The other day I asked a friend, a retired New York City school leader, for his impression of the job David Banks is doing running New York City schools. “I didn’t realize he was still chancellor,” he joked.
At least I think he was joking.
For the last two decades at least, New York City has — for good and for ill — had some formidable figures presiding over the nation’s largest public-school system from the Tweed Courthouse. Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein drove one of the most rapid expansions of charter schools in the country, opening scores of good schools that serve families well to this day. No one misses Mayor Bill de Blasio’s divisive chancellor Richard Carranza’s radical notions about equity and “dismantling structural racism.” Even Carmen Fariña carved out a reputation as a champion for teachers, having come up herself through the ranks of the city’s school system.
What does David Banks stand for?
There was good reason to be optimistic when Mayor Eric Adams picked Banks as chancellor. He’d been a teacher, principal and helped launch the Eagle Academy, a group of six public schools that almost exclusively serve boys of color. He seemed to recognize and be animated by Gotham’s schools’ singular failure: an inability to teach reading effectively.
“‘Balanced literacy’ has not worked for black and brown children,” he said when he was named chancellor. “We’re going to go back to a phonetic approach to teaching. We’re going to ensure that our kids can read by the third grade.”
On his first day in office, Banks promised to rein in DOE spending, taking note of the abysmal reading and math scores posted by the black and Hispanic students in city schools and ruefully noting, “If everyone at the Department of Education went home and all the kids just went to school you could get those same results.” Even New York’s charter-school community was guardedly optimistic they’d found if not an ally in Banks and Adams, then at least not an avowed enemy. Where did that guy go?
Someone named David Banks traveled to Albany this week to testify at a joint state budget hearing. His remarks were uninspired and could easily have come out of the mouth of a school superintendent of a mid-size city anywhere in America.
He mewled impotently about rebuilding trust, partnering with parents, prioritizing wellness, reimagining the student experience and, of course, asking for more money despite losing 120,000 students from pre-COVID levels and presiding over the largest school budget in America with per-pupil spending that easily outpaces every other urban school district in the land. If there were results — or even visible effort — equal to that spending, it would be easier to be patient.
Alas, Chancellor Banks appears to have forgotten what principal Banks understood when he was appointed: For a struggling young reader, there is no time other than right now. If a child can’t read by third grade, odds are he or she never will.
This week the city announced that two new specialized dyslexia programs will be opened in Brooklyn, joining two others in Harlem and the South Bronx to make four. Yes, four. In a system that serves 1 million children, up to 20% — that’s 200,000 kids — might be dyslexic.
Reading experts familiar with Banks’ efforts are frustrated with promised revamping of the city’s approach to reading instruction. Members of Banks’ Literacy Advisory Council routinely ask staff (Banks himself seldom attends) about teacher training, curriculum rollouts and promised dyslexia screening for struggling students. The answer is usually “We’re working on it.”
A DOE statement released this week bragged that “over 500 students in grades 1 through 5 at 40 schools have been screened for risk of dyslexia and other print-based learning disabilities.” A pitifully small number, but worse is what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
“I see no expertise at the district level,” one council member tells me. “No one with any knowledge and expertise about literacy seems to be in charge.”
Want to build trust in New York City schools, Chancellor Banks? Teach kids to read.
Concerned with “prioritizing wellness and its link to student success”? Academic achievement drives well-being in school — particularly among elementary-school children — not the other way around.
Again, teach kids to read.
Far from New York City, there’s an education storm brewing in flyover states like Iowa, West Virginia, Arizona and Utah. Parents frustrated with unresponsive and poor-performing public schools have been fighting for control over public education dollars and winning the right to spend it themselves ensuring children get exactly what they need to thrive. They’re tired of waiting. Can’t happen here, you say?
Get busy, Mr. Banks. The clock is ticking.
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public-school teacher.