This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and THE CITY investigating learning differences, special education and other education challenges in city schools. Sign up for Chalkbeat New York’s daily newsletter and THE CITY’S Daily Scoop newsletter to keep up with our reporting.
Shortly after taking office, schools Chancellor David Banks took aim at one of the most popular reading programs in New York City public schools, one that had been long embraced by his predecessors. The curriculum, created by Lucy Calkins at Columbia’s Teachers College, “has not worked,” he declared. “There’s a very different approach that we’re going to be looking to take.”
Banks, along with Mayor Eric Adams, has vowed to reshape the way elementary schools teach children to read. Backed by a growing chorus of literacy experts, city officials argue the Teachers College approach hinges too heavily on independent reading without enough explicit instruction on the relationship between sounds and letters, known as phonics, leaving many students floundering.
Data obtained by THE CITY and Chalkbeat reveal for the first time how deeply enmeshed the curriculum has become in classrooms serving the city’s youngest students — and how difficult it could be to unwind.
Of nearly 600 public elementary schools that responded to a 2019 curriculum survey, 48% said they were using the Teachers College reading program alone or in conjunction with other curriculums, according to figures obtained through a public records request that took the city’s education department nearly three years to fulfill. It was by far the most popular reading program at the time.
Officials have begun to address what they see as some of the curriculum’s biggest shortcomings. Beginning this school year, the education department mandated that every school select a supplemental phonics program in grades K-2 on top of their existing reading curriculum. They’re also rolling out training to school leaders about how children learn to read and best practices for literacy instruction.
But the city has not formally requested that schools abandon Teachers College or some of the most questionable practices associated with it, such as prompting students to use pictures to guess what words mean instead of sounding the letters out, often referred to as three-cueing. A department spokesperson declined to answer questions about how the city is monitoring whether schools are making changes in their classroom practice.
“Even with the phonics mandate, there are still schools not doing what Banks has asked them to do, and it’s unclear what the accountability situation is,” said one education department employee with knowledge of the city’s literacy efforts who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Since school leaders have near complete freedom to pick their own curriculums, and many teachers have received training directly from Teachers College, observers say classroom practice will likely be slow to change. Although some schools have moved away from Teachers College on their own since the survey was conducted, others continue to use it.
“Can you imagine if someone told you that everything you’ve been taught in school and everything you’ve been doing for the past 20 years is flawed?” said Monica Covington-Cradle, the senior manager of literacy and implementation at the AIM Institute for Learning & Research, an organization that helps schools understand the research and improve instruction. “This is not easy work, and this is not fast work.”
Teachers College curriculum widely used
At the heart of the Teachers College method is the idea that children can learn to read by being exposed to literature and having plenty of time to practice independently. Teachers typically deliver about 10 minutes or less of a mini-lesson such as how to find a text’s main idea.
They then send students to fan out, often curled on the classroom rug, to choose books at their own reading level. Educators shuttle between children to check their progress, either individually or in small groups.
A significant chunk of students, particularly those who have support for reading at home, have no trouble learning to read under the Teachers College model, and multiple educators said they appreciated that the program treats students as thinkers who should be encouraged to develop a love of literature. But research shows that reading is generally not a natural process that children can pick up independently and that explicit lessons to help students sound out words are essential.
Those phonics lessons were absent from the Teachers College curriculum, said Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who co-authored an influential critique of the curriculum in 2020.
“It’s really inadequate and that would be one of the reasons kids wouldn’t be doing as well as they could be,” he said.
Although many schools use outside phonics curriculums in addition to the Teachers College program, those weren’t necessarily well-integrated with the rest of a school’s reading curriculum, and many schools did not emphasize it. Shanahan said the lack of explicit phonics disadvantages students with disabilities and those in high-poverty schools whose families may not have the time or resources to plug gaps at home or with outside tutoring. “That’s terrific if you can afford that and have the time, but it doesn’t work for a lot of families.”
