Bad ideas in teaching are like monsters in horror movies: No matter how many times you kill them, they don’t stay dead. That is, when you can kill them at all.

Consider “learning styles.” Cognitive scientists have searched in vain for evidence to support the common belief that one child is a visual learner, another auditory, while a third learns best through a hands-on, “kinesthetic” approach. Neither is there any reason to believe children are “right-brained” or “left-brained,” or use only 10 percent of their brain. Education is sloppy with demonstrably mistaken beliefs that warp classroom practice to children’s detriment, particularly in the rock-bottom basic task of public education: teaching children to read.

I became a second-career South Bronx fifth-grade teacher in 2002 when I was nearly 40 years old and decades removed from my own elementary-school days. Many of the “best practices” I learned and was expected to use with my students bore no resemblance to my distant memories of elementary school. Nowhere was this more true than in “language arts,” itself a term of recent coinage to replace the perfectly useful “reading and writing.” I remembered very little explicit instruction in those subjects beyond the first years of elementary school. The old bromide seemed true: First I learned to read, then I read to learn.

By contrast, reading instruction never ended in my fifth-grade classroom, which was filled with struggling readers, all black and Hispanic children growing up in America’s poorest congressional district. My school’s “literacy block” was constantly expanding to take up an extraordinary amount of the school day. First it was 90 minutes, then two hours, then a second literacy block was added at the end of the school day. Science? Social Studies? Art and music? Those were “specials” and would just have to wait. First, we had to teach kids to read.

Only I didn’t actually “teach” reading. I coached it. I “modeled” it. Gathering students on a classroom rug, I demonstrated the habits of good readers with anodyne “teaching points” such as “good readers pay attention to what characters say and do.” Then I sent them off to practice on whatever books they chose to read, interrupting them every few minutes to “stop and jot” their “noticings” on Post-it notes, which they stuck in their books until they looked like unmade beds. I circled around the room “conferencing” with my students, asking them about the books I had not read and was not expected to know. During “Readers and Writers Workshop,” as these sessions were known, I was instructed to address the children not as “boys and girls” or even “students” but as “readers” and “authors,” as if this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Once a week, I was visited by a “literacy coach” under contract from Columbia University’s Teachers College whose presence in my classroom I came to dread. She spoke in childlike upspeak, making her every utterance sound like a question. A veritable jukebox of teaching homilies, she encouraged me to “be the author of your own teaching.” But when I took that advice and gave explicit explanations or directions to my students, she would shake her head and say, “That’s not teaching, that’s giving instructions.” Frustration gave way to exasperation, followed by resistance, and ultimately hostility bordering on contempt. Whatever it was that these struggling readers needed, it wasn’t this inscrutable curriculum.

Correction: There was no curriculum. No textbooks or student workbooks. No units or lesson plans. No formal assessments by which to gauge my students’ progress—nothing that would have offered a road map or even a life preserver to a new teacher. When I asked what exactly I was supposed to be teaching, she replied, “Mr. Pondiscio, you’re the best person to know what your children need.” How could that be true or even remotely plausible? Eventually, she let me in on the secret to the ad hoc and improvisational approach that I was inflicting on my students, only 1 in 5 of whom could read on grade-level; most were far below. “This isn’t a curriculum,” she informed me.

“It’s a philosophy.

The architect of this “philosophy” was a Columbia professor named Lucy Calkins, one of the nation’s foremost reading gurus and a promoter of “balanced literacy.” That was the approach to reading instruction that emerged in the 1990s as an attempt to reconcile the long-running debate between phonics and whole-language reading instruction. The method leans heavily on instructional techniques for which the research evidence is thin. They include “cueing,” which asks struggling readers to guess at unfamiliar words based on “context clues”—looking at illustrations or the first letter of the word and asking what word might make sense. The balanced-literacy classroom emphasizes heavy doses of independent reading of books that students choose for themselves, and on “leveled reading.” Like Goldilocks’s porridge, some books are “just right” for struggling readers: not too hard, not too easy. The belief—and it is just a belief, as there is no proof that it improves comprehension—is that by reading large volumes of words at their “instructional level” (one step higher is “frustration level”), children will rise steadily to proficiency.

