This post is published with permission from the New York Daily News and the writer Robert Pondiscio. The original article can be found here.
In some of his first public comments since being named New York City’s incoming schools chancellor, David Banks has drawn cheers from savvy education observers and literacy experts for remarks critical of “balanced literacy,” the city’s long-standing approach to teaching reading.
‘Balanced literacy’ has not worked for Black and Brown children. We’re going to go back to a phonetic approach to teaching. We’re going to ensure that our kids can read by the third grade,” Banks told CBS2′s Marcia Kramer. “That’s been a huge part of the dysfunction.
The incoming mayor seems to agree. “We are in a city where 65% of Black and Brown children never reach proficiency and we act like that’s normal, it’s all right,” said Eric Adams, introducing Banks last week. If the same number of white children couldn’t read proficiently, he said, “they would burn this city down.”
Adams citing this inexcusable failure and Banks laying the blame on “balanced literacy” suggests our new mayor and his hand-picked chancellor understand that equity starts with literacy.
That said, keep the champagne corked for now. This is not the first time New Yorkers have heard the supposed death knell of balanced literacy. Former Chancellor Joel Klein, the first person ever put in charge of the system under mayoral control, became convinced of its shortcomings late in his tenure, and wished in his memoir that he’d acted sooner. “Our ‘balanced literacy’ approach wasn’t all that balanced,” he wrote.
The city’s Department of Education subsequently recommended two elementary school reading programs, Core Knowledge Language Arts and Pearson’s ReadyGen, and not “Units of Study,” the ubiquitous program from Columbia University’s Teachers College that has dominated New York City schools for more than two decades. But another former chancellor, Carmen Fariña, a long-time champion of the much-maligned program, rescued it, essentially doubling down on balanced literacy.
It is no coincidence that Banks, who has deep roots in New York City schools, is talking about getting kids reading by third grade. There are well-documented links between children’s early literacy skills, academic trajectory and later life outcomes. A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report found, for example, that non-proficient readers in third grade were far more likely to drop out of high school than their peers. More than two dozen states (New York is not one of them) have put in place “third-grade reading guarantees” that require students be retained if they’re not reading proficiently by that time.
The logic is compelling, but those “guarantees” have been disappointing. That’s because the “phonetic approach” Banks is wisely championing is just the starting line. The harder nut to crack is reading comprehension.
Balanced literacy has failed New York’s students mostly because it treats reading as a “skill” like riding a bike — on the theory that once you learn how, you can ride any bike. But reading comprehension is not a skill at all. Good readers tend to know a little about a lot of things. They have big vocabularies and use words with sophistication and subtlety. Phonics is essential — if kids can’t read the words at all, they can’t comprehend — but what should come next is a rich public-school curriculum that ensures New York’s poorest children have access to the same broad body of knowledge and vocabulary that the richest largely take for granted.
Paradoxically, that means less reading instruction in the intermediate and upper grades, and additional class time spent on science, history, the arts and more.
I saw this daily in my own South Bronx classroom years ago. I never had a single student who couldn’t technically read. Yet they struggled with comprehension for myriad reasons, not the least of which was the intellectual starvation rations we had placed them on.
Well-intended literacy consultants and coaches, true believers in balanced literacy, insisted that reading and writing should be “authentic,” reflecting students’ lives, interests and experiences. That was precisely the wrong approach. If you want kids to love reading and do it well, it means less time looking in the mirror and more time looking out of the window. Even the bravest education leaders tend to lose their nerve when it comes time to dictating classroom content, but this is where reading failure begins.
It is significant — and encouraging — that New York City’s new chancellor is talking about reading instruction in his first public comments. But don’t underestimate the tremendous energy, focus and political will required to uproot the poor literacy practices that have been sold to Gotham teachers for a generation as “best practices.” To name just one factor beyond his control: The education schools that train most teachers continue to indoctrinate future teachers in the methodology Banks wants to turn away from.
Banks noting the failure of balanced literacy is functionally a declaration of war against poor reading instruction and a laudable first step. But winning that war will be a long, hard struggle.
Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.