New York faces early literacy crisis: Report calls out systemic barriers and calls for immediate solutions

Apr 27, 2023 | Press Release

NEW YORK – While New York struggles with an early education literacy crisis, the widespread use of non-evidence-based practices in teaching reading across the state is compounding the problem. Worse yet, the state’s earliest learners are being denied access to proven resources shown to boost reading skills, according to a report out today by The Education Trust–New York.

The report, A Call to Action: The State of Early Literacy in New York, highlights a disjointed early literacy landscape in New York. The report elevates non-evidence-based practices in teaching of reading, and shares recommendations on how state and local leaders can address New York’s poor reading outcomes by anchoring reading and literacy instruction in the science of reading.

“The early literacy crisis is a stark reminder of the impact of historical anti-literacy laws on historically underserved communities. The early literacy crisis is not just an education issue, it is a civil rights issue that directly impacts the future of our children,” said Dr. Dia Bryant, executive director of The Education Trust–New York. “Restricting access to high-quality, science-based literacy instruction is a violation of basic human rights that perpetuates systemic inequality. We cannot turn a blind eye to this issue any longer. It is imperative that we address this issue head-on and prioritize early literacy education for all children using science.”

In the 2021-22 school year, New York ranked 37th in fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores — and only 35% of third graders from low-income backgrounds tested proficient on the state English language arts assessment. Across the nation, nearly 30 states – some with local education control systems similar to New York – are increasingly focusing on the science of reading, a proven, evidence-based approach to reading instruction, through curriculum and teacher preparation programs, as a solution to improve student reading outcomes. New York’s state leaders have yet to urgently address this issue.

The report, a year-long mixed-methods study of the field, includes statewide polling of 800 public school parents in partnership with the Global Strategy Group, focus groups of students and teachers, surveys of districts, and interviews with keys stakeholders. In a time when New York State can still access unprecedented federal and state investments, this report outlines solutions to the literacy crisis through alignment with the science of reading, state guidance, technical assistance, and policy. Among the findings:

  • State leadership, including the New York State Department of Education, the Board of Regents, the Governor’s Office, and the Legislature, have not centered early literacy, the science of reading or the reading crisis in their priorities or initiatives.
  • New York’s approach to local education control results in many school districts using non-evidence-based reading curriculum in grades K-5, many of which are proven to be ineffective in teaching students how to read.
  • Parents overwhelmingly support an increased state and local focus on the science of reading, including policy changes, and want more transparency and support from schools to aid their young readers.
    • 95% of parents believe schools should make their reading curriculum choice available to the public.
    • 79% believe schools should prioritize the use of evidence-based literary instructional resources like the science of reading.
  • Teachers are generally supportive of the science of reading and see the impact of poor reading skills on their students in elementary, middle, and high school.
  • Students understand the link between reading and future success but acknowledge that mental health concerns, being an English language learner, and lacking family support can make reading proficiency difficult for many students.
  • Teacher preparation programs are a major obstacle to improved reading outcomes with most new teachers not being trained in the science of reading or how to use evidence-based literacy instructional resources in the classroom.
  • Experts across the state and nation believe that New York is in desperate need of a new focus on evidence-based literacy instruction.
  • Many district leaders would welcome more guidance from the state on how to implement the science of reading and evidence-based instruction in their schools.

“Ed Trust–NY’s report makes abundantly clear the depth of the literacy crisis we face in New York State, but also shows how we can make things better by adopting policies and practices based on the science of reading,” said Assembly Member Robert C. Carroll of the 44th Assembly District.  “I look forward to working with them and other allies to change the policy landscape in New York.  All children have the right to read.”

“For 23 years, Read Alliance [READ]  has partnered with schools in all five boroughs of New York to support striving readers in kindergarten, first, and second grades through individualized phonics instruction provided by trained teen leaders from the same communities,” said Danielle Guindo, executive director of the Read Alliance. “READ is excited that Ed Trust–NY’s new report highlights the importance of following the science of reading, as we have, and the critical role that community-based providers like Read Alliance can play in improving early literacy outcomes for all. We look forward to partnering with Ed Trust–NY and other stakeholders to make the report’s recommendations a reality across New York City.”

“Other states and cities are recognizing the important work of educators by supporting them with higher quality instructional materials,” said Evan Stone, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Educators for Excellence. “We therefore need leadership and guidance from our own state leaders, centered on early literacy and the science of reading, to have any fighting chance at addressing the reading crisis in our schools.”

“The early literacy report from The Education Trust–NY is an important resource for all stakeholders interested in improving literacy rates and reducing the achievement gap in New York State”, said Tarja Parssinen, founder of the WNY Education Alliance and WNY Literacy Initiative. “This data-driven research is invaluable in placing reading instruction at the forefront of any discussion about addressing inequities in education and advancing our own literacy work in Western New York.”

“The Urban League of Rochester is committed to the youth we serve in our community and hosts a book club as part of our afterschool program,” said Dr. Seanelle Hawkins, President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester. “We know that improving literacy outcomes in Rochester will take the help of our local scholars, volunteers, and other members of the community. We’re excited to use this new report on literacy from The Education Trust–NY as a guide to help us all push the needle of change moving forward.”

“The needs of businesses right now in New York State have a heavy focus on workforce development. In response every organization, workforce board, community program, and more have poured funding, attention, and resources into creating new training opportunities, certification programs and, alternate post-secondary education pathways,” said Crystal Griffith, Director of Workforce Development and Education at The Business Council of New York State. “All of this is wonderful, but we must step back and look at the bigger picture. If our students aren’t fully literate, they will not be able to truly utilize any of these resources to better their education, careers, and lives. New York State’s workforce needs a foundation that sets a standard for success and that starts with our students. It starts with the quality of education that we are delivering to all of students.”

“Parents are a critical, but underutilized resource in teaching children how to read. Let’s empower parents with more transparency around reading instruction and provide them with the support to advocate for and develop the reading skills of our children,” said Samuel L. Radford III, Co-Chairperson of We the Parents.  “This report gives us the data to stop doing what we know does not work and points us in the direction of what will. The recommendations are the blueprint for a movement whose time has come.”

The report also offers an opportunity for state and local leaders to develop a bold and comprehensive statewide literacy plan that includes ten components, which are all actionable, even in New York’s local control education system:

  1. Prioritize the use of evidence-based curriculum and instructional resources.
  2. Provide coaching and aligned professional learning for teachers.
  3. Ensure teacher preparation programs and residencies are aligned with the science of reading.
  4. Provide progress monitoring in grades K-3 to identify the most challenged readers.
  5. Ensure public reporting and transparency around reading instruction.
  6. Engage families to support reading instruction with their child.
  7. Build school-community partnerships to address reading instruction outside of school.
  8. Develop a seamless birth-8 approach that engages parents and child care providers.
  9. Utilize blended learning and technology to help teachers differentiate instruction.
  10. Develop a statewide messaging campaign to build awareness and buy-in on the importance of early literacy.