New York governor pushes for reading education overhaul as test scores lag

From The Independent:

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said she will push for schools to reemphasize phonics in literacy education programs, a potential overhaul that comes as many states revamp curriculums amid low reading scores.

The proposal would require the state education department to draft guidelines centered on the so-called science of reading, a phonics-based approach to literacy education, that school districts would have to follow by September 2025.

The state Legislature would need to approve the plan before it could go into effect.

The change would see New York join a national movement away from an education method known as balanced literacy, which focuses on introducing children to books they find interesting — often at the expense of dedicated phonics instruction.

New York, like other states, has seen reading proficiency scores dip after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and forced classes online. Last year, data show fewer than half of third grade students in New York read at proficient levels in state tests.

“Reading is the foundation of our education system, but New York State is currently not meeting basic reading proficiency levels,” Hochul, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We cannot continue to allow our kids to fall further behind by utilizing outdated and discredited approaches to reading comprehension.”

More than 30 states have transitioned toward phonics-based science of reading programs, the governor’s office said. New York City has also implemented a similar program.

Link to the rest at The Independent

25 thoughts on “New York governor pushes for reading education overhaul as test scores lag”

  1. Can kids who know how to read already ‘test out’ of the phonics instruction other kids still need? I can imagine no greater torture than being forced to read at a much slower pace than you can for interminable hours.

    I have some experience. I homeschooled our three kids because I was home on disability (long story). All three read by three – but our middle child required some phonics until he figured out the system. Since you teach them to read when they’re ready for it, three kids of different ages get individual instruction and whatever help they might need. Schools don’t have the ability to do that (though they might with some computer-based systems if their teachers would help as necessary). Lots and lots of being read to comes first, but kids are not widgets.

    • An interesting question, A. I don’t know if it’s possible to test out of first grade in a public school.

      About 30 years ago we had good friends who lived in a rural setting and home-schooled their many children because the only public schools available to them were really terrible.

      That was my first up-close look at parents (actually, a mother) who was home-schooling her many children. She had a classroom with desks set up in one large room in her house with bookcases full of schoolbooks, a blackboard, and all the other accouterments of a typical public school room.

      School started at the same time each morning and homework was assigned on most nights.

      We moved away right before her two oldest children started attending a local community college. Each started college at age 16. After two years at the local community college, each of these children was admitted to a large, somewhat selective university. Each graduated after two more years at the university. It’s my understanding that the younger sisters and brothers followed the same educational path.

      The oldest child became a physician and returned to practice in a rural community near where he grew up. I don’t have detailed knowledge about the younger children in the family because we only receive news from them via a Christmas newsletter each year. I believe at least one of the other children in this family also attended medical school. Another son started a trucking company that now employs 12-15 people and one daughter married an attorney.

      The mother’s brother and his family lived a short distance away on an adjoining parcel of land and followed the same home-schooling regime with their children.

      To the best of my Christmas-letter-recollection, the two families have three children who are M.D.s between them. This has been a big help to the local hospital in the closest town, which was having problems attracting enough doctors due to its the rural setting.

      • I (sort of) tested out of preschool. My birthday being late in December, my mother was counseled in a teacher interview to hold me back, else I would be the youngest in the class throughout my schooling and therefore at a disadvantage.

        While this was going on, I was quietly assembling every wooden jigsaw puzzle I could find in the (multi-grade) classroom where the interview was taking place, and looking for more. When they noticed my new quest, they decided maybe starting school right away was a good idea after all. 🙂

        • Lol.
          Vaguely familar.

          I got kicked out of Kinder after 1 semester. My birthday being in January, they kicked me to 1st for the second semester.
          I was bored all the way though 8th. If it weren’t for comics and the World Almanac (and the THINGS OF SCIENCE subscription) I might’ve gone comatose. For all that they tried to beat curiosity out of me, it didn’t take.
          Four different schools 6-9, all in the same city.
          Things got interesting at 9th. Tracking!
          And fun: I discovered the SFBC.

