School Leaders: The Key to High-Quality Reading Instruction

School Leaders: The Key to High-Quality Reading Instruction
Danielle Scorrano

“A push to transform reading instruction is underway in classrooms across the nation… motivated by an honest acknowledgement—most children in the United States struggle to read” (Odegard, 2021). Odegard (2021) retells the dismal reality of the state of education in the United States, highlighted by decades of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing that about two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient readers. During its decades of reporting on the stagnant rates of reading proficiency, the NAEP results may reveal only a snapshot of reading education, but they nevertheless illuminate an alarming story. Supporting research and data illustrates that the current system of reading education most negatively impacts the nation’s most vulnerable learners across race, class, and disability status. With preliminary data on reading emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic suggesting further reading decline, it has never been timelier to harness the opportunity to rebuild and broaden a system of reading education for all children. Leaders must collectively enact change. These three action steps integrate principles of the Science of Reading, scientifically-based reading practices, and social entrepreneurship for school-based leaders: 

  1. Trust the science, follow the data 
  2. Ensure the infrastructure needed for implementation 
  3. Leverage education as an enterprise for social entrepreneurship 
Trust the Science, Follow the Data

Decades of cognitive and behavioral science inform a deep understanding about the reading brain as well as supporting pedagogical methods to build literacy skills. This body of research substantiates what has been defined as the Science of Reading. Solari and colleagues (2020) posit that the Science of Reading establishes: 

  1. A strong theoretical foundation for the development of the reading brain; 
  2. An explanation of why and how differences in reading and language acquisition exist; 
  3. A clear direction to improve reading difficulties and diagnosed disabilities; and 
  4. Insights to data collection, measurement, and evaluation.  

Research in early literacy instruction shows the effectiveness of systematic, structured, sequential instruction focused on word-level reading skills including phonemic awareness, phonics, and alphabetic knowledge (Catts, 2021; Solari et al., 2020). Related studies demonstrate the importance of language comprehension skills, background knowledge, and vocabulary building (Catts & Adlof, 2019). These findings are summarized by seminal frameworks such as the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) and Scarborough’s Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001). 

In addition to broadening the understanding of the reading brain and informing best practices for all readers, this body of science distinguishes how to target the needs of students who exhibit difficulties learning to read. Research on early screening and identification of reading disabilities helps to identify students at risk for reading failure. For students with dyslexia, Catts and Hogan (2020) attest that prevention using early screening and intervention is critical. Various studies show that certain neurobiological markers and other risk factors of dyslexia, such as family history, can be identified as early as infancy (Ozernov-Palchik & Gaab, 2016). Hoeft (2021) explains that educators can screen and provide effective early intervention for children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, citing a drop in 25-50% effectiveness with each year that they wait. Simply put, Hoeft (2021) synthesizes the data, “If there’s science that… tells us that we can identify and remediate children’s risk [of reading difficulties] early with a high accuracy and effectiveness, then why wait?” Leaders must maintain the utmost commitment to trusting the science and data, matched with tactile insight to ensure the adequate infrastructure for school-wide implementation. 

Ensure the Infrastructure Needed for Implementation
Research findings in reading will only be most effective when they reach the students and teachers that benefit from the implementation of the science in educational settings. Odegard (2021) explains, “We know a tremendous amount about how to teach children to read. Yet, all the science in the world doesn’t do us any good when the base systems needed to translate it are overtaxed or non-existent.” In establishing strong infrastructure for implementation, leaders must value the roles and needs of teachers and establish strong, cohesive leadership to meet those needs. 

“Research findings in reading will only be most effective when they reach the students and teachers that benefit from the implementation of the science in educational settings.”

Through their discussion of translational science, Solari and colleagues (2020) examine the numerous layers that exist between research and classroom teachers, which often inhibit the way research is communicated and disseminated. These layers—policies and politics, governing bodies and leaders in districts and states, higher education institutes, and publishing companies—impact curriculum and professional development decisions at the leadership level. Solari and colleagues (2020) elaborate, “Classroom teachers and other school practitioners operate in a broad and extensive system with instructional decisions made by actors and policies outside of the classroom setting” (p. 3). The disconnect between research and the classroom was exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in examining teacher access to high-quality curriculums. In a recent webinar series, “Shifting the Landscape: Reopening and Politics of Education,” hosted by Johns Hopkins University, Steiner (2020) contended that the teachers who had access to high-quality curriculums and resources prior to the pandemic were more likely to use data to assess and accelerate learning. Steiner (2020) echoed the value of strong instruction, high-quality curriculum, and resources. 