Calkins’s greatest sin against literacy is what can only be described as the Tinkerbell Effect: the sense that children will become good readers if their teachers would only believe with sufficient fervor. The overwhelming sense one gets after marinating in her methods is that the secret to literacy is simply getting kids to love books and stories—not so much teaching reading as selling it to children. It is no surprise that this philosophy would resonate with a generation raised on sentimental movies such as Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers, which painted effective teaching as a rejection of the tired orthodoxy of facts, rules, memorization, and drill-and-kill. Great teaching means connecting with students on a personal level! It’s allyship and unlocking their hidden talents! Calkins’s methods are seductive, compelling, child-friendly, and almost wholly unsupported by reading research.

In September, Columbia University announced it was cutting ties with Calkins and “dissolving” her multimillion-dollar Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a stunning denouement that came just weeks after another shocker: New York City announced its schools would switch to one of three new phonics-heavy reading programs. Calkins’s “Units of Study,” which had dominated reading instruction for more than two decades, would no longer be required. In fact, it would no longer be tolerated. New York City was trying to kill the horror-movie monster.

The New York City school system is a behemoth. By far the nation’s largest, it enrolls more than 1 million students in over 1,800 schools scattered among 32 different community school districts. A single district on Staten Island, the least populous borough, serves more students than the entire Seattle public-school system. The city’s districts and “zones” have historically operated with a certain degree of independence. If getting a large, unwieldy bureaucracy to adopt a new way of doing things is comparable to an aircraft carrier changing directions, New York City’s school system is the Seventh Fleet, only without the military’s tradition of saluting and following orders.

Nevertheless, the city’s Department of Education has commanded more than 1,000 elementary schools to adopt and use one of three commercially published reading programs selected by the central office. They are called Wit and Wisdom, EL Education, and Into Reading. Each has been adjudged by EdReports, which independently evaluates curriculum materials, to “meet expectations” for alignment to standards and teacher usability, including texts for students that are “high quality and engaging, as well as appropriately rigorous and organized to support knowledge building.”

Half of the city’s school districts have made the transition to one of the three new reading programs this year; the rest will follow suit for the 2024–25 school year. Dubbed NYC Reads, the $35 million initiative also includes money for instructional coaches and “professional development,” or training for teachers on the new programs, which sounds unremarkable except that surprisingly little teacher-training time is curriculum-specific. The citywide mandate fulfills the promise made by New York City Mayor Eric Adams and his schools chancellor, David Banks, when they took office two years ago to “give children the basic foundational skills of reading, teach them to sound out words, teach them to decode complex letter combinations, and build them into confident readers.” Gotham has entered the reading wars on the side of phonics.

Massive bureaucracies are hard to love or praise, but we must credit New York City’s Department of Education for commendable bravery against long odds. By all appearances, the city’s educrats are earnestly trying to get reading instruction right. But actually doing so would be a feat without precedent in American education: No major metropolitan school district has ever managed to raise reading achievement at scale, or to make higher test scores stick.

In fact, an education miracle is a reliable prelude to a scandal. A company hired to grade tests in Philadelphia 10 years ago noticed a pattern of erasures from wrong to right answers deemed “statistically improbable” across dozens of schools. Three principals were fired. Celebrated success stories in multiple schools in Washington, D.C., were found to be the product of rigged graduation rates, inflated grades, and faked attendance numbers. In 2009, Atlanta schools chief Beverly Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year, the Nobel Prize of school administration. A few years later, she was under indictment for racketeering in a cheating scandal in which nearly 200 teachers were implicated. She faced 45 years in prison but died before her case came to trial.

