As Literacy Lags, Hochul Proposes Changing How Schools Teach Reading

Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed on Wednesday a major shift in education policy that could transform the way many schools teach reading across New York, following the lead of other states that have jettisoned methods experts say have left millions of children behind.

The proposal comes as education experts point to increasing evidence that the state’s approach to literacy is failing. Last year, fewer than half of New York’s third graders were proficient on state reading tests.

Ms. Hochul called for the state Education Department to require school districts to certify that their curriculums have embraced “scientifically proven” approaches to literacy by September 2025.

“This is a very big deal, because for a long time, people realized what was going on was not working. But nobody stood up and said it needs to change,” Ms. Hochul said Wednesday to a room of lawmakers, teachers and fourth graders at a public elementary school in Watervliet, outside Albany.

Like most of the proposals she will introduce in the speech, this one would require the support of the State Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

New York’s fourth-grade reading scores on a national assessment fell significantly during the pandemic and are behind where they were a decade ago.

Many teachers across New York City and the state were trained in a method known as “balanced literacy,” which encourages independent reading and includes some practices that experts say are problematic, like teaching children to guess words using pictures.

Experts and policymakers say it is now clear that the balanced literacy approach did not offer children enough foundational skills, such as phonics, to ensure that they became capable readers.

While some children can learn to read without explicit phonics instruction, research has found that most children need more systematic teaching about letter sounds and other components of language. And many also struggle without a grounding in broader topics about the world so they can understand what they are reading.

Students who do not learn how to read proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school, according to Ms. Hochul’s office. Students of color and low-income students are particularly at risk of falling behind. This is because they are more likely to live in households where families may lack the resources to provide supplementary help, such as paying for tutoring.

The effects can be long-lasting: Students who lack reading proficiency tend to have lower lifetime earnings and worse health outcomes than their peers, Ms. Hochul said.

Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, celebrated the prospect of New York moving away from what she called its “loosey-goosey” approach to literacy.

“I think this is a good thing,” she said of the plan and the $10 million Ms. Hochul proposed spending on training. “I think it is very much needed — and probably that’s not enough money.”

The literacy plan was the latest proposal announced by Ms. Hochul ahead of her State of the State address.

On Tuesday, she unveiled plans to expand consumer protections in New York. One would ban co-payments for insulin and another would raise the cap on disability payments for sick or injured people, from $170 a week to more than $1,200.

In explaining the importance of the state’s pivot, the governor found herself giving the fourth graders in Watervliet a bit of a history lesson.

“When I was younger we used to learn about phonics,” she said, adding that the approach to teaching began to shift decades later.

“They thought, ‘Hey there’s a whole different way of learning. Why don’t we just put kids in a room with books, and they’ll figure it out,’” she said. “You think that’s very smart?”

“No!” the children called out.