science-based reading instruction.

“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,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday. “But with more than half of our city’s public-school students reading below grade level, now is the time to act.”