The power of strong leadership across local policy and school contexts should also not be underestimated. Speaking about power and politics related to school openings during the pandemic, Steiner (2020) cited the financial power of states and local districts to make educational decisions. Similarly, various studies point to the influence of school-based leadership in the implementation of high-quality reading instruction and professional development. Schraeder, Fox, and Mohn (2021) concluded that a principal’s knowledge of dyslexia—independent of their leadership style—impacts the implementation of best practice and support for children with dyslexia. Previous research identified a connection between teacher knowledge of dyslexia and research-based practices to support reading development (Mather, Bos & Babur, 2001; Moats, 1999; 2020; Washburn, Mulcahy & Musante, 2017), but Schraeder and colleagues’ (2021) study point to the importance of strong, coherent, school-based leadership expertise. Other studies reveal the value of effective leadership in the commitment to professional development and teacher implementation of literacy practices (Blase & Blase, 2001; Kindall, Crowe & Elsass, 2017). In a quantitative study of Chicago Public Schools, for example, Sebastian and Allensworth (2012) showed a relationship between principal leadership and the effectiveness of professional development and capacity, parent involvement, school climate, and student learning outcomes. Without strong leadership, a commitment of support, and allocation of resources, teachers face challenges in delivering high-quality reading instruction that their students fundamentally need. 

“Without strong leadership, a commitment of support, and allocation of resources, teachers face challenges in delivering high-quality reading instruction that their students fundamentally need.” 

Leverage Education as an Enterprise for Social Entrepreneurship [subheading] 
As the system of education continues to face the consequences of the pandemic for years to come, leaders must understand the structural inadequacies that simply do not serve tens of millions of students across the country and draw a consensus about the steps to improving literacy outcomes for all children.  

At the core, every school, district, and state should:

  1. Enact early screening measures for reading difficulties.
  2. Disseminate a research-based curriculum with adequate resources for classroom teachers. 
  3. Arm teachers with the knowledge and competencies to implement research-based reading instruction. 
  4. Establish a supportive system for when children need high-quality intervention for reading difficulties. 
  5. Build capacity by integrating the voices of the community such as parent stakeholders. 

In order for changes to occur, Solari (2020) calls for “pushing multiple levers” across teacher preparation, school systems, and policy forums. In a society pressed for change, it can seem a prodigious task to push for a pure overhaul. While a complex web of institutionalism, power, and politics continues to exist across American education (Tyack & Cuban, 1995), leaders should invest in systems and community-based approaches to enact change by considering key questions: 

1. Do we have the resources and infrastructure to implement research-based reading instruction and support teachers at capacity? 

High-quality instruction and curriculum can only be effective with adequate support for its people, services, and processes (Bryk Gomez Grunow & Lemahieu, 2015). A systems improvement map (Bryk et al., 2015) outlines the analysis of infrastructure needs to build capacity and support systems growth across five sectors: 

