School Leaders Need Training in the Science of Reading, Just Like Teachers

Educator's view: How my district gives principals the skills to understand what they see in the classroom and give feedback on literacy instruction.

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As a student, I found school to be a struggle. I didn’t enjoy reading, and I didn’t develop a love for writing until graduate school. But early in my education career, I realized the ability to read, write and respond to text was paramount to student success.

I became passionate about helping kids learn to read — and learn to love reading. But I didn’t always have the tools and training I needed. Today I do, and it’s vital other school and system leaders develop that professional expertise, too. 

Here in Massachusetts, as in many states, schools are in the midst of a literacy overhaul that includes the adoption of new instructional materials aligned with the science of reading. They’re also getting training in these more effective ways to teach kids to read.  

That’s a big step forward. Research confirms that outdated ways of teaching reading need to go, and teachers need to be supported with effective resources and aligned professional development.

In Weymouth Public Schools, we’ve tapped state funds to help fund a new English Language Arts curriculum aligned with the best research, train teachers and hire literacy coaches, as well as pay a classroom teacher a stipend to work across all grade levels providing additional reading instruction to colleagues. Just as important, we ensured that the district’s principals, and I, also got science of reading instruction.

Training leaders alongside teachers is somewhat uncommon. But it shouldn’t be. 

In my district, principals, assistant principals and district leaders spend at least an hour a day, and usually more, observing teachers and giving them feedback. Since not all have the skills to hold deep conversations that can invoke pedagogical change, we provide training to create and calibrate walk-through tools to identify what observers should be seeing and to help them provide feedback that is thoughtful and meaningful. 

Given the major changes we’ve made in literacy instruction, my colleagues and I needed additional professional development to help teachers do their jobs well. Literacy instruction today is vastly different from how those of us in leadership positions learned to teach reading.

We now prioritize explicitly teaching phonics — the relationships between letters and sounds — whereas in the past teachers might have asked children to guess at words based on the pictures or storyline of a book. We also focus on developing background knowledge, so our students now read books and other material around important themes, allowing them to build their understanding of a topic and exposing them to more complex reading material. This also expands students’ vocabulary and helps improve their writing, speaking, and listening skills.

Sitting in professional development sessions alongside teachers in my district recently, I was able to see the challenges they faced in implementing the new curriculum, which demands more of students. And I was able to think about ways to help them. In particular, they were worried about effectively planning and pacing their lessons and ensuring they understood the science of reading and were shifting their practices accordingly. I followed up with our district’s literacy coaches and asked them to co-teach and model effective lessons; discuss the pacing with teachers; and share and talk through research and resources to deepen educators’ understanding of the science of reading. 

In addition, in training developed by the publisher of our reading curriculum and tailored to school leaders — a rare offering — I learned what to look for when I went into classrooms to conduct observations. These included clear, transparent learning goals and evidence they were being met; good lesson cadence or pacing; and high student engagement. We use the publisher’s tool, calibrated by our district leaders, to see that indicators of progress are being met by both students and teachers.

This was helpful when a principal and I dropped in on a classroom recently. The students were not talking and working in groups, which the lesson called for and which builds knowledge and improves speaking and listening skills. Good literacy instruction should foster content-related conversations among students that deepen their learning. By providing the teacher with feedback about what we did —and didn’t — see, we were able to work together to improve the learning happening in that classroom.

The district’s progress hasn’t been isolated to just a few classrooms. We track and collaborate around data in real time, using cards that we create that show individual progress for every student. Administrators and educators use these to drive discussions about what improvements need to be made, and how. We monitor students’ progress weekly and can quickly change an intervention if it is not working. The result has been a rise in test scores, with end-of-year results in reading for grades 2 to 5 over the last three years surpassing our goals and beating national benchmarks for academic growth. In 2021, we fell short of the goal of getting 100% of students to typical growth by the end of the year on our interim tests. But, in 2022, we hit 131%, meaning our growth was 31% above the typical progress for the year. Then, in 2023, we hit 146 %. We likely will surpass that this year, as our current mid-year progress toward annual growth is already at 100%.

Keeping this progress going means that school and district leaders, as well as teachers, must tap into the resources needed to successfully make this shift to better reading instruction. To do otherwise would shortchange kids and stymie the progress they must make.

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