Every impulse in public-education policy and practice weighs against what New York is trying to accomplish. Almost nowhere are schools the top-down monoliths people assume, where states and districts adopt a curriculum and teachers fall into line, delivering it robotically. Education tolerates and even encourages teachers’ view of themselves as free agents who “meet the children where they are” and customize their lessons accordingly—or who also listen to the latest diktats from the district and then return to their classrooms, close the door, and do what feels right. That is likely to be the case with these new rules. Old habits die hard. Generations of teachers have been trained and remain stubbornly attached to ideas about how to teach reading that are unsupported by research and basic science. And while there’s always an excuse for why big education initiatives fail, New York City schools really are facing big problems with huge numbers of migrant children, chronic absenteeism, and learning loss in the wake of the Covid measures. There couldn’t be a worse time for the nation’s largest school system to attempt to overhaul the way it teaches children to read. But what choice is there? Children are in elementary school for only a few years. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for the city to right the ship.

Moreover, New York is coming a bit late to its reading reformation. In the past several years, much of the country has been swept by a so-called science-of-reading movement, which is itself the latest outbreak of long-running “reading wars” pitting “phonics” against “whole language” and stretching back beyond the era when today’s grandparents were in elementary school. The 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read, by Rudolf Flesch, blamed the ubiquitous “Dick and Jane’’ basal readers and the “look-say” method of reading for America’s literacy woes. Three decades later, the federal A Nation at Risk report blamed the problem of 23 million functionally illiterate Americans on a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Closer to our own time, the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel should have settled once and for all how reading is taught in America’s public schools. It determined that certain instructional methods, notably phonics, are better and more effective than others. “Kids need decoding. Kids need reading comprehension strategies. Kids need fluency. And putting time into those things is really critical,” says Tim Shanahan, professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who served on the panel and contributed to its report. The reading wars were over. Phonics won. A brief era of peace between Republicans and Democrats on education policy led to bipartisan support for the No Child Left Behind Act and George W. Bush’s $1 billion Reading First initiative. “And then the Iraq War happened,” Shanahan said.

If American education is having yet another Great Awakening on reading instruction, much of the credit is due to Emily Hanford, a reporter and podcaster with American Public Media. She produced a series of radio documentaries on reading instruction starting in 2018 with “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” which emphasized that many teachers are not equipped with necessary knowledge of phonics and linguistics. Her most recent podcast, Sold a Story, which was nominated for a Peabody Award, took on the most influential figures in the field—aside from Calkins, she looked at Marie Clay, who developed a widely used intervention program called Reading Recovery, and the “leveled reading” promoters Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.

In contrast to decades of education-reform efforts, which blithely assumed that teachers knew how to teach reading and needed only to be held accountable, Hanford painted a compelling picture of teachers having been betrayed by demonstrably false ideas about reading instruction sold to them as best practices by colleges of education, commercial publishers, and gurus like Calkins. Casting teachers not as sinners but as sinned-against granted teachers permission to rise from their defensive crouch and demand better training and curriculum. It also drove a groundswell of legislative initiatives aimed at mandating curriculum and instruction in the “science of reading.”

A study published earlier this year by the Albert Shanker Institute, an education think tank run out of the American Federation of Teachers, identified 223 separate pieces of state legislation enacted in 45 states and the District of Columbia over the past three years aimed at improving reading outcomes. It is telling that New York is one of only five states (along with Hawaii, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and New Jersey) that has taken no action to either encourage or require “evidence-based” reading instruction. Many of these measures emphasize the importance of systematic phonics instruction or require schools to adopt specific phonics programs. Some mandate professional development in the science of reading and require schools to notify parents if their child is struggling with reading and to provide information about available interventions and resources. Still others require state teacher-preparation programs to ensure that future educators are trained in evidence-based reading instruction methods.

Some of these reading laws get remarkably granular: Three states, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Indiana, forbid teachers to use “three-cueing” in their classrooms. That’s the word-guessing technique I was trained to use with my struggling South Bronx students. “A lot of these science-of-reading laws specify which curriculum can be used and which can’t,” says Mark Seidenberg, a University of Wisconsin cognitive scientist who studies reading. “They were written with language that was pretty much gatekeeping to keep Calkins and a couple of others out.” He characterizes these measures as a “necessary evil” and the kind of changes that should have come from educators themselves looking at substandard reading materials and realizing they’re not working. “When you seek legislative remedies for these things, it’s really desperation,” he told me. To Seidenberg’s point, legislation has generally proven to be a weak lever to change classroom practice or student outcomes. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, every child in the nation was to be at or above proficiency in reading by 2014.


