New York City school officials have changed their game plan for boosting reading achievement in the district’s lowest-performing schools in order to improve their chances of qualifying for $34 million in federal grants.
Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced last week that 49 of the city’s neediest public elementary schools would use a single commercial reading program, and not the citywide curriculum that was put in place at the beginning of this school year.
Those schools will be required to adopt Harcourt Trophies, a program that features basal readers, books and stories aligned to specific lessons, and a detailed teachers’ guide. In many of the district’s more than 550 other elementary schools, teachers use a variety of children’s books and a writing curriculum to complement two different commercial programs for teaching basic reading skills. The highest-performing schools can use the curricula of their choice. (“N.Y.C. Hangs Tough Over Maverick Curriculum,” Oct. 15, 2003).
Although city officials say the district’s reading program is rigorous and has proof of its effectiveness, they are not certain it will qualify for the additional federal reading money. The state’s requirements for districts receiving federal Reading First grants discourage “layering,” or the use of multiple, unrelated approaches or materials. The reading program currently in place could be viewed as a layered program, according to Michele Cahill, a senior counselor to Mr. Klein for education policy.
“The state Reading First plan does not name a particular [commercial] curriculum to be used, but it has very clear specifications,” Ms. Cahill said. “We thought that to have a very strong and competitive application, we needed to have a program that is considered comprehensive.”
The city’s reading curriculum was unveiled a year ago and hailed by officials and some reading experts as innovative. Several scholars, however, questioned whether the chief reading text, Month-by-Month Phonics, had a sufficient research base. The phonics program uses spelling and rhyming activities, as well as analogy, rather than directly teaching the letters and sounds that make up words.
At the time, New York City officials argued that the new curriculum was superior to the commercial programs that many urban districts had selected to improve students’ reading skills. They responded to the criticism by adding a second text that takes a more direct approach to teaching basic skills.
Officials from the state education department had been working with the 1.1 million- student district since last spring to explain the requirements for the grants. The state will receive about $130 million a year for six years under Reading First, President Bush’s $900 million literacy initiative. The program, which was authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, requires that the money be used for professional-development programs and curriculum and instruction that are based on reliable, replicable research. Critics, however, contend that some experts and policymakers use a narrow interpretation of “research-based.”
State education officials had not reviewed the city’s approach or instructional materials and had not made any judgments about whether its setup met the state and federal guidelines. But state representatives had urged the district to examine the criteria carefully prior to applying for the grant. The district’s application for Reading First money was due last week.
“We told them they must present evidence to us that their reading program meets the standards,” said James A. Kadamus, the deputy state commissioner of education. “We stressed the criteria and the expectations,” he said, “but it wasn’t for us to dictate what they should use.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Shifts Reading Plan In 49 Needy Schools