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Racing to Implement the Science of Reading: Setting a Pace for Achieving Success

By: Claire Cunliffe on February 13th, 2024

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Racing to Implement the Science of Reading: Setting a Pace for Achieving Success

Teachers  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

During speeches in January, several state leaders kicked off the year with strong commitments of money and resources to improve literacy in their schools through the immediate implementation of evidence-based reading instruction, often referred to as the “science of reading.” The governors of New York and Massachusetts offered guidelines, not mandates, for school districts to focus on adopting reading instruction practices and materials that are evidence-based. The Maryland State Board of Education approved a resolution declaring that all public schools must be aligned to the Science of Reading effective School Year 2024-25. With this resolution, Maryland joins over 35 other states and the District of Columbia that have committed to full alignment with the science of reading over the past ten years.

These states’ goals are overarchingly the same, but their plans, timelines, and benchmarks differ. What do they need to consider and include to be successful in improving student reading outcomes?

Translating Statements Into Fruitful Actions

It is clear that, whether offering guidance or mandating the adoption of evidence-based reading instruction, all states recognize that the training and support of teachers is the lynchpin to successfully implementing science of reading and improving literacy in schools. Declaring these commitments and financing them doesn’t mean the desired outcomes will be achieved, and certainly not right away.

In The Three Principles of Effective Implementation, our Chief Learning Officer, Anthony Kim, explains the frequent disconnect between a curricular or instructional decision and its eventual effect on learning. “Once a decision has crystallized, the expectation is immediate staff compliance, often devoid of ample time for exploration, reflection, and understanding. Leaders must then craft opportunities that hasten the learning process and cultivate the correct mindset prior to setting implementation goals. True implementation effectiveness is unattainable without a deep understanding and belief in the approach.” 

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Cultivate the correct mindset. Deep understanding and belief.

These things don’t happen overnight. New York and Maryland want changes to be implemented in the upcoming school year. Are they allowing enough time for teachers to be trained and ready to implement changes? Will teachers have time to buy into the plan? To experience success with it and feel it working?

Take a look at a recent example of “immediate staff compliance.” On May 9, 2023, NYC Mayor Eric Adams and NYC Education Chancellor David C. Banks launched “New York City Reads,” a mandate to make literacy and reading instruction the main priority of their public schools. Some details of the mandate:

  • Approximately $35 million will be provided over the next year for “training and coaching to help teachers and leaders effectively implement the classroom materials and address their students' needs.”
  • Phase One, currently underway:
    • All early childhood programs are required to use a specified new curriculum for which instructors and staff received “intensive professional learning” in the spring and summer prior to the implementation at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
    • Superintendents from 15 of the 32 community school districts had to select a single curriculum from three research-based options to be used in the elementary schools across their district this year.
  • The remaining 17 districts will select and implement new materials in the 2024-25 school year. 

For the most part, teachers are open to the changes. They are excellent initiatives that include new materials, teacher training, and staggered implementation, all rooted in the best intentions to improve literacy outcomes for students. Ambitious to be sure. How is it going? 

Three months into the school year, some of the teachers using new curricula feel they still need training in using the new materials effectively. With the decision made less than two months before the start of summer, there was a small window in which teachers scrambled to access some training, rearrange their classrooms, and get ready to follow the new path. In late November, some teachers reported that they are struggling to implement the new model and maintain student motivation that they felt they had with the old program. They have found that mentoring from trainers and one-on-one coaching helped a lot, but they are desperate for more of that. They remain hopeful, but they aren’t convinced yet.

Consider a different rollout model

In late 2022, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed the Virginia Literacy Act (VLA) with mandates similar to those outlined in “New York City Reads,” with one key difference – it isn’t scheduled to take effect until the 2024-25 school year. This has allowed time for the development of a strategy to create the various systems and processes needed for successful implementation of a plan that can scale to serve the entire state. They have used the time to gather input from all key parties–teachers, administration, students, and families. The VA Dept. of Ed.’s slow rollout includes several elements that echo the strategy guidance offered in our Art of Implementation Framework—vision alignment, implementation roadmap, communication plan, teaming, success metrics & monitoring. All key elements of the plan—communication, instructional materials, training, student and division progress assessments, and parent and community engagement—are taken into account.

Aligning to the science of reading means learning new methods, taking some steps, making adjustments, and adapting to new instructional practices over time while taking into account what is working for students. While teachers may be on board with the changes in principle, it is only through successful practice with students, over time, that they will achieve the necessary mindset for robust implementation.

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Training and Nurturing Effective Teachers

It is clear that the educators in our schools working with our students every day are predominantly responsible for successfully delivering on the promises and commitments made to the science of reading. Training teachers is key, but so is observing them, evaluating them, listening to them, encouraging them. They will be on a growth curve, just like their students. 

An article published in January by the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) outlines five policy actions that they believe are critical to teachers’ success in this endeavor. These actions are mirrored in most of the recommendations and mandates made by states in recent years; however, some key phrases that appear in the article-–‘implement and sustain,’ ‘trained and supported’-–are worthy of consideration. NCTQ writes, “States that have seen elementary students' literacy rates increase have done so with a long-term commitment to improving teacher effectiveness. They not only changed reading instruction by bolstering teachers' knowledge and skills through initial adoption of strong, aligned, coherent policies, but they coupled these policies with ongoing support and financial resources.” Might “ongoing support” allow for space and time to cultivate “deep understanding and belief in the approach”?

Measuring teacher effectiveness is necessary in order to determine paths for continuous improvement and related support. To offer the most insight, it needs to be done regularly and from various perspectives. Frequent and varied teacher training is critical, and this training must include opportunities for reflection, feedback, and adjustment as teachers strive for continuous improvement and increased effectiveness. Our surveys work really well to benchmark progress and gather feedback seamlessly from a variety of constituents.

Finding Time

New guidance, mandates, and budgets aim to support efforts to improve reading instruction and literacy outcomes using evidence-based practices. But the planning, training, rollout, and continued in-process evaluation of the effectiveness of these implementations all require support from trained partners, reflection and subsequent adjustments, incremental measures of outcomes, and shared experience to soak into the fabric of teachers’ and learners’ work together.

All this requires a lot of time. And time is the most elusive resource to access and allocate. The school districts that source ways to gain and save time will have a stronger shot at implementing the science of reading successfully.

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