          Most kids are information sponges…until they hit school age.
          Lockstep education is a pague upon humanity.

          • I was always quite proud of being expelled from the 4th grade at a convent school (not a parochial school — the real deal with the “Belgian nuns from hell” ™), for (wait for it) “excessive insolence”. (They weren’t wrong…) They would present Genesis, and I would say something like “what about the fossil record?” (not in those exact terms at that age, of course, but that’s what I meant…)

            The best thing about my 5th-thru-High School years (other than the rather belated discovery that I was significantly in need of glasses) was that I was left alone to read whatever I wanted to during class as long as I didn’t disrupt things, and gained permission to get thru the Math books on my own as quickly as I wanted to. Best deal I ever made in any educational context.

          • Speaking of THINGS OF SCIENCE:


            Among the ones I remember getting were a plastic lens and cardboard tube set that could be configured as a telescope and (with a tin frame) a microscope and sextant.

            The service ended in the late ’80’s…
            …but it has a modern day successor!

            From Kiwico dot com:

            “At KiwiCo, we design award-winning, hands-on STEM kits for kids ages 3-16+. We deliver them by mail and call them crates. Each crate explores a new concept in science, technology, or engineering in a fresh way that’s seriously fun & profoundly enriching. We take big ideas and make them accessible and fun for kids of all ages!”

            A good gift for any young’uns you might know.

            If tbe school system won’t do their job in properly educating kids, somebody should.

            • Thanks! I never heard of KiwiCo; I’m already seeing things to add to the “activity pack” for my niece and nephews this summer. I had wanted to include something cool to make, especially if they could use it afterwards.

              • Internet searches lead to unexpected places.

                It’s nice to see an idea that lasted 40 years hasn’t been forgotten. Video games have their uses but kids should be exposed to other kinds of explorations so they can bettrr choose their way in life later. 😀

    • Can kids who know how to read already ‘test out’ of the phonics instruction other kids still need?

      Look, I was a kid who was ready to scream bloody murder because the other kids were taking too long to grok how to write complete sentences: you need a subject and predicate! This is not rocket science! I bounced to the AP track and didn’t look back. The kids should be allowed to separate into tracks if they need to, but if they’re not allowed to do that with phonics, boredom will be a small price to pay to avoid a society of illiterates**. The kids who already know phonics can do what any other self-respecting kid does in this situation: secretly read another book while the other kids are droning through the lesson.***

      But kids have had such shoddy teaching for so long in the name of “balanced literacy” that I don’t expect a lot of the kids in New York to know phonics. I used to follow an education blogger who repeatedly noted that the kids in affluent New York communities scored well on reading because they would get help after school from tutors / Kumon. In school, they were “taught” balanced literacy. Out of school? The same teachers would hire themselves out as tutors in phonics.

      What shocked me was what Writing Observer said, about some teachers being genuinely incompetent. When it came to “Why Johnny can’t read?” I thought it was because the teachers were ideologically committed to avoiding phonics. I had ascribed to malice what apparently can be explained by stupidity. Or at least, ignorance if I’m being charitable.

      **A writer’s business model depends on avoiding Kornbluth’s Marching Morons scenario, no?

      *** Mr. Baker didn’t punish me because I proved on the spot I was keeping up with the official read-out-loud session, after he caught me silently reading a more exciting book I had kept hidden on my lap under the desk.

      • My first year in college I got an undeserved reputation: I had college level algebra and introductory calculus in 12th (I could’ve graduated at 15 after 11th but I didn’t think it wise) so I sat in the back, reading. (They had a *great* SF library with donations from the nearby USAF base.) Teacher would call on me and I woukd look up, answer, and keep reading. (Definitely not ready at 15.) Of course, when we got past what I already knew everybody thought I was being polite.

        Later, I took French as an elective because I had two years in high school. And it was the same book…except they switched it that year! (Mutter mumble grumble gripe.) The year after that? Back to the old one!

