Education advocates called on state leaders Tuesday to step up their commitment to phonics-based instruction to address poor reading skills in students across New York.
“Reading is foundational,” said Jeff Smink, interim executive director for The Education Trust-New York said at a press conference at the state Capitol. “Fundamentally, it’s a civil right that’s necessary to participate fully in American society … Unfortunately, in New York, we have too many students that don’t have that right.”
New York remains one of the few states in the country that has not passed legislation focused on the “science of reading” – a phonics-based approach to literacy instruction that is rooted in research.
The Empire State, as a whole, ranks 36th among states in 4th-grade reading skills, according to testing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In 2022, New York 4th-grade reading scores fell to their lowest level since 1998.
And in Western New York, reading levels are even lower. Only 39 percent of elementary pupils read at proficient levels in the spring of 2023, according to the New York State Education Department.
“New York is very far behind,” Smink said. “We’re behind on the policy end, we’re also behind on the outcomes end, which is frustrating because we also spend the most of any state per pupil.”
The New York Campaign for Early Literacy – a statewide movement to ensure all students read proficiently by the 3rd grade – comes on the heels of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed legislation that would encourage phonics-based instruction throughout the state.
During a speech in early January, Hochul said she would direct $10 million toward training 20,000 teachers in the “science of reading” instruction. While the focus and funding is encouraging, Smink said the proposed funding is too little for a state that employs more than 200,000 teachers.
“It sends a message across the state that early literacy is a priority … But it’s definitely not enough,” Smink said.
“It puts some guidance around adopting evidence-based curriculum, but it won’t necessarily mandate it or require it.”
The Campaign for Early Literacy’s target is focused on school districts that still adhere to “balanced literacy,” a form of instruction that, in part, encourages students to guess what words may sound like. It’s a practice that education experts have said is ineffective.
“We’re trying to really incentivize districts to do the right thing,” Smink said, adding that the added assistance would come in the form of grants and support from organizations like Education Trust.
For school districts such as Buffalo’s, which have already shown a commitment to phonics-based instruction, future legislation could increase funding for materials and resources for families, Smink said.
It’s cause for optimism, said Samuel Radford, III, director of the Community Action Organization of WNY and member of the Campaign for Early Literacy.
For decades, Radford has watched as thousands of children have passed through Buffalo without getting a good education.
“We’re in a better position, locally and statewide, than we’ve ever been in the 30-plus years that I’ve been doing this,” Radford said. “There’s a whole series of education reforms that are taking place right now … this is the best the outlook has ever been.”
The newly formed campaign looks to influence state policy in four ways.
Primarily, the Campaign for Early Literacy wants New York to join the growing list of states throughout the country that are committing legislation and funding toward “the science of reading.”
This phonics-based approach teaches students the individual sounds of letters and how they form words in a process known as “decoding.”
Other priorities include more funding for teacher training and resources for families. The campaign is also calling for improved transparency of the reading materials used by districts.
Political commitment may come with Assembly Member Robert C. Carroll’s “Right to Read Act.” If passed, it would require school districts “to provide instructional programming and services in reading and literacy which are evidence based and aligned with state standards.”
The bill is co-sponsered by Assembly Member Karen McMahon, who represents Amherst and Williamsville.
Across the nation, awareness and support of the “science of reading” has grown over the past few years. And the momentum is shifting here in New York, educational experts said.
“There seems to be a lot of eyes on it and a lot of important eyes on it in terms of the decision-makers of what needs to be done,” said Tarja Parssinen, founder of the WNY Education Alliance.
Hochul’s reading proposal earlier this month garnered support throughout the state. Smink believes the Campaign for Early Literacy will find similar political support in the coming months as they advocate for policy change.
“There’s absolutely a shift with a lot of momentum, but, you know, we have a lot of work to do because we’re far behind,” Smink said.