Poor teaching practices don’t disappear when schools adopt a new curriculum or pass a new law. As the German physicist Max Planck observed, a new scientific truth “does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Worse, what sometimes replaces old bad teaching practices is new bad teaching practices. Seidenberg worries that having embraced the science of reading, teachers will now overcorrect. “We’re getting a boomerang effect, from a lack of explicit instruction to the idea that we have to teach it all,” he said. “Teachers just learned what ‘morphemes’ are and now they want to teach the kids about it. It’s like, ‘No, we’re supposed to be teaching them to read.’”

Perhaps the most significant risk is the common frame of the “reading war” itself, pitting “phonics” against “whole language.” It’s a gross oversimplification that could in the long run do more harm than good and even scuttle the emergent science-of-reading movement. Children need to learn phonics to “decode” and sound out words in a text, but the soul of reading is not decoding but reading comprehension—the ability to take meaning from text. Decoding is a skill. We can “read” made up words such as “brillig” and “slithy toves,” and even agree on their pronunciation once we have mastered the code of written language. But knowing what words mean is a much heavier lift. Reading comprehension is not a skill, like throwing a ball or riding a bike. This, too, I witnessed in my South Bronx classroom. I never had a single student who could not “decode.” But they all struggled to understand even simple reading passages.

Once children can decode with fluency, the difference between a “good” reader and a “bad” one tends to be the amount of background knowledge they possess and the size of their vocabulary. Reading research has demonstrated repeatedly that knowing a lot about a topic is a powerful aid to comprehension. In one oft-cited study, children who were ostensibly “poor” readers but knew a lot about baseball were much better able to understand and recall a passage about a baseball game than were “good” readers who lacked knowledge of the game. As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has pointed out for decades, a reading test is functionally a test of background knowledge. When children are reading on unfamiliar topics, they struggle.

The principal of my low-performing South Bronx elementary school, a Lucy Calkins acolyte, attributed our low test scores to “test anxiety,” because she saw children in the school engaged and performing reasonably well when reading books they choose for themselves and writing about their personal experiences. But when asked to read and write about unfamiliar subjects on state tests, they floundered, where more broadly educated children flourished. The tests were beside the point and painted in painfully sharp relief the injustice we did to students. Sacrificing science, history, and the arts to make more time for ineffective reading instruction was a double whammy. We spent more time on what wasn’t working and less time on the rich curricular content that might have helped kids build knowledge and vocabulary and become better readers. Many of my former students now have elementary-school-age children of their own. Reading scores haven’t budged since their parents’ school days.

In the final analysis, raising reading levels at scale—particularly among low-income children, minorities, and students who come to school speaking no English or who don’t grow up in language-rich homes with ample enrichment opportunities—requires a clear-eyed view of the complex nature of language proficiency. Phonics, while critical, is just the starting line. Reading comprehension is the long game. It requires patience and persistence, which are not in great abundance among either K–12 students or politicians. This makes it difficult to be sanguine that the latest reading reformation will stick this time, or that the bad-practice zombies will remain in their crypts. Columbia University, it must be noted, did not put Lucy Calkins out of business. She has formed a new company, the Mossflower Reading and Writing Project, and taken most of her Teachers College army of coaches and consultants—and her lucrative publishing contracts—with her. Her “Units of Study” remains among the most widely used reading programs in U.S. elementary schools.

If scores on standardized tests of reading comprehension don’t show quick results—and paradoxically, they won’t if schools are getting instruction right—there will be predictable calls to dismiss the science-of-reading movement as just another failed edu-fad. There will be no shortage of reading-war dead-enders eager to say, “Phonics? Oh, we tried that. It didn’t work.”

The next turn of the wheel is almost fore-ordained.

Photo: AP Photo/David Keyton

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