        Biggest mess I made was accidental, though; I asked one of my favorite teachers about a useful elective and he suggested Industrial Engineering probability and statistics. (Yes, I had probability and statistics in HS. I liked the idea of following it up with a more practical focus so I signed up. Thing is, the class was core intro for IE’s. Third year. I was 4th, with economics, programing (Fortran, of course), and yup, the math. It *was* new and useful but I took to it likeca fish to water. Busting the curve all the way. Prof tried to get me to switch. I didn’t. Word got around my ChemE classmates that it was both useful and easy so second semester half the ChemE class signed up. The upper half. Next year, they changed the rules so anybody wanting to take a core class in a different dept had to get permission from both.

        So yes, a troublemaker from K to college. And after.
        (My first job, somebody screwed up and I got a copy of the interviewer notes. “A tendendency to get overbearing.” They still hired me despite the warning…) 😀

      • In 7th grade, I was reading my usual book hidden under my desk in the class I had read ahead of ages ago, when I noticed that everything had gotten quiet. When I looked up, I found the outgoing Headmistress standing behind me with the incoming Headmistress whom she was showing around. Mrs. Henderson addressed me casually, “Good book, Karen?” To which I replied, “Very good book.” She nodded and passed on.

        “Live and let live” is an excellent policy for schools with advanced students.

  2. It sounds good – but reports from the field (via my teaching wife) are that the education establishment is mucking up the application of phonics just like most other basics (such as the addition and multiplication tables).

    (In their defense, it would be tough to do it right – teachers even twenty years her junior are panicking at having to learn “phonics.” It’s like asking them to master Mandarin, they have not the slightest exposure to it.)

    • ??? But … how does one screw up the teaching of phonics ??? How did the teachers become teachers if they don’t know something as basic as how letters sound?

      Cat, bat, hat? Hit, sit, pit? <– One can screw this up?

      Those poor kids. Those poor, unfortunate kids. Unless: In their defense, it would be tough to do it right was just sarcasm? If so, sorry if I’m slow.

      • The basic idea of phonics is to relate words that the student already knows to those squiggles on the paper (screen, these days).

        I still have a sharp memory of the day in first grade when I finally grasped the concept of diphthongs. Suddenly, my reading vocabulary expanded enormously. I already knew the words “thick,” “thin,” etc. – but now I could read them.

        Later, of course, I was introduced to homonyms… There is a place that “sight” reading is necessary – such as for “through” and “threw.”

        (A much belated apology to Mrs. MacGuinness for calling her an old bat. She was that – but taught me a great deal.)

        • Right. I get the basic idea of phonics. What I didn’t get was teachers not knowing the basic idea of phonics. Back when I was more immersed in this topic, I had understood the reluctance to teach phonics as an ideological one, not a question of the teacher’s knowledge and skill.

          English is a language that requires learning the connection of the sounds of the words to the letters used to write the words. Period, full stop.

          But certain people thought that a method specifically designed to teach deaf people how to read was going to work on people who can hear. Except, no, it does not. It doesn’t even teach the deaf, not really, and the reason the whole language method taps out in 4th grade is because 4th grade vocabulary becomes too complex to just go by sight. The kids who know phonics do fine, the kids taught to guess? Yeah, they don’t do so fine. You’ll note the first link goes to a site in the UK. This problem isn’t confined to America, it’s worldwide. I wish the New York kids the best of luck.

          • Jamie, when the teaching of something is abandoned for ideological reasons, it eventually becomes unknown (except to a few contrarian old codgers). The principle applies to every subject, not just reading – look at the state of knowledge of history, the Founding documents, simple arithmetic, etc. among the majority of the “educated” population today. (Illiteracy, of course, ensures that this general ignorance is almost impossible to cure.)