The Teachers College model, often defined as “balanced literacy,” was the approach schools across the city were pushed to adopt in 2003. The schools chancellor at the time, Joel Klein, later said it was one of his biggest regrets. Calkins, author of the Units of Study curriculum that is supported by Teachers College, has also acknowledged some of its flaws and rolled out updates. The approach’s shortcomings have been gaining more widespread attention through the “Sold a Story” podcast.
Banks argues that balanced literacy programs have contributed to poor reading outcomes. Roughly half of students in grades 3-8 are proficient in reading, according to state tests. But there are large gaps between racial groups: More than two-thirds of white and Asian American students are considered proficient, but fewer than 37% of Black and Latino children are.
The data obtained by THE CITY and Chalkbeat show that schools in virtually every corner of the city were using the Teachers College curriculum in 2019.
An analysis of the survey data did not find any correlation between the share of low-income students at a school and its reading curriculum. Still, Teachers College was more prevalent in some districts than others, including wealthier districts such as District 2 in Manhattan and District 26 in Queens, but also in high-poverty ones like District 12 in The Bronx and District 4 in East Harlem.
The figures come with some caveats: The curriculum survey only included schools that were part of the previous administration’s Universal Literacy program, meaning about 200 elementary schools weren’t surveyed, nor were charter schools and schools in special education District 75. An education official familiar with the city’s literacy efforts said it’s probable that those 200 schools were even more likely to use Teachers College, meaning the survey figures may understate the percentage of schools across the city that were using it.
Also, of the 280 schools that reported using Teachers College for reading instruction, 63 reported also using at least one other curriculum, making it difficult to know how widely Teachers College was deployed on those campuses.
Because schools have so much control of their own curriculums, education department officials often lack a systematic grasp of what materials schools are using, which can also vary classroom to classroom. The city has not conducted a new survey of school curriculums since 2019, department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer acknowledged.
City officials claimed that the number of schools using Teachers College has fallen significantly based on purchasing data. But Styer declined to share a list of schools still using Teachers College materials. He also noted the purchasing data does not distinguish between what specific materials schools bought from Teachers College, which can include curriculums other than reading.
A Teachers College spokesperson wrote in an email that the number of New York City public schools that pay for more intensive training on the curriculum has remained steady over the past five years at roughly 150 schools. (Principals may still use the curriculum without committing to a formal training program with Teachers College.)
Teachers College rolled out a new version of the curriculum for students in grades K-2 in late 2022 that includes a heavier emphasis on phonics along with “decodable books” that are meant to give students practice with words they have been practicing in their phonics lessons, according to a Teachers College spokesperson.
The curriculum’s publisher, Heinemann, declined to say how many New York City schools have purchased updated Teachers College materials, which cost $425 per classroom kit. (City education department officials said the Teachers College phonics program is “not based in research” and was not on the city’s approved list of phonics programs schools are expected to select from.)
Chalkbeat and THE CITY reached out multiple times to each of the 280 schools that were using the Teachers College reading curriculum in 2019 in an attempt to confirm whether they’re still using it. Only 19 responded. Of those, 16 said they have since moved on to a different curriculum.
A switch to phonics: ‘It really works’
Some school leaders began moving away from the Teachers College curriculum years before the education department’s leadership began casting doubt on it.
“We realized it was taking our kids much longer to get the basics down, and that’s because the program was designed — it seemed to work for the kids that had a subset of skills coming in,” said Melessa Avery, principal of P.S. 273 in East New York, which began transitioning away from Teachers College five years ago. “The rest of them struggled for so long, and we needed to see faster progress.”
At Avery’s school, which sits at the corner of two public housing developments and two low-to-middle-income apartment complexes, many of the kids enter the school system behind on their learning, she said. Three years ago, her school added a phonics program called Fundations, which the education department has been encouraging schools to use, alongside another reading program.
“It really works. It’s really scripted. It takes the kids from the very early sounds through the blending, the sounding out of the words,” said Avery. “It’s like a prescription for teaching the kids how to read.”
