Opinion: Teacher training essential for new NYC reading reforms to succeed

Rigorous coaching and mentoring programs are also needed

Public school teachers will need training, rigorous coaching and mentoring for New York City’s reading reforms to succeed, writes Jamie Williamson, head of The Windward School.

Public school teachers will need training, rigorous coaching and mentoring for New York City’s reading reforms to succeed, writes Jamie Williamson, head of The Windward School. Leonid Andronov, iStock / Getty Images Plus

Students in New York City’s schools now have new hope for becoming stronger readers thanks to the sweeping changes recently enacted by the Department of Education.

Yet the sorely needed shift to evidence-based practices will require that the DOE find ways to get meaningful buy-in from educators. And that buy-in needs to be consistently encouraged through comprehensive, rigorous professional development in the Science of Reading to combat ingrained practices that have led to dismal reading performance in recent years.

As chancellor David Banks has highlighted many times, nearly half of New York City students in grades three to eight are currently not proficient in reading, and that percentage climbs significantly for students of color and those from low-income families. For a student who struggles to read, the ripple effects are far reaching, negatively impacting all aspects of their academic performance, self-confidence, overall well-being and long-term potential.

Many of today’s underachieving readers are innocent victims of the so-called “reading wars” that for decades have pitted advocates for a whole language approach against those who back phonics-based methods. 

Sadly, this is a war that should have never been fought. The path to creating successful readers was paved 23 years ago when the National Reading Panel released its findings on the best ways to teach children to read. Over three years, a 14 member panel conducted a comprehensive analysis of the body of literature in reading research and, throughout the process considered more than 100,000 research articles on how children learn to read from well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. This report’s recommendations, culled from massive amounts of data, prioritized evidence-based approaches to reading instruction, now known as the Science of Reading.

Unfortunately, rather than put an end to the debate, many reading program authors and publishers simply hustled to rebrand and repackage, while simultaneously working to criticize and discredit the science. The concept of a balanced literacy approach took root, which focused on a whole language model sprinkled with a dash of phonics. Educators returned to business as usual, and our students paid a hefty price.

For years, advocates for the balanced literacy approach led school districts and well-intentioned teachers to believe that these programs are actually research- or evidence-based. There is a major difference between including a few components to an instructional program as indicated by research – for example, adding a few phonics lessons – and implementing a comprehensive, research-based program that is delivered in an explicit and systematic way. The DOE adopted balanced literacy programs in 2003 under former Chancellor Joel Klein, a move that was supported by successive chancellors, until now.

With its adoption of programs grounded in the Science of Reading, the DOE under the leadership of Chancellor Banks has an opportunity to transform literacy outcomes for our city’s students. Yet this relies upon consensus by all stakeholders and extensive training for our teachers. When that approach is adopted, there is a clear and positive shift in students’ experience.

A telling example comes from the Mississippi Department of Education, which has shepherded a period of massive growth in literacy outcomes for the state, placing them first in the nation for NAEP gains (NAEP, 2019). Throughout the process, a key facet of achieving buy-in from stakeholders – teachers, administrators, parents, and community members – has been transparency about the target outcomes and consistency in messaging around how to achieve these goals.

Whether it’s sharing a conceptual understanding of what the Science of Reading is to families and community members or drilling down into the data when speaking with educators, the message is consistent. Mississippi State Literacy Director Kristen Wynn explained, “People have to see where they fit into the work.”

This will be a marathon, not a sprint. To bridge the skill gap due to years of delivering ineffective reading programs, leadership at the DOE must routinely implement comprehensive professional development programs for its educators. With the creation of a Literacy Advisory Council, the DOE has access to an incredible brain trust that can be leveraged to guide the implementation of a coherent professional development framework.

City schools must also develop rigorous coaching and mentoring programs for teachers as they develop these instructional skills, which would not only provide the much-needed support that teachers are asking for but also help create a coherent professional development program across each school and ensure the integrity of the academic program. The Windward School has been deeply committed to this process, and the results have been transformational for students, so much so that 98% of our students transition to mainstream educational environments after their time at Windward. 

Coherence in professional development begins with unifying coursework and practice at the teacher training level. Thousands of teacher prep programs exist today in the U.S., but there is very little oversight for curriculum. Faculty members at each institution decide what is taught, and there is no single body acting as the authority to determine benchmarks for teacher training. The result is an ever-widening pool of new teachers lacking a standard toolkit for effectively teaching reading, who are then forced to learn on the fly.

Teachers graduate from these programs with the credentials for teaching reading, but without the tools to effectively remediate students’ reading issues before they become major problems. Manhattanville College aims to address this issue with a new online program, The Dyslexia and Science of Reading Advanced Certificate – developed by Renee O'Rourke, managing director for the Rose Institute at Manhattanville College School of Education and Sandra Schwarz, director of The Windward Teacher Training Program – which is approved by the state Department of Education.

If we want to move the needle on reading in New York state and in the country, it is going to require a massive, sustained, and coordinated effort, with a focus on the acceptance of the scientific evidence, and strong leadership at the district and university level, working in tandem with state and local governments.

All these efforts must be pursued with a view toward what is truly important: a relentless push to serve our students. We know what to do and how to do it. Now it is just a matter of implementing it on a larger scale. 

Few things in life hold the transformative power of being an effective reader. It’s a skill that enhances opportunity for success across all academic areas. And, of course, the ability to proficiently read and comprehend books exposes students to endless possibilities and can unlock vast untapped potential.

Kofi Annan summed it up succinctly: “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”

The thousands of students in city schools have the potential to cross that bridge. It’s our responsibility to work together to get them there.