Literacy Is the Innovation Opportunity of 2019

The most exciting and actionable innovation opportunity before us is the potential to improve reading instruction at scale. That’s the conversation we need to be having in every district office.

Right now, you may be hearing more about reading concerns. And honestly, those issues are very real. I was proud to co-author a recent Education Week editorial, We Have a National Reading Crisis, which talks about the other side of the coin: numerous pervasive issues with reading instruction.

I have seen consistent misunderstandings about reading in three districts where I have served as a district leader. I hope you’ll take time to read the editorial, as I can’t summarize the concerns any better than Jared Myracle, Robin McClellan, and I captured them for EdWeek!

A friend saw the “national reading crisis” headline and said, “That makes it sound like this is a new issue, when it isn’t.” It’s a fair point. Much of the research we’re discussing was established by the National Reading Panel twenty years ago, or by previous research. Also, as a country, we have seen little growth in reading outcomes in 20 years. That IS a crisis– and it should compel our attention.

Jared, Robin, and I don’t just name issues… we talk about the solutions that are working in our districts. That’s why I feel inspired by this moment: Every sizable problem is an equally sizable opportunity.  

Vastly improved reading outcomes are actually within reach, and that motivates me.

Here’s my evidence:

The Curriculum Renaissance:

Districts finally have many choices for high-quality curriculum that’s aligned to research, aligned to standards, and built for the pedagogy we want.

I’ve had the pleasure to serve two of the largest school systems in North Carolina. Currently I’m working on my second ELA curriculum adoption in three years, and I am awed at how rapidly the options have improved, even in that short period.

The strongest new curricula improve on the previous generation in ways that might surprise you:

  • Most are designed to promote discourse and even social-emotional learning in Tier 1 English Language Arts.
  • Some are natural springboards for Project Based Learning.
  • Many are built around beloved trade books and culturally diverse texts.
  • Some are Open Educational Resources (OER) – which means they are free to use, and also that educators are given clear permission to edit/enhance the materials.
  • Many have been co-developed in classrooms.
  • I could say a great deal about the strong support for reading and writing instruction – and that’s probably its own blog. What stands out most is a frequent emphasis on helping students become good communicators, in writing and speech. Inspirational student writing and speaking experiences can be norms in our classrooms.

I could go on. I’d suggest checking out the materials that are “all-green” in EdReports reviews, as they each have their own virtues.

Our standards call for instructional shifts, and curriculum makes them tangible and achievable. It’s the power tool we need.

The Professional Learning Angle:

The stronger curricula support more rigorous teaching and learning, which is a key part of their appeal. They are research-aligned, which makes curriculum implementation a natural, powerful opportunity for job-embedded learning on reading research. In addition, many of the curricula are designed to be “educative,” and contain professional learning resources within the teacher materials, sometimes in the lesson plans.

For all of these reasons, I have seen curriculum implementation offer the most effective job-embedded professional learning.

While this yields better teaching, it’s not easy teaching. And practice shifts can be daunting for any of us. Fortunately, this generation of providers “gets it,” and each offers genuinely excellent support for implementation. That’s the good news. The straight talk is: you must budget and plan for that substantive PD as part of your implementation plan. I promise that it pays real dividends.

If you bring in truly excellent materials, and then support your teachers in understanding the Why and the How of those materials, you will be shocked at the instructional gain.

The No Shame Zone:

As we talk of “national reading crisis,” and generations of educators who don’t know key research, this is my favorite theme:

“Educators urgently need a national movement for professional learning about reading. We should declare a No Shame Zone for this work—to make it safe for all educators to say, “I have unfinished learning around literacy.”

I’m all in on the No Shame Zone. And I hope that the reality of a national reading crisis gives us safe space to have authentic, humble conversations and grow together.

May that spirit of openness and continuous improvement set a course for us to bring the long-established reading research into practice.

Right now, I know I am not the only leader prioritizing ELA improvement, and I sense a shift in the national conversation about innovation in K–12 education. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. Four years ago, ed tech felt like its clear focus. Then last year, during a workshop, I geeked out about curriculum with Dr. Clayton Wilcox – who would become my new boss in September (who would have thought?) – and a group of educators; together we created this fishbone diagram:

Our Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools fishbone diagram. Notice that we used the largest font to write “PD.”

Still, literacy and math instruction felt like secondary themes at that convening.

But today, after revising its areas of focus, the League of Innovative Schools have Math and ELA in column 1:

And that feels very right.

Can we accelerate this cultural shift? Improving reading outcomes, and empowering teachers to understand and implement reading research, should be talked about as innovation of the highest order. Making impactful, inspiring, systemic changes to instruction IS innovation. Let’s use that language.

In addition, the curriculum renaissance and improved PD represent innovation by many providers. Let’s applaud it.  

With only a third of our students showing reading proficiency, is there any better focus for our innovative energies? Developing literacy skills is about so much more than reading comprehension… it’s a means to help students make meaning of the world and of themselves through the art of expression, reading, and learning. As I see it, the national reading crisis  presents us with both an urgent priority and a genuine opportunity to better serve children.

Brian Kingsley is the Chief Academic Officer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which serves 136,000 students in Mecklenburg County, NC.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, I should note that I joined Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in September, and we are currently evaluating the curricula used in our schools.

That initiative is a team effort. It takes a village to raise reading outcomes – something I plan to write more about in my next blog. (If I’m being honest, I have struggled a bit with this aspect of advocacy work. I don’t mind putting myself out there, and raising my voice in support of better reading instruction, alongside my remarkable peers in other districts. But I can’t emphasize enough that systemic change is about the people across that system, and the way they hundreds of people come together to pull for kids together. Look for more on this soon.)

I am so proud of our team for its work in this process, as I have been sharing in social media:

I can speak to the experience I had with high quality-curricula used in my former district, Wake County Public School System. Previously, I shared the story of Wake County’s curriculum selection and implementation process in this Education Week piece: How Systems Can Support High-Quality Curricula.

Wake County’s team selected the following high-quality curricula:

K–6 ELA: EL Education Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes), provided by Open Up Resources

6–8 Math: Open Up Resources 6–8 Math (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)