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Shanker Blog: Constructing and Animating the Infrastructure for Reading Instruction

The Albert Shanker Institute is talking with educators and school leaders daily. Our conversations range from attention-grabbing issues of the moment to long-range plans to strengthen and improve teaching and learning. Throughout the pandemic we have featured the voices of practitioners and earlier this fall we also renewed the Albert Shanker Institute’s commitment to strengthening reading instruction and literacy. We recognize our schools are currently being asked to accomplish the enormous task of keeping schools and communities safe and healthy from COVID—including improving air circulation and revamping physical plants without disrupting classroom instruction, fill perennial hard-to-staff positions, provide nutritional and community support to students and families, and address interrupted learning. Everything must be read in consideration of a productive path forward as we work collectively to meet the needs of students. 

Today’s guest blog post from Sarah L. Woulfin (The University of Texas at Austin) and Rachael Gabriel (University of Connecticut) is no different. The deep ideas of structural change (and the infrastructure that must be addressed) offer a path forward that is collaborative, effective and research-based. The authors provide certainty and confidence in a time when we could use both. Rather than bounce from quick, one-time fixes, we need to pause to redesign teaching and learning going forward. Our students deserve our most thoughtful work.

From Why Johnny Can’t Read, to the Reading Wars and Reading First, to the Science of Reading, multiple constituents—from policymakers and journalists to district leaders and parents—have spelled out problems in teachers’ reading instruction and students’ reading achievement. Concerns about reading instruction, with attempts to convert schools towards evidence-based practice, are not new. Proponents of the “Science of Reading” (SOR) now concentrate on the necessity of teachers covering particular strands of reading instruction and using particular instructional methods (e.g., phonics, explicit instruction, and systematic teaching of foundational skills) (Barnes, 2016Brady, 2011Hanford, 2018). They apply assumptions that specific content is not being taught in preferred ways because of deficits in teacher knowledge or the absence of appropriate instructional materials (Korbey, 2020Lyon & Chhabra, 2004). Therefore, much of the SOR discourse hones in on individuals over systems and structures.

We have noticed during most discussions on the state of reading instruction, researchers and practitioners neglect the structures, conditions, and leadership—or infrastructure—enabling improvement in schools and classrooms (Cohen & Mehta, 2017). Debates about the nature of reading instruction and explanations for the nature of current instruction often ignores issues, such as resources for professional development, the alignment of available tools, principals’ communication about a reading curriculum, and teachers’ working conditions for collaborating to learn about different forms of reading instruction. Thus, many attempts to improve reading instruction fail to address core issues in implementation by concentrating only on changing curriculum or sets of instructional methods, rather than systems and school conditions.

We’ve also noticed that, even as research on reading accumulates, there are large gaps in the research on the infrastructure for reading instruction. Thus, it remains challenging to build and sustain quality infrastructure for instructional improvement in reading. Further, obstacles remain for implementing reading improvement efforts, despite increased awareness of a shared knowledge base on SOR and the adoption of practices linked to SOR.

Rather than a micro-level, individualistic approach, honing in on teachers and their knowledge, we urge a system-level approach to instructional improvement in reading, which foregrounds organizational conditions, as well as the deep-seated ideas that influence reading instruction. We describe three pillars of infrastructure for effective, equitable reading instruction:

  1. curriculum;
  2. professional development; and
  3. leadership.

With connections to theory, research, and practice, we summarize how educational leaders, reformers, and researchers can strengthen infrastructure for reading, with a focus on coherence, feasibility, and transparency.

Three Pillars of Infrastructure for Improving Reading Instruction

The SOR describes approaches to reading instruction, matching accumulated evidence from research findings about literacy development and effective instruction. At the same time, the significant research on implementation, organizational leadership and conditions for teaching and learning cannot be ignored. If seeking to deeply enact SOR and drive substantive, systemic improvement, it is necessary to attend to reading curriculum, professional development, and leadership as infrastructural pillars because they create the conditions necessary for effective instruction.

Curriculum

Curriculum is a pillar of infrastructure for reading reform, because it defines how to organize and teach particular content, and because it is a tool that can shape the daily work of teachers and school leaders. Researchers, who have determined a curriculum’s messages regarding good and appropriate instruction, can steer the work of educators (Coburn, 2004Fuchs et al., 2002). Curriculum can also be used to foster consistency in a school and across a district, aiding in scaling up changes in reading instruction and improving student-level outcomes (Rowan & Correnti, 2009).

