This school year, New York City public schools are conducting an experiment: Can they once again teach children to read? Following New York students’ dismal scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” Mayor Eric Adams has mandated a new curriculum for literacy that emphasizes phonics and moves away from the “balanced literacy” approach of the last two decades. It’s a change worth applauding: phonics is a well-studied educational approach that has clearly demonstrated its importance to children’s literacy. By contrast, balanced literacy, in which children learn to read by considering a word’s broader context, has been thoroughly discredited.
But if the research was clear from the outset about which method worked, why did New York spend years testing the wrong one? New York’s failures, and now its shift to a new approach, illustrate a challenge for teachers and education policymakers: how to disseminate and implement research findings more effectively. To get serious about bettering American education, improving the research-to-implementation pipeline will be crucial.
A major government research effort in the late 1990s shows the problem. In 1997, Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education to develop a National Reading Panel to study how kids learn to read. After reviewing 100,000 studies, the panel concluded in its 2000 report that the “best approach to reading instruction” incorporates “explicit instruction in phonemic awareness” and “systematic phonics instruction”—precisely what New York is adopting now, more than 20 years later.
Conclusive as this research was, it failed to take hold at the time, at least in New York. Instead, in 2003 schools adopted the philosophy of Lucy Calkins, who ran the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and who promoted balanced literacy. Her 2001 book, The Art of Teaching Reading, released the year after the National Reading Panel’s report, questioned phonics in favor of the supposedly more holistic approach that New York’s schools are now rejecting. It’s only 20 years later that Calkins has seemed to concede the report’s insights: “The last two or three years,” she said last year, “what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.” (Columbia has made the same discovery: in September, it announced that it had ended Calkins’s project.)
One can interpret these events in two ways. On the one hand, they show the value that government-backed educational R&D can have in identifying what works and what doesn’t. On the other hand, they demonstrate how such information can remain confined to studies and analysis, instead of being brought into the classroom. If a study makes a key discovery but no one can benefit from it, did it really happen?
The federal government produced a clear road map, but New York’s teachers still managed to drive in the wrong direction for decades. So what needs fixing: the map’s PR team, for failing to spread the word, or the education system, for ignoring the map and insisting that it knew a better route? Of course, teachers’ unions play a major role in maintaining bad pedagogical methods—the repetitive approach recommended by the science of reading is hard and tedious work, and unions have balked in the past. But it’s also the case that education researchers need to improve how they promote their findings.
The Institute of Education Sciences, for example, has since 2002 run the What Works Clearinghouse, which serves to “review the research, determine which studies meet rigorous standards, and summarize the findings.” It’s an impressive resource, but it’s also a sprawling labyrinth of analyses and meta-analyses and, strangely, turns up no search results for either “balanced literacy” or “science of reading.” One need not be a union member to wonder whether deferring to the Clearinghouse is really the best way to develop a syllabus.
Reversing New York’s literacy decline will take years, but educators can take steps today to make it happen. Researchers within the public sector, who understand phonics’ value, should seize the new semester as a crucial opportunity to stump for their own work. Here, they could take a page from Calkins herself, who was wrong about her material but all too right about how to promote it. She didn’t just write a book and walk away; she cultivated acolytes, established an institution, and produced a curriculum for teachers to adopt. As the city phases in its NYC Reads initiative to promote the new literacy program, it should send the curriculum’s designers and researchers around the city to explain to teachers, administrators, and, most of all, parents why the new program works and how their children will benefit.
New York should also consider revising teacher salary schedules, which reward holding a master’s degree such as those granted by Columbia’s Teachers College. Teacher pay is its own subject, but if education degrees aren’t promoting effective methods, there’s no reason for the city to encourage teachers to pursue them. (Indeed, if balanced literacy is what education master’s degrees are promoting, perhaps such graduate degrees should result in lower pay.)
Educators and researchers will need to go beyond simply producing reports and hoping that the word gets around. They must improve communication between R&D organizations and the teachers whom they’re meant to assist. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” might be terrifying words, as Ronald Reagan once warned—but in different circumstances, those words could have prevented two decades of misguided literacy instruction in New York.