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  • Op-ed: Making sure every student learns to read: What happens next?

    May 26, 2022

    05.26.2022 | Crain’s New York Business | In my 25 years as an education advocate in New York City, one constant has been the numerous calls—hundreds each year—from frustrated parents whose children are struggling with reading and cannot find the help they need in the public school system. One of the most fundamental responsibilities of schools is to teach children how to read, yet at Advocates for Children of New York, we regularly work with middle and high school students who are unable to read menus or job applications, much less novels or history textbooks. The scope of the problem is apparent in the city’s test scores: even before the pandemic, only 36% of Black and Hispanic third through eighth grade students, 29% of students who are homeless, and 16% of students with disabilities scored proficiently in reading on the state tests.   

    Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks have called attention to the issue and vowed to tackle it, announcing plans for universal dyslexia screening, changes in curriculum, new programs and schools for students with dyslexia, and a Literacy Advisory Council that will bring stakeholders to the table. These proposals represent an historic effort to support students in learning to read and could have a transformative impact if implemented well.  

    Fundamentally changing the City’s approach to reading instruction requires a comprehensive plan that reflects the science of reading and the reality of students’ experiences and that encompasses both general and special education, as difficulties with reading are not limited to students with dyslexia.   

    For starters, every school in NYC should be using curriculum that is both culturally responsive and aligned with the scientific evidence on reading development. Historically, schools have been free to use any literacy program they like; the Chancellor has said that over the next year, all schools will instead be asked to switch to a “phonics-based literacy curriculum” for grades K-2. Instituting guardrails and consistency in curriculum across the City is a critical first step, and coupling this change with ongoing, job-embedded support and coaching for teachers will be essential to ensure successful implementation. 

    Schools must also be prepared to offer effective intervention for every student, regardless of grade level or disability status, who needs additional support with reading right now. While Mayor Adams’ proposal includes new funding for dyslexia screening, what matters most is how the screening results are used. With $250 million in one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding slated for “academic recovery and student supports” in 2022-23, the Administration has an unprecedented opportunity to begin building out a literacy safety net that provides one-on-one or small group intervention to all students who need extra help to become skilled readers. The need is more urgent than ever in light of the pandemic, as many young children struggled to master critical foundational skills via remote instruction and are at risk of falling further and further behind as they are expected to read increasingly difficult texts in all of their academic classes. 

    Improving literacy instruction for all students, with and without dyslexia, will not be easy, but we cannot afford to shy away from the challenge. The new Administration has an opportunity to bring together stakeholders, focus on the needs of students, and create lasting change so that all children learn to read, no matter where they go to school. 

    Kim Sweet is the Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York. Read article