  1. The instructional system focuses on the curriculum and supporting processes that facilitate its dissemination across the school. This includes student placement (i.e. students with disabilities and individualized education plans), adult beliefs about learning and reading, and the coherence of curriculum. 
  2. Information infrastructure refers to the data collection and evaluation processes to monitor student progress and challenges. For example, infrastructure is valuable for early screening of reading difficulties in the pre-kindergarten and early elementary grades. Catts and Petscher (2018, 2020) call for a multifactorial assessment of reading difficulties across multiple timepoints, which would inevitably require an expansion of assessments, a data management system, and expertise for analysis.  
  3. Student supports involve the school community in promoting academics and social-emotional well-being. These supports are especially crucial in providing targeted academic intervention and social-emotional support for students at-risk and with diagnosed reading disabilities, with evidence pointing to a relationship between learning disabilities and mental health needs (Hoeft, 2021). 
  4. Human resources pertain to building capacity in hiring, continued professional development, and promotive evaluation practices to support teacher growth in their skills, agency, and implementation of research-based reading instruction. 
  5. Governance requires strong, coherent leadership to coordinate resources, guide reform initiatives, and work with key stakeholders to disseminate and communicate changes. 
2. Can we engage in strategic reinvention over a systemic overhaul?  
While reform is critical to face the stagnant problems related to literacy education, current frameworks on school entrepreneurship do not necessarily require a complete infrastructural overhaul to ignite change. Reform, however, does call for a reprioritization and reinvention of time and resources and a sustained commitment to the implementation of research-based reading instruction and professional development. Bricolage, the process of repurposing available physical, social, institutional, and financial resources that may have previously been seemingly ignored, is one entrepreneurial perspective that could benefit school leaders as they advance the Science of Reading in their contexts (Baker & Nelson, 2005). An assessment of the system can help facilitate the combination of new and existing resources available to further change (Baker & Nelson, 2005). 
3. How do we scale up effective interventions that already exist in smaller contexts? 
The scaling up of small-scale interventions requires the continued collaboration and networked involvement across communities of schools, research institutions, and policy leaders. In examining the scalability of educational innovations, Levin (2013) acknowledges that it can be quite difficult. Specifically, with over 100,000 schools in 14,000 districts across the nation, the decentralized structure of United States’ education results in a complex political environment for enacting large-scale change (Levin, 2013). From a research perspective, Levin (2013) proposes, “Small-scale innovations should… be seen as promising ideas requiring further study before widespread adoption.” Similarly, Solari and colleagues (2020) explain that research should explore the conditions that facilitate the effectiveness of reading interventions through large-scale population studies. They elaborate with the targeted goal to understand effective reading instruction for diverse learners across race, culture, language, and socio-economic status (Solari et al., 2020).  
Practitioners and leaders are equally responsible for the implementation of research in school contexts. Levin (2013) contends that increased open access to outcomes and cost of implementation will facilitate the further understanding of the ways in which research and data aligns in school contexts. A networked community of schools can promote further conversation about successes and challenges. Similar to Bryk and colleagues’ (2015) examination of systems, Levin (2013) presents criteria to scaling up innovations at larger scales, including cost, human capacity, tools and infrastructure, political factors, and community-based factors. Human capacity and infrastructural resources perhaps hold the most significant implications for supporting the nation’s teachers to implement research-based reading instruction. Individualized literacy coaching, for example, has been well-documented as an effective professional development support for teachers in building their agency, skills, and implementation of reading instruction in classrooms (Brady et al., 2009; Carlisle & Berebitsky, 2010; Desimone & Pak, 2017; Kraft & Blazar, 2018; Kraft & Papay, 2014). However, variability in effectiveness and fidelity exists at larger scales, particularly due to factors related to human capacity and resources (Kraft & Blazar, 2017, 2018). Other criteria cited by Levin (2013), such as political and community-factors underscore the importance of advocacy support and the integration of diverse stakeholders in furthering the application of the Science of Reading and supporting practices in schools and communities. 

Examples of success do offer promise for scaling up the effective implementation of the Science of Reading, supporting research-based practices, and systems of professional development at scale. The state of Mississippi, for example, made national headlines in 2019 for the sharp increase in their fourth and eighth grade NAEP scores, when they built the capacity to implement a research-based reading curriculum and pedagogy; supported teachers with sustained, systematic professional development and coaching; and expanded systems of data collection and evaluation with multiple assessments to measure impact. Mississippi coordinated their efforts from state policy reform, further centralizing their initiatives and enabling them to commit to school reform across a continuum throughout the state.  

The Stakes and Opportunities are High
It takes more than an ideological shift to further advance the Science of Reading and supportive research-based practices across all school contexts. As this article has examined, barriers exist related to (1) the communication of the science in a way that is applicable and effective in schools; (2) the commitment and coordination from school and district leaders; and (3) the allocation of adequate resources to support its implementation. Clearly, while these issues are apparent across the system of education, there are widespread disparities that disproportionately impact the nation’s most vulnerable populations — forcing the urgency for change. Pressing reform comes when we recognize that the stakes are high, and the opportunities to disrupt the educational status quo (Battilana, Leca & Boxenbaum, 2009) have even broader and deeper implications for the livelihood of all our children.