            The “whole word” garbage was being introduced even as I was entering high school. It was becoming commonplace by the time I was in college – like Felix, I remember Dr. Pournelle writing about his wife in the pages of BYTE – and that was forty years ago, when she was teaching functionally illiterate children to read. Yep, that was when the teachers I mentioned at my wife’s school (40 something year olds) would have been in elementary school. So – yes, it’s like learning Mandarin, when you haven’t even heard anything like an Asian tonal language.

        • What makes non-phonic schemes so odd to me is that they ignore (and run counter to) the natural developmental progression of children. Infants learn language by associating sound to people, actions, and concepts and typically speak fluently (as limited by their vocabulary store) before hitting organized schooling. Phonics is the clear next step in the progression tying sounds to glyphs so the kids can tie the glyphs to words they already know. And the drills are simple and basic, relying on repetition to build familarity. What could possibly be wrong with that?

          These days, with closed captioning on video content all over, the full process should be even easier, moving from basic phonics to vocabuary building and grammar, if only the teachers got out of the way! 😉

    • Oh, you jogged my memory. It’s been so long since I’ve kept up with the edubloggers that I forgot this:
      The Current Controversy About Teaching Reading: Comments for Those Left With Questions After Reading the New York Times Article.
      Note that the link is from 2020, so this has been an issue for a while.

      You’re right, the teachers themselves aren’t taught how to teach reading, so they can’t teach their students. This is madness.

      From the link:

      … the weekly education newspaper, Education Week, did a survey of professors regarding how they prepare future teachers to teach reading, and yeah, the results indicated that a lot of teachers are not getting very good instruction in teaching reading.

      The most common misalignment I hear is this: when people think about reading, they think about it the way an already-skilled reader does it. For example, they say that readers use meaning-based cues to help figure out a word. That’s true, and there are two ways it happens.

      One is an unconscious process that is only in place if you are a fluent decoder who understands the rest of the text to that point; this process only nudges you towards the right interpretation, it doesn’t magically make you read it.

      The second is a conscious process, puzzling out what an unfamiliar word means, and ample data show readers are willing to do a little of that work, but not much. It’s frustrating and effortful. So the idea that we should teach beginning readers to use meaning-based cues has a certain logic to it—it’s what really good readers do—but it’s not a good strategy for beginners.

      It reminds me a bit of Cargo Cultism, the assumption that if you just do what the advanced kids do, you can skip all the steps it takes to become more advanced. Or to use math as an example, “The smart kids know algebra, so let’s just skip long division and get straight to the X = Y business.” Madness.

      • It is a very old fight.
        Back in the days when BYTE was a print mah, thick and useful, Jerry Pournelle had a column on many thinks computer, technical, and SF (CHAOS MANOR) and he from time to time commented on his teacher wife’s running battle trying to get their school system back on phonics. He eventually (90’s?) coded a PC program for her to teach phonics. And it worked. Boy did it work.
        It’s still around, adapted for online.

        The whole fight always struck me as odd since spanish, being a syllabic language *can’t* be taught any other way. (Bah, beh, bih, boh, buh, etc). 1st graders chanting the syllables for hours, reading and proper pronunciation sticks. Now reading comprehension, that takes a wee bit longer. 😉
        Still, one step at a time.

        • Re: Spanish (and French), I’m reminded of this translation of a French article on the topic of French literacy:

          No luck for French school children. Our spelling is one of the most difficult in the world. For one simple reason: just because we hear a sound doesn’t mean we know how to write it (“saint” is pronounced as “ceint,” “sein” the same as “sain.”).

          Linguists refer to “transparency” between sounds and letters. From one country to another that transparency varies by a factor of two. For Spanish and Italian, the transparency of sounds and letters is 97%; for Finish and Danish it’s 98-99%. But for French, it’s only 55%. And that’s without taking account of agreement problems [e.g. noun-adjective], with so many letters not pronounced.

          It’s enough to make you yank out your hair.

          While it takes a young Spanish student a few months to master the basics of spelling, it takes his French counterpart several years. In many countries, spelling has been simplified, “phoneticized” over the centuries. But not in France.

