As Literacy Lags, Hochul Proposes Changing How Schools Teach Reading

Gov. Kathy Hochul will propose on Wednesday a major shift in education policy that could transform the way many schools teach reading across New York, following the lead of other states that have jettisoned methods experts say have left millions of children behind.

The proposal comes as education experts point to increasing evidence that the state’s approach to literacy is failing. Last year, fewer than half of New York’s third graders were proficient on state reading tests.

Ms. Hochul said she would call for the state Education Department to require school districts to certify that their curriculums have embraced “scientifically proven” approaches to literacy by September 2025.

“We cannot continue to allow our kids to fall further behind by utilizing outdated and discredited approaches to reading comprehension,” Ms. Hochul said in a statement.

She is proposing spending $10 million to retrain teachers in what is known as the “science of reading,” which involves teaching children to sound out words, decode them and understand their meaning, as well as helping them expand their vocabulary. She is calling for programs at the State University of New York and City University of New York to educate teachers in these methods.

As the pandemic disrupted education and reading scores stagnated across the country, more than 30 states passed science of reading legislation. New York was not among them.

Experts and public school families have criticized the state for moving slowly to adopt methods that take into account research on how children learn to read.

Last year, New York City announced that it would begin its own overhaul of reading instruction across its 700-odd elementary schools. The city is requiring schools to choose between a set of approved curriculums. The shift has already proven challenging, frustrating some educators as they lose control over the way they teach.

The reading proposal is one of several that Ms. Hochul is announcing ahead of her State of the State address next week, when she will unveil her priorities for the 2024 session to lawmakers in Albany.

Like most of the proposals she will lay out in the speech, this one would require the support of the State Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

New York has fallen to 32nd in the nation for reading proficiency in recent years, tied with five other states on a national assessment.

Many teachers across New York City and the state were trained in a method known as “balanced literacy,” which encourages independent reading and includes some practices that experts say are problematic, like teaching children to guess words using pictures.

Experts and policymakers say it is now clear that the balanced literacy approach did not offer children enough foundational skills, such as phonics, to ensure that they became capable readers.

While some children can learn to read without explicit phonics instruction, research has found that most children need more systematic teaching about letter sounds and other components of language. And many also struggle without a grounding in broader topics about the world so they can understand what they are reading.

Students who do not learn how to read proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school, according to Ms. Hochul’s office. Students of color and low-income students are particularly at risk of falling behind.

The effects can be long-lasting: Students who lack reading proficiency tend to have lower lifetime earnings and worse health outcomes than their peers, Ms. Hochul said.

Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, celebrated the prospect of New York moving away from what she called its “loosey-goosey” approach to literacy.

“I think this is a good thing,” she said of the plan and the $10 million Ms. Hochul was proposing spending on training. “I think it is very much needed — and probably that’s not enough money.”

The literacy plan was the latest proposal announced by Ms. Hochul this week ahead of her State of the State address.

On Tuesday, she unveiled a package of plans to expand consumer protections in New York. One would ban co-payments for insulin and another would raise the cap on disability payments for those experiencing injury or illness, from $170 a week to more than $1,200.

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