NYC’s literacy mandate faces resistance from some school communities as it expands citywide

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Twelve-year-old Carlo Murray stood on his toes to speak into the mic at an education officials’ gathering recently. He then delivered a scathing review of his school’s reading program.

“I enjoy reading various books,” Carlo informed the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which oversees school contracts and policies.

However, his teachers are currently emphasizing short passages, leading to his frustration and boredom.

“It feels like I’m only getting half of a sixth-grade ELA experience, half of the story, half of the writing, just half of a curriculum,” Carlo, a student at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, or BSI, exclaimed to a round of applause.

Carlo and a few of his classmates took turns airing their grievances about the school’s new literacy curriculum. BSI educators, along with elementary schools citywide, have been mandated to choose from three reading programs, following a directive from schools Chancellor David Banks to improve literacy rates by replacing outdated programs.

The strong reactions from BSI students are significant because there has been minimal organized opposition to the curriculum overhaul, with many literacy experts, the city’s teachers union, and major education advocacy groups in favor of it.

As the city now requires all local districts to adopt the new reading programs by September, up from just under half this school year, some parents and educators are expressing concerns. They argue that the curriculum changes could disrupt project-based learning or teacher-created curriculums that define their schools.

“Phase two will be more challenging than phase one,” noted Susan Neuman, a New York University professor and member of the city’s literacy advisory council. Wealthier districts with higher test scores — like Manhattan’s Districts 2 and 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15 — are among those in the second phase. “It’ll be fascinating to see how they react,” Neuman remarked.

Popular curriculum under scrutiny

The reactions at BSI could foreshadow concerns brewing elsewhere.

A significant portion of the criticism surrounding the curriculum changes has been directed at Into Reading, from the company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), the program required by 22 of the city’s 32 local superintendents in their elementary schools. The remaining districts are opting for Wit & Wisdom or EL Education.

Unlike the other approved curriculums, HMH centers around an anthology-style textbook with passages aimed at teaching reading skills. Experts believe this curriculum could be easier for educators to unpack quickly compared to other options, and it also includes a Spanish version. A review criticized the curriculum for lacking cultural responsiveness, sparking significant backlash, although HMH has refuted those findings.

For some students at BSI, a distinguished K-8 program with high reading proficiency rates above 90% last year, the main concern is that the new curriculum feels like dull test preparation.

Additionally, the local superintendent overseeing BSI has mandated middle schools to use HMH, exceeding the citywide requirement for approved curricula in grades K-5. Banks has committed to revamping curricula across various subjects and grade levels, which has received mixed reactions.

Sixth-grader Penelope Naidich mentioned that her classes now involve shorter excerpts from the HMH workbook instead of in-depth discussions on complete books led by teachers. She lamented not delving into deeper themes as before.

Despite this, BSI students and parents noted an increase in teachers’ freedom to teach full books, though not as many as in the past years. An HMH representative stated that the middle school curriculum includes various complete selections, long reads, and novels, alongside excerpts, allowing flexibility to cater to students’ needs.

The school’s principal declined to provide a comment.

Education officials argue that the curriculum overhaul is crucial as the city’s conventional practice of letting schools choose their materials has yielded poor results, with about half of the city’s students in grades 3-8 lacking proficiency in reading according to state exams.

The blame has been placed on “balanced literacy” programs like the one developed by Teachers College Professor Lucy Calkins, which encourages independent reading at students’ individual levels but may not be effective for struggling readers. Discredited strategies like guessing words from pictures were also encouraged.

Schools Chancellor David Banks reads to children at P.S. 125 The Ralph Bunche School. (Alex Zimmerman / )

Neuman, the NYU professor, commended the city’s shift away from balanced literacy and standardizing the approach used by schools. However, she acknowledged that some advanced students may have to settle for a simpler program to uplift those typically left behind. She described it as a necessary tradeoff.

Initially, city officials suggested that schools with reading proficiency rates over 85% could apply for waivers from the mandate. Despite some BSI parents’ calls for waivers, the Education Department stated that no waivers have been granted, without confirming any policy changes.

Concerns arise over reading instruction shift in upcoming phase

Apart from BSI, educators and families in schools preparing to implement new reading curriculums in September are voicing worries.

Alex Estes, the parent association president at The Neighborhood School in Manhattan, expressed apprehension about the new curriculum’s impact. The school, located in District 1, will have to adopt EL Education from September.

Given the extensive material covered in the new curriculum, Estes fears educators may lack time for previously prioritized lessons. The school emphasizes creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ individuals, delving into gender identity discussions in their social-emotional curriculum. Estes is concerned that accommodating the new materials may force the school to make tough choices.

“If we purely follow EL’s curriculum, we risk losing time for our unique curriculum such as our identity unit,” Estes noted. “There are only so many hours in a school day.”

During a recent Community Education Council meeting in District 15, which spans several neighborhoods from Park Slope to Sunset Park, caregivers voiced contentment with their current instructional approach.

A white and purple grade 2 workbook and a pencil sit on a colorful rug.
Students use an EL Education workbook at P.S. 169 Baychester Academy in the Bronx. (Alex Zimmerman / )

District 15 will mandate dual-language program schools to adopt HMH, while others will use Wit & Wisdom, known for building students’ knowledge and focusing on non-fiction topics.

Lauren Monaco, a parent at The Brooklyn New School, criticized general mandates for disregarding successful practices. The school encourages student presentations on various topics rather than traditional approaches, like state testing. She hopes not to lose effective practices amid new requirements.

Responding to concerns at the meeting, Superintendent Rafael Alvarez assured that teachers won’t have to implement every curriculum detail immediately and that independent reading time will be retained.

Alvarez highlighted that District 15 will have more flexibility in implementing the curriculum gradually compared to Brooklyn District 19, which had adopted Wit & Wisdom districtwide prior to the mandate.

He attributed this flexibility to the demographic differences between districts. District 19 has a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic children from low-income families, with around 38% proficiency in reading. In contrast, District 15 has a more diverse student body with 63% reading proficiency, permitting adjustments to the curriculum based on their unique needs.

“We cater to a distinct community,” Alvarez explained. “That’s why we have leeway in how we utilize the curriculum — because not all our children require it verbatim every day.”

Silence from many educators

Educators have mostly refrained from organized opposition to the curriculum changes. However, Emily Haines, a seasoned literacy coach at The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx, aims to alter this trend. She recently launched a petition advocating for schools to select their own instructional materials.

“Communities should have a say in choosing a curriculum,” stated Haines. Although her school covers grades 6-12, her District 7 superintendent mandated middle schools to adopt EL Education, aligning with the district’s K-5 requirements. (The Education Department declined to disclose how many superintendents issued similar directives for middle schools.)

Haines’ school currently implements Calkins’ program, which she fears may be overshadowed by the new materials. She worries about reduced time for narrative writing, a strategy to understand students better. While acknowledging the importance of exposing students to challenging books, she is concerned that the new curriculum might push students beyond their reading levels. About 55% of her school’s students are proficient readers, compared to 32% across District 7.

Despite hearing private complaints from teachers, Haines noted a lack of pushback against the changes within the community. Her petition has garnered fewer than 100 signatures so far.

Educators may be hesitant to voice concerns, hoping for lenient enforcement of the mandates. Some principals have hinted at ways to circumvent the curriculum requirements.

“People are observing and waiting,” Haines remarked. “Banks and Adams won’t be in charge forever, and we may revert to our previous practices.”

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