Class is in session across the state, and things are messy (especially in New York City). 

Thousands of students from migrant families have suddenly appeared on city schools’ enrollment lists. Bus drivers are threatening to strike. Parents and school leaders are still waiting for test scores from last year. And a mandate from Albany is requiring the city to hire thousands more teachers, even as student enrollment sits at its lowest level in ten years. Meanwhile, the mayor is calling for budget cuts to close a growing deficit. 

In the face of these challenges, city schools Chancellor David Banks is acknowledging the need for systemic change — and inspiring hope for the nation’s largest school district. 

“We’re going to have to hunker down, recognize that tough times are here, and be responsible,” he said on WNYC. 

“I’ve been in the system for a long time. New York City schools have a budget of $37.5 billion, yet 51 percent of kids can’t read – and haven’t been reading for some time.” 

Refreshingly, he made clear that fixing these problems is about more than just money, but also effective leadership and sound decision-making. 

“While this remains a funding issue for us, it also remains an issue about vision, and implementation of things that work. Because I could give you $100 billion, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you have the wrong playbook, the money you bring in won’t matter.” 

Banks’ willingness to rethink the status quo stands in contrast to Albany, where leaders are failing to address fundamental weaknesses in education policy. 

Districts across the state are grappling with challenges of their own – including students who fell behind during the pandemic, declining enrollment, and chronically poor proficiency in basic skills. Yet the governor, the Legislature and the Board of Regents show little willingness to face these challenges head-on. 

Interestingly, Banks is not waiting for permission from Albany. 

“NYC Reads” is part of his initiative to recenter early literacy instruction around the science of reading, rather than the trendy, but unsuccessful, “whole-language” approach that took hold in the mid-2000s (and is still at play in many schools around the state). It puts New York City in line with many other states around the country who have taken legislative action to ensure their students master early foundational skills before moving on. Banks’ plan works to get all students in the city reading on-level, and even includes special support for students with dyslexia and increased access to materials for economically disadvantaged students.  

States like Colorado and North Carolina have legislated ambitious, statewide literacy goals for all students in their states to be reading on level by third grade, as measured by both internal and external assessment. Thirty-one states have already begun to pass the benefits of phonics instruction on to their students. Many are utilizing high-impact tutoring to ensure students are also calculating on-level by eighth grade (since third grade reading and eighth grade math proficiency significantly increase students’ likelihood of finishing high school).  

Banks said he “did not come to play the status quo,” and our elected officials in Albany shouldn’t either. 

The state’s formula for financing public schools—which is now “fully funded” by Albany’s traditional standards—relies on outdated population statistics from the 2000 census and is not accurately tied to schools’ yearly enrollment or level of need. Other states have adopted simple, student-centered funding formulas which spend a fraction of what New York does and still do a better job of educating high-need students. 

Most states now utilize modern, high-tech assessments to address learning loss and ensure their students are ready for life after graduation. They are often characterized as being adaptable, diagnostic, and continuous—meaning they adapt to students’ ability-level to get them out of the test quickly, have accessibility options for students with disabilities, and intentionally do not change over time. They diagnose for English language learning needs, potential learning differences and grade-level knowledge gaps. They are immediately and transparently scored to provide meaningful and timely data to teachers and parents.  

New York is one of only three states still using the assessment system known as Questar, along with Alabama and Tennessee (who has since replaced it after several years of missteps). Students in New York are still largely taking tests by filling in bubbles on scantron sheets with #2 pencils and producing handwritten responses in paper booklets.  

While paper-and-pencil testing is an appropriate adaptation for some students, most states have recognized the need to modernize their assessment frameworks for the sake of accuracy, efficiency, and transparency. To do so, many have turned to more reliable, innovative vendors such as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers(PARCC) or Smarter Balanced, which are currently used by a third of states across the country. 

In some cases, New York students’ assessments are even being graded by their own teachers, which most states avoid as a conflict of interest. For example, Pennsylvania’s standardized tests that are taken on paper are transported in locked boxes to and from third-party grading services to ensure objectivity and continuity.  

Forty other states have invested in longitudinal data systems, which are able to accurately track students’ progress over time. This gives local officials early warning of problems as they develop and allows for informed decision-making to target intervention. These systems pave way for innovative approaches to ensuring skill mastery, as well as designing relevant career-pathway programs by utilizing workforce and economic data.  

The state Education Department’s data collection methods are less effective. They rely on outdated technology and inconsistent reporting methods at the school and district level, which confuse parents and the public, undermine meaningful analysis by researchers, and prevent the development of data-driven programs to improve educational outcomes.  

On top of this, the department is engaging in another round of revisions to our state test scoring criteria, leaving everyone to wait and see where New York’s new standard for student proficiency will land. As a result, parents and school leaders started this school year without state test results from the year before—again 

Failure to address these things at the state level makes it harder for leaders like Banks and other district-level officials to do their jobs. It feeds into a pattern of relying on short-term fixes like changing scoring criteria on state exams, or a mandate to lower class sizes in New York City (a district that has already lost over 135,000 students over the past five years). This mandate will require Banks, city planning officials and school leaders to now find the time, billions of dollars, tens of thousands of teachers, and hundreds of additional classrooms, to address only one of the many factors that may or may not contribute to a school’s success. 

What has the status quo produced in New York? The state ranks 46th in the nation for 4th grade math and below the national public average in nearly every other category on the nation’s report card. Yet it continues to spend more per student than anywhere else in the world.  

To close the interview, Chancellor Banks spoke directly to parents: 

“Read with your child. Read when you find time. We’ve got to insist our kids speak to us. Ask them to tell you about what they’ve learned.” He also encouraged parents to demand better from their elected officials at the state level and in Washington. “If we stay partners, we can turn this whole system around,” he said. “The best days are ahead of us.” 

Here’s hoping the politicians are paying attention.  

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