Other schools began transitioning away from Teachers College more recently.
Spurred by media attention to the problems with balanced literacy and an education department training focused on how students learn to read, Principal Darlene Cameron began moving her school away from the Teachers College curriculum.
“Over the past year I’ve realized I need to focus and make my teachers focus on phonics,” Cameron said, noting that nearly every other school leader she knew used Teachers College or some form of balanced literacy. Students at Cameron’s East Village elementary school now receive at least 30 minutes of phonics in the early grades, up from about 10-15 minutes.
Still, there are elements of the Teachers College program that the school has been reluctant to give up, including time for independent reading, which teachers sneak in when students are eating breakfast or at the end of class periods. “The idea that you could choose your own books and read independently at length — our kids loved that,” Cameron said.
And it isn’t always easy to nudge teachers to give up practices they’ve been using for years. The school previously invested tens of thousands of dollars a year in Teachers College training that encouraged strategies such as word guessing that Cameron said are no longer appropriate. “Like many things, people have to hear something more than once for it to sink in,” she said. “I have been going through my own journey for a year and a half now.”
But other veteran principals have been reluctant to give up Teachers College, arguing that they’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth with different approaches to reading and are not convinced sweeping change is needed.
“In education, what seems to happen is people throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said a Bronx principal who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s no one program or curriculum that solves all.”
The principal said her school has embraced the new Teachers College materials that place a greater emphasis on phonics, including the new “decodable” books that include words students should already be able to sound out. “They’re being thoughtful at [Teachers College] about this research and where those gaps are,” she said.
Still, the principal acknowledged that the curriculum continues to encourage students to look at pictures to understand what words mean, a practice that many experts argue is counter-productive.
Multiple principals said they continue to use the Teachers College program in part because of the intensive training that they can purchase, which is popular with many teachers. They also argue it’s more comprehensive and hands-on than what’s offered by other curriculum vendors or even the education department.
“They come on site, they do data dives with teachers, they help rework lessons for students with disabilities,” the Bronx principal said of the Teachers College training. “The staff development makes the curriculum come alive.”
Bigger instructional changes on the horizon
Despite Banks’ criticism of balanced literacy and Teachers College, there has not been a top-down effort to move schools away from it — something that many observers said would be difficult to pull off given the autonomy principals expect over curriculum in their schools.
In District 4, which covers East Harlem, and where a majority of elementary schools surveyed said they were using Teachers College in 2019, Superintendent Kristy De La Cruz said she is wary of pushing schools toward a specific program and noted community buy-in is crucial.
“I do try to encourage [schools] to use curricula that’s meeting the needs of their young people, but I also am hesitant to endorse any curriculum,” De La Cruz said. “I want to make very clear that it’s not like I’m saying [Teachers College] is good or bad. It’s like, how are we using it? And how are we supplementing? Do we have a phonics component?”
Some parents whose schools have used Teachers College said they were disappointed the city wasn’t moving more quickly to push schools toward alternatives and worry that students will receive subpar instruction.
“Why would you keep something that was proven to not work?” said Jessica Simmons, a Brooklyn mom and former principal who shelled out over $4,000 for literacy tutoring as her son struggled at a school that was using the Teachers College program. “It’s hard to think we’re all participating in a system that is not using the most up-to-date research on how kids read.”
Top education department officials have hinted that they might take more steps to encourage schools to adopt different approaches to reading instruction. Asked during a recent state hearing whether the city planned to outright ban certain practices such as teaching students to guess what words mean based on pictures, Banks said “that’s where we’re going.”
Still, he acknowledged that not all schools will necessarily go along with changes.
“I do get some pushback from some schools, who have been using this as an approach and it feels like it works for them,” he said. “So I have not tried to simply have a one-size-fits-all.”
“We’re going to continue to drive this until we reach a point where every single student in New York City has the benefit of the right approach to the teaching of reading,” Banks added. “If they do not, nothing else that we do even matters.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at email@example.com.