Did New York City Forget How to Teach Children to Read?

Caitlin Moscatello

At a meeting with parents in May, Elizabeth Phillips, a longtime principal at P.S. 321, a highly sought-after elementary school in Park Slope, didn’t mince words about the new reading curricula being implemented across the city this fall by Mayor Eric Adams’s administration. Not only did she refer to the trio of options selected by Schools Chancellor David Banks and the mayor’s Cabinet as “three bad choices,” she also shared her plans to resist. “We are definitely pushing back against it,” she said, “and many principals in the district are. And our superintendent understands that we are not going to do it with fidelity, that we are going to keep doing what has worked for us.”

Phillips (who did not respond to interview requests; the spring meeting was recorded) is a devotee of “balanced literacy,” an approach to teaching kids to read that had been the prevailing ethos in New York City schools for roughly two decades — until it came crashing down last year when heightened scrutiny caused the method’s once-revered leader, Lucy Calkins, to concede that it was fundamentally flawed. Specifically, critics said kids were falling behind because they didn’t know how to sound out words. Instead of phonics, Calkins’s program pushed a cuing method that instructed students to look at the first letter of a word, then to a picture on the page, and consider the context and piece it all together. But this technique relied on students having enough background knowledge to make the proper inferences as well as the ability to process language without difficulty. As a result, many kids weren’t actually reading. They simply became really good at guessing.

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