NYC’s Plan “Isn’t Going to Cut it”: Striving toward Universal Literacy

There are certain cruel realities that are seen in schools everyday. Teachers see the multitude of barriers students face from bullying, to poverty, to learning difficulties. Schools offer various methods to help students cope with these issues, many of which are a part of policies like DASA (the Dignity for All Students Act) that offer safe environments, lunch programs to make sure students are fed, and finally, IEPs and special education services to help students with learning disabilities.

But what we’re doing isn’t nearly enough.

One of the areas where we are having too little success is with students with learning disabilities. As a middle school teacher, too frequently I have students with reading skills far below grade level. Many of these students receive special education services, but some have slid through the cracks despite scores of 1 on state exams indicating that they are “far below grade level.” These students  — with IEP’s or not — sit beside peers who were taught in the same way, yet their peers progressed while they didn’t.

Many of these students learn differently and as a result need to be taught differently. That is where an IEP should come in.  Unfortunately most schools don’t have adequate resources to offer what the students really require: programs that recognize their distinct learning needs.

Orton-Gillingham is one of these programs, a research-based approach to teaching reading to dyslexic students that recognizes the neurological differences that impact learning. I am currently certified as a Classroom Educator through the Academy of Orton-Gillingham, and am in the process of completing the Orton-Gillingham Associate Level Certification.  In order to receive my classroom educator certification I completed over 30 course hours and  50 hours of a supervised practicum.  As I wrap up my Associate Level application, I have completed an additional 40 hours of coursework, as well as another 50 hours of supervised practicum.  As per the Academy’s standards, as well as my own, I am not yet an expert.

An approach like Orton-Gillingham is a major investment,  both in the time to train the teachers, and  in the time to adequately tutor a student. Ideally the Orton-Gillingham approach is taught one-on-one, multiple times per week, to remediate a student  who is far below grade level.

In order to work toward the de Blasio Administration’s initiative called Universal Literacy, New York City has pledged to put a reading coach in each school, focusing on grades K-2 to help reach those students that in the past have fallen through the cracks. The coach will receive  “intense” training for a single summer.  The coach will then “turn key” the expertise within the school  by teaching other teachers to help reach students before promotion to grade 3.

Yes, when students aren’t reading by third grade an intervention must take place. Unfortunately, more teacher training for the classroom teacher by a reading coach isn’t going to cut it.

The assumption behind this initiative seems to be that the teachers in the early grades could do a better job, and that the teachers can be coached to success. Neither the posting nor the description of the goal of “universal literacy” includes anything for remediation of students outside of their classroom. The reality is that some students learn differently and need more attention than could be provided in a traditional classroom setting with all of the other demands that are placed on the teacher and students.  After all, teachers have always worked tirelessly in the classroom to help their struggling students.

Students  who learn differently need to be taught differently. Often they need a lot more time on reading instruction, one-on one or in a  small groups, with a research-based program taught by someone with training, in order to gain proficiency.  The city’s plan would be expensive, outrageously so when you consider that less than half of New York City’s students are considered proficient in English Language Arts, and less than 10% of students with disabilities are considered proficient. Some of these students have obstacles other than learning disabilities preventing academic growth, but many are impacted by reading disabilities.  According to the IDA (the International Dyslexia Association), about 15-20% of the population has some symptoms of dyslexia. To reach these students, a greater investment than a reading coach in each school must be made. The city needs to budget for highly-trained reading teachers with programs that allow them to work individually or in small groups with students,  just like our suburban counterparts.

We won’t make any progress towards universal literacy without  distinctly acknowledging our problems.  I’ve only spoken about learning disabilities, which is just one issue that impacts reading. Other factors such as poverty can be even more complex.

In the meantime, teachers need to find ways to let these students shine.  While reading correlates with school success, it is not the only indicator of intelligence.  While we do our best to promote growth in literacy, we must make sure these students find other successes, and continue to grow intellectually.

This is a guest post by Christine Sugrue, who has taught middle school social studies in the New York City Public Schools since 1999.  Her passion is using field trips to bring history to life.  Additionally, she has a website,, that features ways to help students engage with cultural institutions around New York City.

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