This feature story is part of a series focused exclusively on literacy. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
New York City has aimed to provide educational equity and excellence for all students with a number of ambitious, "universal" education goals under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, most notably around early childhood education with its universal preschool efforts. But like many other districts nationwide, literacy efforts also remain top of mind for the nation's largest school system.
Those efforts, aimed at having all second-grade children reading at level by 2026, tie directly to the city's pre-K efforts. As Fariña told us earlier this year at SXSWedu, the city is now offering early learning workshops for parents on a range of topics that include how to read with their children and encourage them to think about the content, "because with a read-aloud, parents have to read every page and they have to ask questions like what color was the dress she was wearing."
But the city's literacy efforts go much deeper than that. To learn more, Education Dive recently caught up with the New York City Department of Education Executive Director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services Dr. Esther Friedman and Director of Early Literacy Andrew Fletcher.
EDUCATION DIVE: A statement from Mayor de Blasio’s office last year set a goal for New York City of 100% literacy among second graders by 2026. What are some of the key ways the department is working toward that with the Universal Literacy Initiative?
ANDREW FLETCHER: To do that, we’re doing a few things. One is the placement of reading coaches throughout the districts we’re working with. So, every school within the initiative being supported by a dedicated reading coach who is specifically there to work with teachers, developing their knowledge and skill base around early reading and writing acquisition, instruction, assessment, working with resources. It’s all designed to build capacity.
What are some of the most significant ways schools and districts in the city have had to reimagine approaches to literacy under the initiative? Are there any examples that stick out in your mind?
FLETCHER: I wouldn’t say it’s a reimagining. It’s really where it’s the most support that has been given — maybe ever, certainly in a very long time — when we think about early literacy and kindergarten, first and second grades across the city. Something to keep in mind for both New York state and New York City, schools choose their own curricula. Our coaches meet schools and teachers where they’re at in terms of those programs. Our training is both what we call agnostic, where we’re building knowledge and skill-based. These coaches can work with any program. It’s more about the research and the theory and practice involved, along with some program-specific training. It’s a huge boon of support that just hasn’t been there — or at least, again, in a very long time.
DR. ESTHER FRIEDMAN: And certainly really focused on the K-2. Historically, it was the testing grades that were given much more attention in the past, whereas this is very focused, this particular initiative, on K-2.
How important is it for students to be on level by second grade? I know there’s a lot of research behind the age at which it becomes more difficult to catch up.
FLETCHER: That’s exactly it. It’s hugely important, because we know it just gets harder and harder, exactly as you’re saying. The focus on early literacy allows us, with all of the things being equal, to not have to focus on intervention in grades 3 and above, because we’ve set the foundation where it needs to be set.
You had mentioned that schools still have their own literacy curriculum. How important is that autonomy within the initiative?
FRIEDMAN: New York state and New York City are non-adoption organizations. Typically, it doesn’t mean a district might not opt into something, but historically, New York City has never mandated a particular program for all of the schools. They choose from a range of programs that have been approved under contract, so there’s some assurance that they’re strong programs, but schools get to choose their own. They make that decision on their own.
FLETCHER: Something we’ve been able to do, too, is pair coaches with schools who know that particular program. So it’s not a coach going in who has no idea of the curricula in use. Plus we do training on top of that, because there’s always more to learn.
Are there any significant challenges in achieving the universal literacy goal across a city as demographically diverse as New York?
FLETCHER: There’s a few. I mean just the size of the city alone, we’re talking about almost 800 elementary schools when we’re fully to scale across the city. Teaching reading is rocket science. It’s complicated. And because we haven’t paid enough attention in recent years to giving support and to training teachers, we’re finding as we go to hire coaches that we’re having to supplement their learning at the same time — so building them up in order to support schools. That’s a challenge.
But at the same time, we feel like it’s going very well in this first year. In our pilot districts, we’re talking about 107 schools, 103 reading coaches. No one has left us in the middle of the year. We feel very good about the progress we’re making. Most of the coaches had good entries into their buildings. Keep in mind these are coaches who, for the most part, are new to the buildings they’re working in. They were not in these locations prior. That’s a whole learning curve in and of itself. But we’ve had success especially where school building leaders have welcomed this extra support, seeing the coaches as specialists who can concentrate specifically on this work.
Another piece is family engagement, where part of the reading coaches’ job is to work with the parent coordinator that’s present at every school: create a newsletter, hold workshops. Again, like I talked about earlier with social-emotional work, we know none of this happens in a vacuum — especially in these high-need districts. We want to make sure we’re supporting family members in their efforts to continue the learning that happens in the school building. Every family member we reach is valuable, and we’re working on reaching more and more. That’s a key piece for sure.
With the coaches, how important is the professional learning aspect that comes with that sort of thing, with any initiative of this size?
FLETCHER: It’s paramount. We spent 15 days last summer training them. [It was] very much a bootcamp in early reading and writing acquisition. Over the course of the year, we provide 20-plus full days of professional learning work to them, where we cover the content involved in learning to read and write, we talk about pedagogy and how that content is best delivered, what assessment looks like, what resources are needed, the social-emotional learning piece of it all — because we know none of this happens in a vacuum, especially in the districts we’re in. And then the craft of coaching itself. How to work with adult learners. How to help folks handle change and these extra supports, because they haven’t seen it before.
What advice or best practices would you suggest to other school systems wanting to work toward the same goal?
FLETCHER: I think the model will turn out to be solid. I think reading coaches are a driver that other districts could emulate. Coaches who work for the district itself, so they’re able to be focused on the work and they can build teacher capacity, as opposed to being reading specialists working directly with students. Specialists like that affect a certain number of students, but by dealing with teachers, it’s an exponential situation and, in effect, reaching every student — not just ones who are brought in for small group work.
FRIEDMAN: I would say a very key feature, in terms of the methodology, is the research base. It’s not about ideology, which historically has been an issue. This is based on very strong research in early reading acquisition, and we recommend that.
If you look at our resources, they very much reflect a real research base and this idea of a comprehensive approach, meaning nothing is left out. No component of reading and writing is left out.