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Most New York City Schools Are Choosing A Literacy Curriculum That Falls Short
Two of the city-approved curricula do a good job of building crucial knowledge, but school leaders are choosing a third option instead.
In an effort to boost dismal reading scores, the New York City school system recently announced that all elementary schools in the district—the nation’s largest—need to adopt one of three approved literacy curricula. But the most popular choice so far is also the least effective.
About half of the city’s 32 sub-districts need to start using one of the new curricula this coming fall, while the other half will change over next year. That hurried pace and the infringement on principals’ traditional freedom of choice has fueled opposition. But the opposition also reflects an attachment to what has been the prevailing approach to teaching reading for the past 20 years.
That approach is called “balanced literacy,” and New York City has long been one of its strongholds. One of the most charismatic—and polarizing—leaders of the balanced literacy movement, Lucy Calkins, is based at Columbia Teachers College. A 2019 survey showed that at least 48% of elementary schools in the city used Calkins’ curriculum, making it by far the most popular choice.
Media coverage in both the New York Times and Chalkbeat have portrayed the three approved curricula—Wit & Wisdom, EL Education, and Into Reading—as being of equal quality. Wit & Wisdom doesn’t have its own phonics component and therefore needs to be paired with another approved foundational reading skills program. The other two curricula cover phonics more systematically than balanced literacy does—and all three curricula purport to cover reading comprehension effectively.
In the case of EL Education and Wit & Wisdom, that’s true. Both are among six curricula that have been identified by the Knowledge Matters Campaign as being effective at building the kind of knowledge that enables students to understand complex text.
These knowledge-building curricula delve deeply into specific topics—including topics from social studies and science—rather than focusing on isolated comprehension skills like “making inferences.” They also give all students in a classroom access to complex, grade-level-or-above text, often through teacher read-alouds and class discussion. And they have students read and write about the topics covered in the curriculum.
Into Reading, on the other hand, is different. New York City might have chosen it because it got high ratings from an organization called EdReports—including high ratings for “building knowledge.” But when it comes to knowledge-building, the ratings given out by EdReports aren’t always reliable.
I don’t have extensive firsthand knowledge of Into Reading, although the publisher, HMH, did give me access to three sample modules. My impression aligned with what I’ve heard from others who know the curriculum better than I do and whose judgment I trust: Into Reading suffers from many of the same problems that traditional reading textbooks have long displayed.
These days, many teachers who use those textbooks, called basal readers, may consider themselves “balanced literacy” practitioners, because that term is used so broadly. But the origins of the balanced literacy movement lie in opposition to the basal readers, and movement leaders like Calkins still hold them in contempt.
They say the reading selections are low-quality and the curricula are overly “scripted.” In contrast, balanced literacy, at least in its pure form, relies on “authentic” children’s literature—the kind of books you can find in a bookstore—and allows teachers a great deal of autonomy.
And yet, in a bastion of balanced literacy—New York City—13 of the 15 subdistricts that have already chosen one of the approved curricula have opted for Into Reading, which is essentially a basal reader.
Why the Most Popular Choice Falls Short
I spoke with one educator in Tennessee whose district has been using Into Reading for three years. Her name is Donna Kanipe, and she’s a former fourth-grade teacher in Hamblin County who is now an instructional coach for the district. Kanipe told me that the quality of the texts in Into Reading is somewhat better than in most basal readers, but otherwise she sees little difference. (HMH represetatives told me that the version being used in New York City differs from the earlier version being used in Tennessee, but it’s not clear to me exactly what the differences are.)
And Kanipe sees a number of problems:
The curriculum puts comprehension skills in the foreground rather than the content of the texts, making it hard for students to grasp the meaning of the stories. For example, Kanipe told me, on the first day of a module, a story is read all the way through, but on subsequent days the focus is on isolated pages that supposedly enable students to practice a skill like “determining cause and effect.” Most of the assessments that come with the curriculum also focus on skills, Kanipe said. HMH representatives told me that after the first read of the entire text, “Subsequent close readings … focus on the application of a reading skill selected for its usefulness in deeper comprehension and understanding of that particular text.”
The modules center on “themes” that are mostly broad and superficial. The first module in fourth grade, for example, is on “What Makes You Who You Are,” and the first modules at lower grade levels have a similar focus. The fourth-grade texts for that module include a story about a “superhero squirrel” whose cynical personality changes and another about “a mouse in Africa.” By contrast, the other two city-approved curricula have topics that are specific and meaty. EL Education, for example, has modules on birds, frogs, and the American Revolution. Wit & Wisdom covers topics like the five senses, the American West, and outer space.
