Speaking Truth to Power: One Hour with the New York Commissioner of Education and the Chancellor of the Board of Regents
John J. Russell, EdD

The New York State Board of Regents is responsible for the general supervision of all educational activities within the State, presiding over the State University of New York system and the New York State Education Department. Like the education departments in many other states, The New York State Department of Education has an abysmal record of addressing the needs of students with dyslexia. Officials in the department have failed to respond in a meaningful way to years of advocacy work by many dedicated individuals and organizations. So, when the Haskins Global Literacy Hub and The Windward Institute were invited to engage in a discussion with the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the Commissioner of Education, and her top staff, we were determined to make the most of this rare opportunity to speak truth to power.  

The Teams 

This audience with the Chancellor of the Board of Regents Dr. Lester Young and the Commissioner of Education Dr. Betty A. Rosa was the direct result of the untiring efforts of Windward alumnus and New York State Assemblymember Robert Carroll. He invited the leadership of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, including Dr. Ben Powers, Dr. Maureen Lovett, and me, to join him. The Haskins Global Literacy Hub is a division of Haskins Laboratories, which is formally affiliated with the University of Connecticut and Yale University. It is an independent, international, multidisciplinary community of researchers conducting groundbreaking research to enhance our understanding of—and reveal ways to improve or remediate—speech perception and production, reading and reading disabilities, and human communication.

The Agenda 

Since there are a multitude of policy and pedagogical issues that New York State needs to address, the first order of business for the Hub team was to develop cogent arguments based on solid research for a few key recommendations to present to these state officials. Which ones must New York State address in order for dyslexic students to receive instruction that they require so that they learn to read and write well? After extensive dialogue with Haskins affiliated researchers and practitioners, the Hub team established an agenda that would maximize the effect of the short amount of time we had to influence these key decision makers. 

The State of Reading 

The state officials were obviously cognizant of the years of poor performance by students on national and New York State tests of reading, nonetheless the Hub team thought it critically important to start the meeting by confronting the absolutely appalling results on reading tests for students nationally and students in New York State. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress that was administered in 2019, the analysis of the performance of New York State students revealed that in assessments of reading: 

  • 65% of all fourth grade students were not proficient in reading; 

  • 88% of fourth grade students with disabilities were not proficient in reading; 

  • 66% of all eighth grade students were not proficient in reading; 

  • 91% of eight grade students with disabilities were not proficient in reading. 


The Hub team decided to focus on three areas that would have an immediate effect on improving reading outcomes for students with dyslexia. 

  1. Implement Early Screening 

Often referred to as dyslexia screening, effective screeners can gauge the long-term risk for poor outcomes of word reading and spelling skills that can significantly impede literacy development in children. The Hub team recommended screeners that examine early print knowledge (e.g., letter names and sounds), language (phonological awareness, vocabulary, and RAN), decoding and word-reading skills (depending on age), and familial risk (Scarborough, 1998; Catts et al., 2015; Puolakanaho et al.,2007). Early identification will be an effective tool, if and only if, students who are at risk receive immediate research-based intervention. 

To emphasize this point, Dr. Lovett presented research that she conducted that demonstrated that the earlier the intervention, the more robust improvement. 

Earlier intervention (1st grade) results in greater ‘normalization’ of reading scores, greater gains on foundational skills, and continued faster growth after intervention ends. Later intervention works (even in the middle and high school years), but effects are smaller and multiple years of remediation are often needed. As illustrated by the following graphic, there are significant costs associated with delaying intervention. These costs are both financial and social/emotional. 

Recommendation: Upon entrance to school, New York State should screen for risk of reading difficulties and, beginning in first grade, provide research-based interventions for students identified as at-risk. 

  1. Strengthen Teacher Preparation 

Most states still do not verify that elementary, early childhood, or special education teacher candidates know the most effective methods to teach their future students how to read.  

  • Only 20 states require a test that fully measures elementary candidates' knowledge of the Science of Reading (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2021). 

  • Only 11 states require such a test of their special education teachers, even though difficulty reading is the primary reason students are assigned to special education (ibid). 

  • Only 24 states expect early childhood teachers to demonstrate their knowledge of emergent literacy, as communicated by licensure tests, state standards, or other state guidance (ibid). 

Every state should require teacher preparation programs in the state to train candidates in scientifically-based reading instruction to help ensure that all teachers are well prepared in the Science of Reading instruction before entering the classroom.  

Recommendation: New York State should require that teacher preparation programs prepare early childhood and special education teaching candidates in the Science of Reading instruction. Educators who are currently teaching but have not had undergraduate or graduate training in the Science of Reading require professional development. Dedicated, conscientious teachers can mitigate deficiencies in their preparation through professional development, but only if professional development programs are more rigorous and of a better quality than the undergraduate and graduate programs that are responsible for the deficits in the first place. 

Recommendation: Ensure that current teachers have access to professional development programs that are rigorous and research-based. 

  1. Adopt the Science of Reading 

The use of structured, sequential, systematic, explicit instruction is critical in learning to read (Birsh et al., 2018; Dehaene et al., 2010). Reading programs should fully address the five components of effective reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (2000):  

  • phonemic awareness (individual sounds in words),  

  • phonics (relationship between letters (graphemes) and individual sounds (phonemes)),  

  • fluency (rate and accuracy),  

  • vocabulary (words in oral and written language)  

  • and comprehension (the ultimate goal).  

New York's elementary education preparation standards do not address the Science of Reading instruction, and the most frequently used reading programs do not sufficiently address all five of components identified by the National Reading Panel (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2020). 

Recommendation: Require the use of reading programs that include all five components that were identified by the National Reading Panel and are delivered through structured, sequential, systematic, explicit instruction. 

Examples in Practice 

In addition to presenting research that supports the Hub’s recommendations, The Windward School and the state of Mississippi were highlighted as a school and a state that have implemented these recommendations and obtained very positive results. 

Mississippi made a focused effort to implement the Science of Reading and was the only state with increased NAEP Reading scores in 2019. 

Year after year, The Windward School has had over 95% of its outplacing students score in the average to above range on nationally normed standardized tests of reading. As seen in the graphic below, 96% of the 1949 students who left Windward between 2005 and 2019 scored in the average to above range in reading comprehension. 

Parting thought for New York State education officials  

The Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the Commissioner of Education, and her top staff listened attentively to arguments presented by the Hub team members, and there was no disagreement with any of the information that was presented. Now, it is time for the Regents and the Department of Education to act.  If Mississippi, with far less resources than New York, can change the educational trajectory of its students by training its teachers and adopting the Science of Reading, why can’t the state with the ambitious motto of Excelsior do the same?