As States Confront a Reading Crisis in Schools, New York Lags Behind

Miguel and Jessica Millan knew something was wrong: Their 6-year-old son could not read. He could not remember the alphabet. But he was still being passed through grades.

Teachers and administrators in their suburban Rochester, N.Y., district assured them, “He’ll catch up. It’s normal for boys to be like that,” Mr. Millan said. Finally, in third grade, they sought outside help and their son was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“Nobody ever said to us, ‘We see there’s a problem and we need to address it,’” said Mr. Millan, who transferred Alejandro, now 13, to a private school.

After a decade of stagnation on reading tests and in the wake of pandemic learning disruptions, states and school districts have begun to acknowledge that they have long failed to properly teach pupils to read. Nearly every state in the nation has passed laws on reading and literacy, a recent analysis found. New York City, the nation’s largest school system, began a sweeping curriculum overhaul this spring.

But at the state level, New York, once a national leader in education reform, is behind, according to a growing chorus of experts, families and educators. They say leaders are doing little to meet the moment, leaving students like Alejandro to struggle when districts resist change.

New York’s declines in fourth grade reading scores were double the national average last year on a major national test, leaving it tied in 32nd place with five other states. Even so, many local districts have retained teaching approaches that experts criticize for including too little focus on core reading skills, and that allow students to fall through the cracks.

More New York parents have begun raising the alarm at local school board meetings. Lawmakers have pushed for Albany and the state Education Department to take a stronger hand. And one influential education policy group recently declared that state officials were failing to use “their power and influence to prioritize literacy.”

“What’s missing for me is the leadership from the state,” said Dia Bryant, the executive director of the Education Trust New York, the policy group. “These are people I’m expecting, and I think who the public expects, to be leading the charge on this.”

“But New York is doing nothing,” she added.

Elsewhere around the country, state bills passed between 2019 and 2022 have often centered on teacher training or improving screenings to identify children who could fail to learn to read, according to the recent analysis. Some sought to ban “three-cueing,” a flawed strategy that guides children to use picture clues to guess words.

New York was one of five states to enact no laws during the same period. In the state’s May executive budget, literacy largely went unmentioned.

Education officials have released learning standards on literacy — which outline the skills students are expected to hold, and are rooted in the science of how children learn to read — along with guidance for aligning curriculums to them. Still, some experts worry that many of New York’s 700 districts are not making adequate changes in response, and argue more could be done to identify faulty approaches, and steer schools away from them.

In Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, some of the state’s largest districts, more than 8 in 10 children fail annual reading tests. But some major cities, along with smaller urban districts like New Rochelle and Newburgh and wealthier suburban counties, still use teaching materials that experts say are low-quality choices, according to a survey from The Education Trust.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement that she was “committed to supporting a world-class education system,” pointing to increases in state aid for public schools and $100 million in matching funds in the state budget for districts to address pandemic challenges like learning loss.

James N. Baldwin, the senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said the criticisms of education officials reflected “a level of ignorance about the level of activity that has happened here,” pointing to the state’s learning standards, as well as curriculum experts and a range of support offerings that the state makes available to districts.

“What we feel is that you can’t mandate your way out of a literacy crisis,” Mr. Baldwin said. ”

Early reading experts note that new laws or state guidance alone may not fix all issues.

Legislative efforts in other states have often not given attention to skills like oral language and writing, or to the support that groups like English language learners need. Curriculum overhauls have faced backlash from educators, while other policies, like holding children back in third grade if they fail reading tests, have been intensely debated by educators, researchers and parents alike.

State leaders including Betty A. Rosa, the education commissioner, have argued that because New York districts have wide latitude to choose their curriculums, their options to achieve change are limited.

“The Regents have not turned their back on this,” Ms. Rosa said about the push for science-based instruction at a public hearing this year, referring to the board that oversees the state Education Department. “But at the same time, they’re local decisions.”

Still, Susan Neuman, a former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said that legislation and state action can play a crucial role in shifting instruction. But in New York, she said, state leaders have been “strikingly silent” on the issue.

Some advocates point to measures taken by other states with robust local control.

California, for example, has deployed reading coaches to the state’s highest-poverty schools, and assigned two new statewide literacy directors to help districts improve. In Massachusetts, officials are trying to create incentives for change, offering grants for curriculum and training changes that give priority to districts where teaching materials are low quality.

“If we had a district that was teaching that the Holocaust or slavery didn’t exist, would we say ‘local control’?” asked Robert Carroll, an assemblyman who represents northwest Brooklyn and who has been at the forefront of the Legislature’s reading efforts, particularly on dyslexia. “What is the point of having a state Education Department if it won’t step in when there’s a five-alarm fire?”

In Albany, lawmakers are expected to reintroduce several reading-related bills that were not brought to full votes this year. They include legislation to require that private health insurers cover costs for dyslexia evaluations, and to mandate that state teacher education programs offer instruction in the science of reading.

Tianna Johnson, right, began homeschooling her daughter, Brennae, 15, because of concern she was falling behind in reading and writing at her public school.Credit…Lauren Petracca for The New York Times

As students’ academic recovery stagnates, more families have called for change.

In Western New York’s Greece district, Tianna Johnson said her daughter, Brennae, often made high honor roll at her middle school. She was also good at pronouncing the words when she read. But Ms. Johnson said her daughter struggled with understanding the meaning of stories.

Ms. Johnson eventually decided to home-school Brennae, now 15, in eighth grade, and said the principal offered a candid admission, telling her: “The district hadn’t been producing good readers or writers for a while.”

“They’d never told us, and were having me thinking she was excelling,” Ms. Johnson said. “I completely lost trust in the system.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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