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What Superintendents, Cabinets, and School Boards Need to Know About the Literacy Tsunami

Dear Superintendents, Cabinet Members, and School Board Members,

An important national conversation about how we teach reading has been gaining major momentum over the last 6 months, as reading instruction has been in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the EdWeek editorial pages, and I-could-go-on.

Since autumn, I’ve been summarizing this “literacy tsunami” for educators. You’re the executives and executive boards of K–12 education, and I’m pleased to offer up this quick executive summary, with plenty of additional reading.

[A note to teachers, coaches, and instructional leaders: by popular demand, I rewrote this blog as a more instructionally-oriented executive summary: Field Guide to the Literacy Tsunami. It has the same points as below, but contains more professional learning info. Check it out.]

Here’s what you’ll wanna know:

1. Media Coverage About Reading Instruction Has Been Everywhere

In September, a documentary-plus-article called Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? went viral, spawning loads of other articles and a national dialogue.

Here’s some reading to help you follow that wave:

2. Concerns About Teacher Prep Are a Theme

Hard Words exposed shortcomings with teacher prep around how kids learn to read. EdWeek explored it in Teachers Criticize Their Colleges of Ed. for Not Preparing Them to Teach Reading.

A recent Chalkbeat survey says: most teachers agree.

3. Concerns About Reading Instruction Are Another Theme

Simply put, the reading research that we have known since the National Reading Panel – which heavily influenced our current standards – hasn’t made its way into most classrooms.

The refrains:

  • Phonics instruction is missing or under-supported in many reading programs, and even those attempting balanced literacy are often, well, imbalanced.
  • Leveled reading groups remain pervasive, even though evidence suggests they don’t work and there are better approaches.
  • Content knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, yet almost no one knows this key research.

If you read one thing to understand the instructional concerns, read Why doesn’t every teacher know the research on reading instruction? by literacy goddess and Common Core lead author Sue Pimentel – republished here without a paywall.

4. District Leaders Call it a ‘National Reading Crisis’

Brian Kingsley, Jared Myracle, and Robin McClellan penned a recent, viral EdWeek editorial on all of the above, We Have a National Reading Crisis – republished here without a paywall.

It’s The Must-Read Piece of this blog, full stop – and it talks directly to superintendents about what they can do.

5. Talk of Solutions is a Silver Lining

Many point to a recent “curriculum renaissance” that makes it easier to bring evidence-based practices into classrooms today than it was just two years ago, thanks to a recent surge in high-quality options.

Early adopter districts have written about promising student outcomes and tell other positive stories.

If you read one thing to understand the enthusiasm about the new curricula, read Brian Kingsley’s blog, Literacy is the Innovation Opportunity of 2019, for two reasons:

  1. Brian serves as CAO in Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), the 18th-largest district in the US, and he previously served as CAO in Wake County (NC, #15) and Broward County (FL, #6). No one knows more about improving reading instruction at scale than Brian Kingsley.
  2. He’s quite optimistic. “Vastly improved reading outcomes are actually within reach,” Brian writes. We should all know his reasons for saying so.

Additional Must-Know Info:

Two respected curriculum reviewers, EdReports and Louisiana Believes, make it easy to find the quality materials, and to pinpoint issues in any materials that you adopted pre-curriculum renaissance.

6. Parent Advocacy is Emerging

The very public nature of this conversation has pulled in parents, and advocacy groups have clearly caught this wave. Most notably, we see dyslexia advocates citing the above pieces in their advocacy efforts.

For example, a group of Pennsylvania moms recently penned an Open Letter to Our School Board that was striking because the parents were so well-informed. They made an issue of the EdReports review of the district’s curriculum (spoiler: it’s not good), and referenced research that is commonly cited by literacy leaders. It seems that Dyslexia Moms are doing their homework.

April 4th Update: Their story was featured by EdWeek: Meet the Moms Pushing for a Reading Overhaul in Their District.

I also sense that dyslexia advocates are organizing regionally and nationally, based on the chatter in the Twitterverse. As the EdWeek feature notes, “Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have exploded with parents, researchers, and educators advocating for a systematic approach to teaching reading.” I predict an increase in informed advocacy by parents.

Advice for EdLeaders

I believe this tsunami hasn’t crested yet, and that these waves will come to your shores. While I know that the superintendency is an exceptionally tough job with demands from many directions, and that school boards aren’t meant to go deep into the details of reading instruction, I still believe this national conversation should compel your attention.

Poor literacy outcomes for our most vulnerable students are the equity issue of our time. We now have real opportunity to improve reading outcomes in a significant way, and that work will need your help and your leadership.

What should you do once you have wrapped your head around the “collective awakening about literacy instruction” that’s happening in our midst?

Brian, Jared, and Robin give this advice in EdWeek:

“Superintendents should ask their literacy leaders if research insights are understood and implemented in their classrooms. They must be prepared to invest in the unfinished learning of their team, from teachers to cabinet.

We encourage superintendents to lean into the national conversation about literacy, in order to ask the right questions.”

All of that, please.

I’d add: Check the reviews of your math and ELA curricula on EdReports and Louisiana Believes. If they are not “all-green” on EdReports and Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes, you have some issues on your hands.

I share the optimism of Brian Kingsley and the other pioneers in this work, because I have seen the work in districts that are elevating their reading game with stellar curriculum and aligned professional learning. I wish I could take you into those classrooms – it would quickly inspire you, too.

We legitimately have the “potential to improve reading instruction at scale,” and that should inspire us all.


Random Aside: A Pro Tip for Foodies in Philly

This blog was originally posted during the National School Board Association conference, which was held in Philadelphia.

Some of my social media posts promised cheesesteak recommendations along with literacy insights. Blatant clickbait, I know, but also a chance to do a solid for my educator friends who traveled to Philly for the conference. I mean… Philly cheesesteaks, y’all.

I’ve discovered the risk of writing blogs around conferences… later readers scratching their heads asking, “What’s with the cheesesteak?” What can I say, I’m new to blogging… live and learn.

Anywho… if you arrived here via a Cheesesteak Tweet, here you go:

If you eat one thing in Philly, eat a cheesesteak at Jim’s Steaks, at 4th & South Street. I like mine with provolone or American (sorry, but Wiz is wack, y’all) and onions.

Pat’s Steaks is a totally legit fallback plan.

Happy eating and you’re welcome (from a Philly regional native)! If I stand for two things, it’s using only the best curricula (all-green on EdReports) and eating the best local fare in any city. This is it.



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