The Roman emperors learned the hard way that neighboring nations were easier to conquer than to govern. Michael Bloomberg is no doubt learning a comparable lesson as he eases into his role as the first New York City mayor to have control of the largest school system in the United States.
Treacherous politics kills off, on average, about one schools chancellor every two years. The chancellors come and go so quickly that they barely have time to find the bathroom, let alone grapple with bedrock instructional issues. The most pressing problem of all is this system’s failure to perform the most basic function of education: teaching children to read. Reversing this pattern of failure will require a widespread retraining of the teaching force. It will also require the city to take an unambiguous position in the politically explosive debate over how children learn to read. The real measure of a school district is how well it deals with the 4 in 10 children who have difficulty learning to read and are at risk of never learning at all. In New York City the answer has been: Not very well.
I know a first grader whose parents were informed early in the school year that he would be kept back because he read too poorly. When parents seek special reading help for a child who has fallen behind, they often encounter the special-education bureaucracy, which deals with children who have been diagnosed as learning disabled or show symptoms that could lead to such a diagnosis. Special-education services are expensive, and some who work in the New York system say, off the record, that parents are sometimes told that their children will be eligible for special reading help only when they have fallen as far as two years behind.
Our first grader would have had a better chance at an effective reading program had he attended a school on the state’s failing list. Those schools have been given extra resources in an effort to bring up their reading scores. But the child happened to attend a “good” school, where an ill-trained teacher did not know how to reach him. The door to the services he needed was apparently being guarded by budget hawks.
As the months wore on, the child began feigning illness to avoid school and excusing himself from class to avoid the humiliation of being asked to read aloud. He was brought to grade level after expensive tutoring, paid for by the family. The family has since fled to a private school that knows how to teach non-automatic readers. This scenario plays out in New York hundreds of times each year.
I recently visited a private school where I encountered a group of teenagers trying to read aloud from a first-grade text. After listening to them struggle through simple sentences, I asked as delicately as I could how they had gotten so far in school without being able to read. A bright-eyed girl said she had been in bilingual education and was sometimes taught in English, sometimes in Spanish. “Those of us who didn’t get it, they put us in the corner,” she said. The boys seemed downcast and shy, but she was proud. “I know it’s baby stuff,” she said, “but at least I’m reading now.”
Nonreading teenagers are more common than you might think, both in New York City and the affluent communities that surround it. The less fortunate ones end up jobless and in prison. The lucky ones get taken into the network of private and foundation schools that build their reading skills from scratch and send many of them on to college.
These students begin their days with basic drills in which they recite the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds. They then read from “controlled readers” that use only the words, sounds and sentence constructions they have already been exposed to. The teacher also reads more sophisticated stories to the students as a way of leading them toward higher-level skills.
These children are immersed in reading all day, with language lessons that are integrated throughout the curriculum, included even in art, math and social science. The basic premise of this method is that many children do not learn to read automatically, but require structured instruction to grasp even the most basic rules by which language operates. This so-called “multisensory” approach exposes children to language through as many avenues as possible, building methodically from one lesson to the next.
The National Institutes of Health, after more than 30 years of research, has said that perhaps 40 percent of children need a structured reading program to succeed. But the teachers’ colleges and the public schools have failed to listen, and continue to operate under the popular but mistaken notion that children learn to read naturally. Many public schools view structured reading work as part of a right-wing “phonics” conspiracy aimed at crushing educational creativity.
New York City’s schools will continue to fail at reading instruction until the system embraces methods of instruction that have been shown to work. The city may have to begin training its own teachers if necessary, drawing on the wealth of knowledge that is already on display in many of the area’s private and foundation schools. Once these steps are taken, high-quality reading instruction must be made available to every child — not just the few who end up in failing schools or in special education. If Mayor Bloomberg is looking for a legacy, reshaping reading instruction in New York is certainly a worthy candidate.