Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Our second installment: Poor reading skills are a problem nationwide, including in many of Buffalo’s suburbs.
Only two of the 48 tested fourth graders at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy on the city’s West Side read at proficient levels in 2022.
Likewise, just two fifth graders at School 53 on the East Side read at grade level. That’s out of 62 pupils tested.
Not a single fifth grader at Martin Luther King Jr. School, in the shadow of the Fruit Belt neighborhood, tested at a proficient reading level in 2022.
Poor reading skills among Buffalo’s elementary school pupils aren’t limited to those schools. It’s a problem across the district.
A majority of pupils read at grade level at only four of the city’s 43 elementary schools.
And there are dramatic differences when race is taken into account. Nearly 42 percent of white pupils in grades three through eight score at proficient levels. That drops to 16.5 percent for Black and 15.4 percent for Hispanic pupils.
The problem is not new.
In the past decade, the share of third graders across the district who read at grade level has been as low as 12 percent.
Now, Buffalo school officials have started to implement a plan that changes the way reading is taught. The new approach is rooted in phonics-based literacy, as opposed to the old way, which taught students to use contextual clues and guess what new words may sound like.
Older approaches to how reading is taught are not tailored for all students, but rather targeted towards the high-achieving, explained Tarja Parssinen, founder of the WNY Education Alliance. She said phonics-based literacy can transform the futures of Buffalo's children.
“It’s sort of the true meaning of equity,” she said. “It lifts everyone up.”
“We’re trying to follow the science,” said Anne Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer. “I think it’s what we need to do to make sure all students can read effectively.”
In addition, the district has hired 13 more reading teachers, increasing the ranks of those specialists to 65.
Many in the education field say poverty is at the root of poor reading skills. But, according to the National Institute of Health, 95 percent of children are cognitively capable of learning to read with sufficient instruction.
Hence the need for proper instruction, Parssinen said.
“If more black and brown kids are not learning how to read, then certain approaches do seem discriminatory,” she said.
Phonics approach favored
For years, it’s been known as “The Reading Wars.” It’s a fight over curriculum and how reading is taught that takes place in classrooms and state legislatures. Today, there are two main camps: balanced literacy and structured literacy.
- Structured literacy is centered around phonics. Students break down words into syllables and individual sounds. That process is called “decoding.”
- Balanced literacy blends the whole word approach with some phonics. Readers are encouraged to guess what new words may be through the use of images and contextual clues, sometimes moving on regardless if they are right or wrong. Proper pronunciation is not a priority.
Variations of the two approaches have been in and out of vogue for a century or longer. Phonics-based teaching has gained traction of late based on research.
“They’re a step ahead of most districts,” Parssinen said. “I have to commend them for that. There are districts out there that won’t look at this at all.”
Results so far show growth, Botticelli said.
The share of sixth graders reading at grade level has increased from 25 percent in 2019 to 36 percent in 2022.
Four years ago, 18 percent of fifth graders read at grade level. In 2022, those same students — then in the eighth grade — raised their proficiency level to 28 percent.
“I do think that we are seeing those gains,” Botticelli said. “But I do know it’s going to take time, as well.”
Reading scores at individual schools are also increasing as students progress from grade to grade.
For example, in 2019, less than 40 percent of Waterfront Elementary’s third graders were proficient readers. In 2022, as sixth graders, 54 percent were proficient.
Likewise, at International School 45 on the West Side, 22 percent of third graders could read at grade level in 2019. Three years later, 43 percent of that same class achieved proficiency.
Dealing with dyslexia
In addition to phonics, Buffalo schools in 2021 added to its curriculum Orton-Gillingham, a program to help students with dyslexia. The learning disability affects the ability to read, write, and spell. One in five children are affected by dyslexia or other learning disabilities, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities,
Because the program is new, it’s too soon to track results. But Parssinen and other experts said the instruction has proved successful elsewhere.
There’s been little progress on the state front, however.
Last November, Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill that would establish a task force centered on dyslexia and dysgraphia.
“I’m disappointed that the governor vetoed it,” said Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.
“This is something that will come up again, and it will have dollars attached to it,” she said.
Assembly Bill A4198 is another attempt focused on literacy. If passed, it would require all school districts to screen students for signs of dyslexia from pre-K through second grade and provide resources when necessary.
A version of this bill has been stalled in committee for two years.
Poverty an overstated factor
Eighty-one percent of Buffalo students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” Superintendent Tonja Williams believes poverty is at the core of the district’s low reading scores. She termed the most recent test results “gut-wrenching.”
However, Smink, of The Education Trust - New York — a state-wide organization focused on education policy — said blaming poverty for poor reading scores is a cop out.
“Poverty obviously makes things more challenging, but at the core, kids are not getting what they need,” he said.
“There are a lot of people that just don’t believe that poor kids are capable of learning,” Smink said. “Which is why I don’t think you see the outrage.”
It’s not about poverty, he said, but rather the instruction students receive.
Regardless of the method of instruction, thousands of Buffalo’s elementary students fall behind each year.
“This data comes out every year,” Smink said. “After a while, I think we become numb to it.”
Williams said factors other than poverty also come into play, starting with poor attendance rates. She said the district is tackling those issues.
But if literacy rates do not rise throughout the district, Williams said she would be the one to answer for it.
“If at the end of my contact term … we’re not progressing … then there should be someone else that can take them there.”