NYC disbands literacy coaches amid reading curriculum overhaul

A book sits open on a table in front of a student.
A third grade classroom at the Fresh Creek School/P.S. 325 in Brooklyn. The school uses Wit & Wisdom, one of the three reading curriculums schools are approved to use. (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

Hundreds of literacy coaches hired under a program to help improve literacy instruction need to find new roles, even as many elementary schools are working to adopt new reading programs.

The literacy coaches, originally part of the city’s Universal Literacy Program, must apply for other jobs, according to education department officials familiar with the city’s efforts and emails sent to coaches and school leaders obtained by Chalkbeat.

The move represents a shift in the way educators who teach reading are trained and supported at a key moment. Education officials are mandating that all elementary schools use one of three reading curriculums, beginning with 15 of the city’s 32 districts this September, with the rest to follow in 2024-25. In the past, school leaders had wide leeway to pick their own programs, with many choosing materials that city officials now say are inadequate.

To help get teachers up to speed on new curriculums, the city plans to use the three publishing companies to provide initial training and then create partnerships with outside professional learning organizations, officials said.

The city’s new literacy approach scraps the remaining elements of the Universal Literacy program, launched by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016 to ensure that all third graders were reading proficiently by 2026. About half of third graders are meeting that benchmark, according to the most recent state tests. At its peak, the program sent about 500 literacy coaches to work with teachers in more than 600 schools, largely focusing on grades K-2.

Mayor Eric Adams has chipped away at the program, cutting the number of coaches this past school year to about 200 for grades K-5, with an estimated 60 coaches for middle and high schools. A separate Bloomberg-era program known as the Middle School Quality Initiative, which supported literacy efforts, is also coming to an end, two eduction department sources said.

Publishers of the three mandated curriculums have already begun training educators, said Nicole Brownstein, an education department spokesperson. The training includes various instructional routines and planning for their first unit.

During the school year, districts will be paired with an “external professional learning partner” to provide “shoulder-to-shoulder” training to educators, including monthly coaching, Brownstein said. Officials estimate the first phase of training will cost about $30-35 million for the initial group of schools.

The city had previously budgeted nearly $69 million annually over the next three years for the Universal Literacy Program, according to the Independent Budget Office.

“It’s been an expensive proposition to have centralized coaches,” said an education department official familiar with the city’s literacy efforts, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But it’s bad timing.”

‘They won’t be there now’

Some observers contend that the impact of the Universal Literacy program has been modest and a reset could be beneficial, giving the city a chance to deploy a new suite of training options that are more consistent for teachers. But others said the coaches, who already have relationships with educators, are a valuable resource as schools work to navigate a new set of curriculum materials.

“They could have been the folks on the ground supporting the [new curriculum mandate],” the education department employee said. “They won’t be there now.”

The official expressed concern that schools will have less coaching support overall, including significantly fewer days of on-site support, even if the new training efforts are high-quality. They believe that ending the program could be an effort to cut costs.

Brownstein did not dispute that cost was a factor but also did not offer a detailed explanation of why the coaching program is ending. She emphasized that the coaches could apply for other roles that will support the city’s new reading curriculum mandate.

According to job descriptions sent to coaches, some of the new roles they’re encouraged to apply for involve helping struggling readers directly, rather than focusing on training other teachers. Another recommended job involves supporting superintendents’ offices, a role that department sources said would likely involve working with a much wider group of schools than the coaches currently support.

“This group is being offered roles in making the implementation of NYC Reads a success,” Brownstein said in a statement, referring to the curriculum mandate. “Ensuring every student grows as a strong and confident reader is priority one for this administration.”

Coaching program’s impact is mixed

Brian Blough, who served as principal of P.S. 161 in the Bronx, said his experience with the coaching program was uneven, but the program grew on him. The first coach he worked with didn’t seem to have much direction or training, making it difficult to deploy the coach effectively. But after the school received two new coaches last year, Blough found the program more useful.

“The coaches we got this year were effective and came with a real depth of knowledge about what they’re doing,” said Blough, who left P.S. 161 and will lead a charter school this fall. The coaches helped P.S. 161 teachers implement and interpret reading assessments and deploy a new program for phonics, which teaches the relationships between sounds and letters. On other campuses, coaches helped teachers learn to implement new curriculums and reading strategies.

Blough said he is disappointed that P.S. 161 won’t have access to coaches going forward. “They had purpose and direction in making the teachers successful. It’s unfortunate that now they’re trying to pull them.”

The city’s own evaluations of the program showed modest evidence of success. A 2022 progress report obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request described the program’s impact as promising, according to assessment data, but also concluded that “the initiative had not yet achieved impact at scale before the onset of the pandemic.”

Most principals believed the coaches were helping their schools improve reading instruction, according to education department surveys, though some also said there were disconnects between what their schools needed and what the coaches could offer.

Susan Neuman, an early literacy expert at New York University and member of the education department’s advisory council, said little information has been shared with the council about how the city plans to train teachers on the new reading curriculums, making it difficult to assess whether those efforts will be more effective than the coaching program. 

Still, Neuman said it could make sense to “start anew and bring in people who might all have the same basic training. I think that’s not a bad idea.” 

But she emphasized that effective training requires building trust, something that coaches said they worked hard to build.

“If you don’t like that coach you’re going to resist what that coach might suggest,” she said. “These new people need to know that relationships really matter.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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