          “Our language is very conservative,” explains the linguist Alain Bentolila, who has just published, School Emergency: the Right to Learn, the Duty to Transmit (Odile Jacob). Linguistic centralism, institutionalization: With the birth of the Academic Francaise in the 17th century, we see the beginning of dictionary’s reign as the supreme arbiter of the language.

          “The French language was created by professionals of the written word who devised a spelling system to please the eye,” says Jean-Pierre Jaffre, a linguist at the CNRS. It’s rigid and absurd.

          For the 3rd edition of the Academie Francaise’s dictionary, in 1738, the printers didn’t have enough accents, so they mixed up the aigu accents with the grave accents and both with circonflexes—and that’s when they didn’t just forget accents altogether.

          Three centuries later, school kids continue to conscientiously learn the messy list of exceptions these early printers created. Thus the recurrent debate over simplifying French spelling, though all efforts to do so have remained a dead letter. The 1901 “decree on orthographic tolerance,” designed to cleanse the rules of agreement, was never applied. Just like the language sprucing effort of 1990 that did nonetheless modify the spelling of 2000 words. You doubtless didn’t know it, but you’re allowed to write “portemonnaie,” “naitre” “évènement,” “nénufar” and “ognon”…

          This solved one mystery for me: French spelling seems nonsensical because it is nonsensical, even to the French 😀

  3. Methinks the shirt-rending crowd should ensure that they’re working from reliable data first. Any reliance on “test scores” needs to reflect all of:

    • Replicable results, especially across differing linguistic experiences over time (how many ESL students were actually tested in 1968? how many of them were from non-European-language households? how about now?), that isolate whether it’s actual comprehension of “story” or of “language” that is at issue

    • Sufficiently-precise measurements to actually point to a decline

    • Accurate assessment of the results, remembering that not a lot of literature PhDs are either setting the standards or evaluating the particular questions; not even a lot of literature ABs…

    • That any decline reflects actual decline in per-classroom-instructional-hour teaching in the subject, and not deemphasize of the subject in the imperfect world of “we want all of the students to know lots of everything because the world is more complex than faced by students a century ago”

    • That the only form of storytelling that matters is in print, in English (when the good old days were before Archie and Meathead blew up the mindless half-hour comedy rather forever)

    Context matters; any understanding whatsoever of “the history of science” reinforces that. But I wouldn’t expect career politicians whose greatest actual accomplishment is getting elected to understand that.

    • Agree. We only want to expose the kids to phonics as a last resort. We can see the results from the past when it was widely used.

  4. And as a side note on phonics:

    Englisch uber alles!

    The “phonics” taught in ‘murika are worthwhile only for standard ‘murikan English. None of this hoity-toity furrin language sensitivity, not even fer our European allies. And them other languages, the non-Indo-European ones, should be left until they’re in college and fully indoctrinated in ‘murikan values.† And even that ignores that the “phonics” taught in ‘murika is a dumbed-down subset of the basic linguistic concept (go ahead, find “glottal stop” in there). And tonal languages? Surely it’s not too much to expect high-school students to pronounce the names of major foreign capitals, even when representing those names using “phonics” is inaccurate…

    Advocates of “phonics” forget that language is about communication, not class conformity.

    Meanwhile, there’s a proposal in the state legislature here to add a one-half-credit course in “financial literacy” in high school, to become mandatory by 2031. On the one hand, it’s probably necessary, given that the way most financial scams and other deceptions work is by taking advantage of ignorance. On the other hand, what’s going to be taken away for that half credit (one-half of a semester the way our high-school system counts “credits”)? They’re surely not going to add money, facilities, and teachers to lengthen the school day or school year…

    † By which time less than 10% of potential learners, however bright and enthusiastic, can ever achieve fluency in a language from other than their own language group unless they already had been exposed. Tell me, just how well did we do communicating in Vietnam… or Afghanistan?

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