New York state officials have recently announced a flurry of initiatives to improve early literacy, pulling the state, which has one of the largest K-12 populations in the country, into the “science of reading” movement.
The shift shows how deep the turn toward evidence-based reading has penetrated public policy. Still, some education advocates question whether new guidance from the state department of education goes far enough to move the needle on instruction.
Earlier this month, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, unveiled her plan to bring the state “back to basics” in literacy. Her 2025 budget proposal includes requirements that districts’ curriculum and instructional approaches align with “evidence-based and scientifically based” practices.
Hochul’s announcement followed big changes to early reading instruction in New York City. Last May, the city’s education department required schools to choose from three literacy curricula that they say are based on the evidence behind how children learn to read.
Now, the state department of education is taking up the science of reading mantle, too—though with a less prescriptive approach.
Last week, the department released a series of literacy briefs that outline a guiding instructional framework for grades pre-K-12, urging regional education cooperatives and district leaders to audit their current practices against the recommendations.
Other resources are forthcoming, including a tool that districts can use to evaluate their curricula, and specialized guides for supporting English learners and special education students, said Angelique Johnson-Dingle, the state’s deputy commissioner for P-12 instructional support.
The action from the state department of education is an “historic step forward,” said Tarja Parssinen, the founder of the WNY Education Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for evidence-based literacy approaches in Western New York, among other education issues.
But New York is trailing other states that have already offered this kind of support to districts, said Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University.
“I think one of things that you’re seeing is a little bit of embarrassment that they’re so far behind, and they’re trying to catch up, and catch up fast,” she said.
New York encourages districts to ‘take stock’
Over the past five years, more than half of all states have passed laws or introduced other policies to bring early literacy instruction in line with the evidence base on how children learn to read. States’ plans vary. Some mandate that schools choose specific new curricula and that teachers go through the same training; others leave it up to districts to evaluate their instructional practices against state guidance.
New York is taking the latter approach.
“The one thing we’re not doing is mandating,” said Betty Rosa, New York’s commissioner of education, in an interview. “We want to create the opportunity to truly help and support school districts to take stock, to look at their inventories, to look at their programs.”
New York has a long history of local control. School districts make decisions about what materials to use—not the state.
“While I understand they want to respect local control, we do need guidance that is explicit,” Parssinen said. “I don’t think our kids have time for reflection.”
The seven literacy briefs released last week introduce the science of reading and offer a broad overview of instruction at the pre-K, elementary, and secondary levels. They describe the science of reading as “50+ years of interdisciplinary research that documents and describes how children develop reading and writing skills and competencies.”
Nonie Lesaux, a professor of education and human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the briefs, presented their contents in a virtual conference for the state’s education service centers Jan 10. She emphasized that foundational skills are a core part of the science of reading, but not the only part.
For too long, word-reading instruction has not been anchored in the science of reading, she said. “Somehow, we got caught up in thinking that kids would pick up that sound-symbol correspondence … and the science is very, very, very clear. That instruction needs to be explicit and intentional,” she continued.
But vocabulary and comprehension instruction have also been a “pain point,” she said.
“Science of reading is not just a code name for phonics and decoding,” Lesaux added.
She also countered what she described as the “myth” that prioritizing evidence-based instruction is at odds with culturally responsive teaching, the idea that schools should incorporate students’ identities and experience into the classroom as tools for effective instruction.
“The science of reading is not at all in conflict with building social-emotional learning skills, nor in conflict with a culturally responsive and sustaining approach—in fact quite the opposite,” she said.
‘People are going to hear what they want to hear’
At the literacy summit, representatives from New York’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, shared their takeaways from the briefs. The BOCES offer regional support and services to local school districts. At times, their reflections were at odds.
In one discussion of a brief on “Debunking Common Myths,” one BOCES representative noted that while phonics instruction had become more of a focus among educators, it might need to be highlighted even more.
A speaker from a separate BOCES offered a different view. They wanted to ensure that support for explicit instruction didn’t lead to an overemphasis on phonics and decoding, which “may take us backwards instead of forwards in terms of our students’ ability,” they said.
It’s not surprising that BOCES aren’t all on the same page, said Parssinen. “When you are just offering briefs, people are going to hear what they want to hear and take away what they want to take away,” she said.
She would like to see more detailed guidance—including explicit communication from the state’s department of education about which practices aren’t evidence-based. “We need guidance on what we should not be doing,” she said.
Curriculum programs that have used disproven methods for word-identification, such as Fountas & Pinnell Classroom and the Units of Study in Reading, are still in use in New York, Parssinen said. The independent reviewing organization EdReports has given both of these programs failing ratings.
Asked how the department would approach districts using programs that were low-rated, Rosa said that educators should take stock with their professional learning communities.
“A lot of times people feel like you say, ‘Everything is wrong, what you’re doing is wrong,’” she said. “It’s not helpful to start with a deficit model or a negative approach.”