Feb 23


Most suburbs lag on reading instruction

Research shows phonics is the better approach, but most local districts stick with the old way of teaching. The result: 6 in 10 pupils can't read at their grade level.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Our previous story focused on the challenges face by Buffalo schools and its adoption of a phonics-based approach.

Unlike 30 other states, New York does not require a phonics-based approach to reading instruction. That leaves each of the state’s 731 school districts free to select its own reading curriculum.

“New York, in general, is behind most other states when it comes to this, which I think is reflected in the reading scores,” said Jeff Smink, deputy director of The Education Trust – New York.

“Every district is like the Wild West,” said Tarja Parssinen, founder of WNY Education Alliance. “Most instruction in Western New York districts is not aligned with either the data or the science of how kids learn to read.”

The result: The share of students reading at grade level lags behind the rest of the nation. According to The Nation’s Report Card, the national average of fourth graders reading at grade level is 32 percent; New York’s is 30 percent. That ranks New York 39th of the 50 states. That’s despite New York spending more per pupil than any state in the nation.

“I’m blown away that there’s no outrage, that people aren’t marching in the streets, that our foundations aren’t saying, ‘We have an emergency, we have a crisis,’” Smink said.

A sampling by Investigative Post of school district documents and strategic plans in Erie and Niagara counties found few districts have adopted the phonics approach. That is, many experts say, they’re teaching reading in a way that’s not tailored for all students, only the high-achieving.

The result: In Erie County, 40 percent in pupils in third through eighth grade, read at or above grade level. In Niagara County, it’s 39 percent.

In other words, the reading skills of most pupils lag.

There are two approaches to teaching reading:

  • 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 were right or wrong. Proper pronunciation is not a priority.

According to educational experts, a third of students will learn to read with almost any type of instruction. But without the structured approach of phonics-based instruction, those experts say the remainder of students will be left behind.

Districts that have embraced phonics-based instruction — either entirely or in part — include Buffalo, Clarence and North Collins. Those that embrace balanced literacy-based curricula include Niagara Falls, Williamsville, Sweet Home, Cheektowaga-Maryvale, West Seneca and Lackawanna. 

The share of elementary grade pupils reading at grade level ranged from 71 percent in Williamsville to 17 percent in Lackawanna.

Most of the aforementioned districts failed to respond to inquiries from Investigative Post. One that did, Niagara Falls, maintained that phonics alone isn’t sufficient.

“You can’t read and interpret and understand what you can’t see, visualize, or have a concept of,” said Superintendent Mark Laurrie.

“You can phonetically decode the word, be able to fluently read it, but that’s half of reading. If you can’t draw the picture in your head of what it looks like, then you just read words on a piece of paper. You didn’t do anything more.”

Twenty-six percent of Niagara Falls elementary pupils read at grade level.

Lackawanna, Niagara Falls struggle

Reading scores in 2022 for Lackawanna pupils in grades 3-8 were the lowest in Erie County. Only 17 percent read at grade level.

The district’s strategic plan calls for all fifth graders to read at grade level by the end of the 2022-2023 school year. In the preceding school year, only 14 of 138 fourth grade pupils who tested read at grade level. 

Test scores were a little better in Niagara Falls — on par with Buffalo — but showing nearly three-quarters of pupils failed to read at grade level. And there are some concerning numbers: Only 7 percent of Black fifth graders read at grade level.

Nevertheless, Niagara Falls school leadership believes their approach is a strong combination of both phonics and balanced instruction.

“We’re very comfortable with our approach,” Richard Ceralla, administrator for curriculum and instruction. 

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Ceralla said Niagara Falls’s approach offers a wider lens to students, one that includes “schema,” a sense of world-view that helps students better understand the content they read. But Ceralla added “we have many elements, strong elements, that are reflected in the science of reading.”

Laurrie, the superintendent, said many of the district’s struggles are rooted in poverty, echoing Buffalo’s Superintendent Tonja Williams. Like Williams, Laurrie also said that attendance is a persistent problem.  

“We could have the best curriculum, the best teachers, the smallest class sizes, but if they're not getting it at home and they're not getting it at school, I don’t know how they're going to learn it,” he said. 

Different dynamics in Williamsville

Seventy-one percent of elementary pupils read at grade level in the Williamsville school district. That ranks first in Erie County, just ahead of Clarence, at 70 percent, which uses elements of phonics instruction.

Williamsville continues with its balanced literacy approach. But Assistant Superintendent Marie Balen said, “There is nothing that is absent from our program.”

“Everything can co-exist in a manner to best, again, meet the students’ needs without having any voids,” she said. 

A couple of dynamics help explain Williamsville’s high numbers.

First, the district draws students from one of the county’s most affluent communities. Only 20 percent of Williamsville’s students are considered “economically disadvantaged,” compared with 85 percent in Lackawanna, 83 percent in Niagara Falls and 81 percent in Buffalo.

Another difference: A larger share of students opt out of taking the state’s standardized test that measures reading skills. Nearly one-third of Williamsville students — 31 percent — opted out of last year’s test. That countywide number was 21 percent. 

Balen, the assistant superintendent, said the reasons for Williamsville’s high opt-out rate “are varied. It’s a parental right. It’s not our cause to question people as to why they do that.”

There are some racial disparities in Williamsville’s reading scores. Only 18 percent of Black fifth graders read at grade level, compared to 60 percent of their White counterparts. Yet, one grade above, 74 percent of Black sixth graders read at grade level, compared to 82 percent of White students. 

Parssinen said the discrepancies raise questions.

“If you choose to use a curriculum that doesn’t reach as many kids as possible, that is discriminatory,” she said.

Investigative Post

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