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New York City kicked off its new literacy curriculum mandate this year, requiring elementary schools in nearly half of its districts to choose among three curriculums. One pick dominated: Into Reading, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Teachers wondered whether the same curriculum — which has won mixed reviews from educators — would continue to gain traction, as every elementary school must join the initiative by September 2024.

Now, there’s an answer: All elementary schools in 22 of the city’s 32 local districts will be required to use Into Reading, according to the Education Department.

The program’s popularity means the majority of the city’s elementary school students will soon use the same curriculum for reading. That’s a major shift, as the city’s previous approach gave principals leeway to choose their own materials.

It represents a big bet that one flagship curriculum will help schools Chancellor David Banks achieve his top goal: improving the city’s literacy rates. And it’s also a striking outcome given the Education Department vetted three options that officials said are high quality, including Wit & Wisdom, from a company called Great Minds, and EL Education, both of which have won praise from some advocates and educators.

Five districts will require EL Education, and five will use Wit & Wisdom, including Brooklyn’s District 15, where schools with dual-language programs will use Into Reading. It’s the only district that did not use a single choice across its campuses. (A full list of each district’s curriculum choice is included below.)

“It seems like, once again, Into Reading really wins,” said Susan Neuman, a professor at New York University and literacy expert.

Some educators and advocates have raised concerns about Into Reading, including that it is not culturally responsive enough. But Neuman said there is little definitive evidence about what the curriculum’s popularity will mean for student learning. “It’s really difficult to say one is better than another at this point,” she said of the three options the city selected.

Neuman and others said the three newly mandated curriculums are likely an improvement over the materials many schools have used in recent years, including a popular program created by Teachers College Professor Lucy Calkins. Backed by a growing chorus of experts, Banks has argued that Calkins’ curriculum has not worked, in part because it doesn’t include enough systematic instruction on the relationship between sounds and letters, known as phonics. It also includes some discredited methods, such as using pictures to guess what a word says.

The Education Department said it picked three curriculums more aligned with longstanding research about how children learn to read, often referred to as the science of reading. Separately, the city has required schools to use an approved phonics program alongside the three reading programs. Using a single curriculum across districts will allow the city to scale up more effective teacher training efforts, since materials won’t vary as much from campus to campus. Students who transfer schools will be less likely to start from scratch with a new curriculum.

Into Reading gets foothold in NYC schools even before the mandate

There are several reasons Into Reading likely has proved to be the most popular choice among local superintendents, who were tasked with making the final decision for their districts. The program is perceived to be the most traditional option and easier to roll out, with more regimented step-by-step lessons. And unlike the other two approved programs, Into Reading has a Spanish version that may appeal to schools with dual-language offerings.

“It’s so scripted, and if superintendents and district teams are worried about implementation, it could be easier” than the other choices, said a staffer in a local superintendent’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the company behind Into Reading, also deployed a savvy marketing strategy. The publishing house made digital materials free for schools to use during the pandemic, potentially helping it gain a foothold in several districts. Superintendents may have been more compelled to select a curriculum already in their schools, since switching materials can be a difficult and time consuming process.

EL, Wit & Wisdom gain slightly more traction in second round

Despite Into Reading’s popularity, the other two curriculums were slightly more popular among superintendents who are part of the second phase of the mandate beginning this coming fall. Both Wit & Wisdom and EL Education place a greater emphasis on boosting students’ background knowledge, advocates say, a key element for boosting students’ reading comprehension across a wide range of subjects.

Those curriculums often lean on challenging nonfiction readings in an effort to ensure students are reading at their grade level, though some educators have said they can be difficult for students who are behind.

Some superintendents in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, where certain schools have long-standing commitments to Calkins’ program, seemed to gravitate to Wit & Wisdom and El Education. District 2, which snakes from the West Village to the Upper East Side, is using Wit & Wisdom as is District 3, which covers Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

District 15, which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Sunset Park, and Red Hook in Brooklyn split its schools between Wit & Wisdom and Into Reading. Still, other districts with fewer children from lower-income households — including Bayside, Queens District 26, and Staten Island — are using Into Reading. And some high-poverty areas, such as District 7 in the South Bronx are using EL Education.

Curriculum choices are only one part of the equation, though. Experts say the quality of teacher training and how committed educators are to making changes are also crucial. Among teachers in the first phase of the curriculum mandate this fall, some educators said they haven’t received as much support as they hoped.

“It’s been effective, but they say they want more of it — that it has to be ongoing,” said Marielys Divanne, the executive director of Educators for Excellence-New York, an advocacy group that supports the city’s curriculum mandate. “Curriculum alone is not sufficient.”

Kindergarten teacher Carla Murray-Bolling said she’s anxious and excited about the new curriculum mandate. Her school, P.S. 84 on the Upper West Side, uses Calkins’ program but will be required to switch to Wit & Wisdom this coming fall.

Murray-Bolling likes certain elements of Calkins’ curriculum, called “Units of Study,” including a recent lesson that teaches children that reading is a special power they can unlock — a superhero metaphor that got her students excited. But she also said the amount of time her students are expected to work independently can be a challenge, since many of her students have yet to master basic reading and writing skills.

“I’m anxious to see the changes,” she said, noting that she was not aware of opportunities for teachers to offer input on the new curriculum choices.

Still, she’s coming in with an open mind for the Education Department’s reading overhaul.

“If they feel it’s a curriculum that’s strong, and they think it’s good for the students, I don’t see anything wrong about that,” she said.

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