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Let’s Start Pairing K–12’s Big, Hairy Problems With Solutions

I’ve been watching two pieces blow up in the K–12 education zeitgeist, and I’d like to submit them as paired reads.

In the astoundingly-good documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?, Emily Hanford unpacks our systemic failure to bring phonics instruction into elementary classrooms – and the cost for kids. It’s must-read stuff, and it feels like everyone and their mother is talking about it.

(In reality, everyone is talking about it in the literacy and ed reform communities, along with dyslexia advocates. The average educator? Not quite yet. I just attended the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools convening, and I sent the article to attendees as a must-read pre-read. During the meeting, I found that maybe 5-10% of those district leaders had read it. Which was just my latest reminder that it’s virtually impossible to get the collective attention of K–12 practitioners, busy as they are, being pulled in so many directions each day.)

More recently, ed reformers and advocates have been buzzing about The Opportunity Myth, TNTP’s report on our failure to get most students doing grade level work. I mean, my Mom tweeted it twice, and that never happens.

The report illuminates significant equity issues:

“Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.”

Educators are taking notice, and yesterday, TNTP’s report was featured in Fast Company (Holy Media Moment, Batman!), so it may yet go viral, as Hanford’s piece has.

Both pieces put a substantive spotlight on serious, widespread problems of instructional practice.

Both have people tweeting with angst. I see a wave of Social Media Facepalm about the issues, from the gaps in practice, to the gaps in teacher training programs, to the gaps in expectations for students.

What I don’t see, in either case: much focus on solutions.

It has me reflecting on my favorite team norm: in my teams, we aren’t allowed to spend team time on our problems without at least some discussion of solutions. Best. Rule. Ever.

This rule helps us avoid perseverating about problems. It fosters a solution-oriented mindset for every member of the team. It’s a reminder that no problem is fundamentally un-solvable, and that the best use of our time – once we have properly diagnosed the problem, mind you – is to get on with the important work of addressing it.

I wonder what would happen in K–12 education if we applied this rule: No Tweeting About Problems Without Sharing a Paired Solution.



I’ll start, y’all!

The most time-efficient, cost-efficient option for addressing the phonics gap is strong curriculum. ‘Cause it gives teachers the daily, systematic phonics instruction tools they need. Jessica Sliwerski breaks it down in ‘We need to step up our phonics game. Curriculum can help.

The most time-efficient, cost-efficient option for getting more students to do on-grade-level work is… drum roll please… strong curriculum. Excellent curriculum comes with differentiation tools for teachers, to help with the challenge of reaching and supporting our below-benchmark students. In ELA, for example, it gives teachers protocols and strategies for exposing all students to grade level texts. Some curricula are thoughtfully designed around skill-gap-based differentiation. I could go on.

Curriculum – excellent curriculum, anyway* – is an instructional catalyst, and the research says it fuels outcomes:

“There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.”

A Compelling Case for Curriculum, US News and World Report

I’m compelled by the research, but I’m more persuaded by what I’ve seen in schools. I’ve spent the last few years watching districts bring in excellent new curriculum, to high marks from teachers and improved outcomes with students, especially struggling students. I’ve watched “anti-curriculum” teachers become changed by their experiences with stellar curriculum.

Curriculum is not a magic bullet. Let me be the first one to say so.

In fact, good curriculum should always be accompanied by substantive, aligned professional development… because it should push, and elevate, instructional practice, which can be challenging at first (in a good way).  After watching hundreds of districts bring in new, best-in-class curriculum, I promise that I have no rose-colored glasses about the ease of doing so. But it’s hard work worth doing.

To borrow a line from Robert Pondiscio: while there are no magic bullets in education, there may be magic buckshot. Curriculum – plus paired PD – are powerful pellets in that buckshot, for sure.


* Head of the Class:

The pro tip for finding excellent curriculum: check EdReports, the nonprofit that publishes extensive curriculum reviews conducted by teams of educators.

For a second opinion, check out Louisiana Believes for another source of educator reviews.

Extra Credit

Hey Socialites, if you’re gonna be sweet and tweet, you may wanna share this:

no silver bullets.png




Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


  1. Let me introduce you to Remediation Plus.
    We`ve had a solution for years but publishers refuse to take it out to the market.
    Testing,analysis,systematic lesson plans.
    7 hours of DVD training in the box for teachers.DVD teaching teachers the 44 speech sounds and 90 graphemes with a phoneme deck.
    Gold standard study-
    Happy to provide PD -and to DEVELOP TRAINERS.
    We have a government agency in WI training teachers in Remediation Plus.

    Thanks for the opportunity to offer the intervention!:)

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