Better late than never, New York state has stirred itself to change the way reading is taught in its 800-plus local school districts. Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a plan to spend (an admittedly paltry) $10 million to train 20,000 teachers in the “science of reading,” including a “microcredentialing” program via the state’s public universities. Hochul’s proposed “Back to Basics” initiative will, she insists, return the state’s classrooms to scientifically proven techniques.
Assuming the legislature grants her modest request, New York will be the latest state—and among the very last—to put the reading instruction offered in its public schools under the microscope. A study conducted last year by the Albert Shanker Institute found that New York was one of only five states to have taken no action in the last few years either to encourage or require “evidence-based” reading instruction. That’s not to suggest that state actions cause swift changes in reading outcomes. Classroom practice is notoriously slow to change, and there’s a wide gulf between earnest efforts by lawmakers to improve student outcomes and what actually transpires when teachers take over, much less what kids end up learning. But credit to Hochul and New York for recognizing they have some catching up to do.
The Reading League, a national educator-led advocacy organization that happens to be based in upstate New York, is “cautiously optimistic” about the plan and is offering Hochul some good advice in rolling out the initiative. For starters, they suggest dropping the “Back to Basics” branding, which might be good politics, but is instructionally tone-deaf. Dr. Heidi Beverine-Curry, the group’s chief academic officer, notes that there’s never been a time when sound reading practice was widely understood, adopted, and implemented in U.S. elementary classrooms, hence no golden age to go back to. She’s also concerned that “Back to Basics” could have the unintended effect of furthering a common and unhelpful narrative that the “science of reading” begins and ends with phonics.
The Reading League further advises New York “not move too quickly” toward curriculum adoptions, noting that even a high-quality curriculum is unlikely to move the needle when teachers lack adequate training to implement it properly. Here I’ll register mild disagreement. This issue involves both chickens and eggs. The science of reading should be a standard and uncontroversial piece of teacher training and professional development, but for those (like Empire State teachers) coming late to the party, there’s no reason that professional learning cannot be embedded in curriculum adoption. Beverine-Curry isn’t contending that educators need to be fully versed in the science of reading before adopting curriculum, but “we’ve seen school districts make very quick [curriculum] choices, then think, ‘That's it. The work is done.’” Trainers hired by curriculum publishers, she adds, “aren’t experts in the science of reading. The trainers are experts in the product, and those are two different things.” Fair enough.
But I definitely share her and the Reading League’s disdain for Hochul’s proposed “microcredential” in the science of reading. Evidence-aligned reading instruction “should be the center of teacher preparation, particularly for elementary school and special education teachers and school administrators,” she insists, “not an add-on.” Hear, hear.
My own advice to Hochul would be to follow the lead of curriculum-based reforms pioneered by a former New York City teacher, John White, when he led Louisiana’s state education department. White and his team used curriculum adoption to drive changes in classroom practice, providing incentives for their state’s districts and schools to adopt and implement a coherent, high-quality English language arts (ELA) curriculum, then use that curriculum as the hook on which everything else hung: assessment, professional development, and teacher training. The goal, as one of White’s lieutenants put it, was to “make the right choice the easy choice.” In other words, they recognized that high-quality curriculum could drive better practice, rather than the other way around.
Buried in the Reading League’s feedback to Hochul is an intriguing and potentially game-changing announcement that should spark interest and attention far beyond the Empire State. This Spring, the organization plans to roll out a series of “Curriculum Navigation Reports,” a collection of reviews and evaluations of the most widely adopted and implemented reading programs. Given that the Reading League is comprised of veteran educators, not bureaucrats, activists, or vendors, and that it claims chapters in thirty-three states, those reviews should have instant credibility among front-line educators and administrators, and help push curriculum to the forefront of efforts to improve student outcomes.
Until recently, curriculum has been almost an afterthought. To be sure, there’s been no shortage of efforts to promote the adoption of “high quality instructional materials” (HQIM), but thoughtful critics have long noted that, for any number of reasons, much of it ends ups underutilized or sitting untouched on classroom shelves. Efforts to evaluate curriculum, such as EdReports, while praiseworthy, have tended to focus too narrowly on alignment with ELA standards while paying insufficient attention to text selection in published curricula, or the need to build background knowledge, which aids comprehension. A standards-alignment lens can also fail to account for what the Reading League calls “red flags”—non-aligned practices in word recognition, language comprehension, reading comprehension, writing, and assessment. The anticipated curriculum reviews promise to raise the ante by evaluating the most commonly used ELA curricula through a more sophisticated set of criteria.
I’ll be waiting eagerly for those evaluations. Here’s hoping a lot of school districts are, too, both in the Empire State and far beyond.