Nothing is more important in education than knowing how to read. If students can't read, they will not be able to understand science, history or even mathematics. In education, reading is the foundation for all future learning.
This is why it is surprising that Chancellor Joel Klein has decided to mandate a little-known reading program called "Month by Month Phonics" for most New York City schools. All but the top 200 schools will be required to implement this program for beginning readers. Before the city compels hundreds of schools to adopt a uniform reading method, that program should have an outstanding record of success. This program does not have such a track record. It hasn't been tried out in any other large urban system, and no controlled experiments have demonstrated its effectiveness with a diverse student population.
If the program does not win approval by New York State Education Department reviewers, the city will not qualify to receive $50 million or $60 million from the federal Reading First program. Reading First is supposed to fund only school districts that have evidence-based programs. Districts across the nation will watch to see whether this program gets funded under the Reading First law.
G. Reid Lyon, who directs the reading research program at the National Institute of Child Health and Development (a branch of the federal National Institutes of Health) has stated publicly that "Month by Month Phonics" does not have sufficient published data to demonstrate its effectiveness. Since 1965, the National Institutes of Health have commissioned hundreds of studies to identify successful reading methods, especially for children who are struggling academically.
Over the past decade, reading researchers funded by Lyon's office at NIH have reached a consensus about effective instruction. Good reading programs begin by teaching children the relationship between letters and their sounds (that is, phonics) and allowing them to apply what they have learned in books of graduating challenge.
Many children learn to read no matter what method their teachers employ because their parents read often to them, and they are surrounded by encouragement to read. These children, who tend to come from advantaged homes, are likely to be in the top-performing schools that are exempt from the mandated reading program. But about 40 percent of children will not become successful readers unless their teachers utilize a structured reading program that teaches phonics, reading comprehension, writing, spelling and vocabulary.
The "Month by Month Phonics" program has no textbooks. It consists of an activity workbook in each grade, and it requires the city to supply additional reading materials. Because it is a new program, teachers in the mandated schools will need intensive, ongoing instructional support from trainers.
City officials say that the program is a bargain since there are no textbooks. But the cost of training teachers to learn the new method will be substantial. The city anticipates hiring teacher trainers in reading and math for every school with a mandated curriculum.
The cost might not matter if the city had picked the very best reading program available. Unfortunately, that assurance does not exist. The Broad Foundation recently selected Houston as the most improved urban school district in the nation, with Atlanta and Los Angeles as runners-up. These districts use well-established reading programs from major publishers like Open Court and Scholastic. Other nationally known reading programs have been validated by years of experience and research.
In theory, a single curriculum would help children who change schools in mid-year. But some 200 schools will be exempt from the standard curriculum. Students in low-performing schools will have one curriculum, and students in higher performing schools will have many.
If we could inoculate children against reading failure as we inoculate them against childhood diseases, it would be worth the cost and the upheaval. In the absence of powerful evidence, however, the city should endorse a menu of recognized, validated, evidence-based reading programs, not just one whose effectiveness is unknown.