Rather than having the teacher read aloud texts that are more complex than those students could read on their own—to build the knowledge and vocabulary that fuels comprehension—Into Reading only includes texts at the low end or in the middle of grade level. HMH says that students are supposed to read the texts in their books themselves. By the end of the year, texts are at the high end of grade level. But, says Kanipe, most teachers never get all the way through the units.
That’s because, as with most basal readers, Into Reading is overstuffed. Teachers can’t possibly cover all the material, and they may not always make the best choices.
The curriculum used in Tennessee restricts students to reading books at their individual reading levels, which may be well below their grade level. In the New York version, according to HMH, the leveled text component is optional. Generally, tests used to determine reading levels are unreliable, and leveled books are on random topics that students may know little or nothing about—although HMH says it provides a list of leveled readers that are “tied to the content themes of each module.” In an effective knowledge-building curriculum, students read books on topics connected to the curriculum and are not restricted to a particular level.
There are few writing assignments, and most are on topics unconnected to the texts students have read. The final writing task in a module is supposed to require students to demonstrate their knowledge of its content—although it’s not clear that always happens. For the unit on “What Makes You Who You Are,” according to Kanipe, the assignment is to write “a personal narrative about a time that you grew and learned.” The curriculum also has a separate writing component, and HMH representatives said the texts it includes are usually related to the theme of the module. That was true of two of the three modules I was given access to.
Kanipe says that with the help of an outside partner organization, she and other educators in the district are trying to modify the curriculum so that it focuses more on the content of the texts. Teachers are discarding the questions in the teachers’ guide, which might ask students to do something like determine cause and effect, and coming up with more general ones that engage students in analyzing the text as a whole—Why did the author say it that way?” or “What do you think is important?” That revamping takes time, though, and not all teachers have been willing to invest the effort.
“If we had gone with a different curriculum,” Kanipe says, “then maybe we wouldn’t have to do all this work now.” Even teachers who voted to adopt the curriculum are dissatisfied with it, she adds.
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Of course, teachers also need to do some work—and receive good training and support—in order to effectively implement a knowledge-building curriculum like EL or Wit & Wisdom. But the curriculum itself provides richer content and better guidance in how to teach it.
Why Might Educators Choose Into Reading?
I asked Kanipe why she thought teachers in her district had opted for Into Reading rather than a knowledge-building curriculum like Wit & Wisdom, which was also under consideration. One reason, she said, is that they liked the leveled readers that came with the curriculum. “That’s how we were all taught to teach reading,” she observed—dividing students into low, medium, and high groups.
That may also be one reason so many subdistrict leaders in New York have chosen Into Reading. (Another reason may be that it offers a Spanish-language version, although Kanipe wasn’t impressed by it.) If there’s one thing that basal readers and balanced literacy have in common, it’s leveled reading—along with an emphasis on isolated comprehension skills. They may feel that the devil they know is safer than they devil they don’t—or what they think is a devil.
A knowledge-building literacy curriculum is radically different from what educators are used to, and many are understandably wary. Often they worry the texts will be too hard for children, and the topics won’t interest them. But I’ve spoken with many teachers who have found, once they tried the new approach, that kids enjoy the challenge and are more engaged than ever. And they’ve seen their students’ vocabularies—and eventually their scores on reading tests—improve.
It's unfortunate, to say the least, that so many New York City schools are making a choice that will almost inevitably lead to failure for many students down the road. Better phonics instruction is crucial, but unless a curriculum is also building knowledge and vocabulary, it provides only a short-term benefit. As grade levels go up, comprehension becomes more important than the ability to decipher individual words. And comprehension depends far more on knowledge than on abstract skills.
That’s something a previous top New York City education official learned the hard way. Twenty years ago, then-chancellor Joel Klein decreed that all of the city’s elementary schools were to adopt Lucy Calkins’ balanced literacy curriculum. He later said it was the only decision he made as chancellor that he came to regret—and not because the curriculum lacked a good phonics component.
Under pressure from the federal government, the city supplemented the curriculum with a phonics program, and reading scores did improve at lower grade levels. But they didn’t rise at eighth grade, and—as Klein told me when I interviewed him some years ago—that led him to a realization: to equip kids to understand more complex text, it’s crucial to build knowledge in the elementary grades in a way that Calkins’ curriculum—and many others, including Into Reading—do not.
Perhaps current education officials in New York might want to reflect on Klein’s experience. As they say, those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Forbes.com.