By providing a shared set of materials for analysis and discussion, curriculum can help structure professional development and collaboration activities. For instance, grade-level teams can discuss upcoming units in their SOR-aligned curriculum and, in turn, gain collective understandings on reading instruction. 

Curricula can also be used to shape classroom practice when educators interpret and share messages within and about instructional materials (Beatty, 2011Coburn, 2001). Educators’ beliefs, knowledge, and capacity always modulate the enactment of mandated curricula (Spillane et al., 2002). Different teachers hold different conceptions of reading instruction that affect their responses to a curriculum (Coburn, 2001Parsons et al., 2018). Some may purposefully supplement the curriculum. Others may unintentionally introduce ideas that contradict the current curriculum. Still others may intend to enact the curriculum as written—but may be blocked due to a lack of appropriate materials, time, and support. Finally, teachers may reject the provided curriculum because of perceptions of student levels, needs, and interests, particularly when working with struggling readers (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006Scharlach, 2008).  The mediation of curriculum by teachers is inevitable, which means that the infrastructural pillar of curriculum cannot support improvement on its own. It requires clear leadership, coaching, and support to ensure that it is implemented optimally.

Professional Development

As an instructional element, professional development (PD) builds educators’ capacity to shift how they teach reading and to improve students’ literacy outcomes (Penuel et al., 2007). The format, focus, and coherence of PD (including how it addresses reading curricula) matter for whether it contributes to systemic improvement (Garet et al., 2001).

In our experiences across states and districts, we have found high degrees of variability in the format, focus, and coherence of PD on reading instruction, raising questions on the quality of PD on SOR. Importantly, the quality of any given professional learning opportunity (e.g. webinar, workshop, website) is only as meaningful as the alignment between this artifact and the resources, messages, and priorities in the school. A stellar webinar may have no impact if teachers return to incomplete toolkits to implement the ideas they just learned. Similarly, a full complement of resources may never be unwrapped if it is out of alignment with other ongoing priorities in the school. Likewise, we are concerned by the manner in which state and local leaders recommend  or adopt modules on SOR with little examination of their content and format, and with little attention to embedding these modules to provide ongoing learning opportunities.

PD has the potential to increase the knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders to advance the enactment of SOR (Carlisle et al, 2011Folsom et al., 2017). From reading academies to virtual coaching, a wide range of formal and informal professional learning opportunities can promote particular approaches to reading instruction, introduce curriculum and pedagogical approaches, and guide teachers’ implementation of SOR reforms. However, the science of professional development and the science of implementation require strategic alignment, framing, and distribution of PD opportunities over time. Like curriculum, PD itself has no impact without the strength of other infrastructural pillars.

Leadership

Leadership is a key pillar of the instructional improvement infrastructure, because leaders play a key role in animating the pillars of both curriculum and professional development. For instance, leaders positioned at the state, district, and school levels are involved in selecting curriculum and designing professional development aligned with SOR. District and school leaders can motivate changes in the nature and quality of reading instruction (Coburn, 2006Coburn & Woulfin, 2012Kersten & Pardo, 2007Woulfin, 2015). These leaders conduct activities, such as setting a clear vision for reading instruction, selecting reading curricula, providing professional learning opportunities linked with reading curricula, and prioritizing reading instruction in planning, resource allocation, and decision making (Neumerski, 2013Woulfin, 2018).

District-level leadership matters for the viability and stability of reading curricula, as well as the focus and features of professional development regarding reading reform. District leaders design and enact reading reforms (Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015Vaughn et al., 2019), and they also frame, or strategically communicate, ideas on the importance of reading reform. District leaders may emphasize certain components of the curriculum or particular instructional strategies while engaging with other educators. Ultimately, district leaders’ decisions and practices shape how principals, coaches, and teachers interpret and implement SOR.

School leaders also affect the trajectory of reading reform. School leaders also play an important role in communicating about reforms, developing teachers’ understanding of reforms, and monitoring changes in instruction and achievement (Coburn, 2006Gabriel & Woulfin, 2017Kersten & Pardo, 2007Neumerski, 2013). Principals and coaches interpret and frame reading reforms. For instance, after a principal engages with messages about district priorities, they make sense of which messages to promote in their school. Next, principals strategically communicate (or frame) ideas about reform to teachers, coaches, staff, parents, and others (Benford & Snow, 2000Coburn, 2006Woulfin, 2016). Leaders’ framing may reinforce or downplay SOR—with consequences for how educators respond to specific elements of reading instructional improvement efforts. This communication may result in a “telephone game” that dilutes or mutates ideas about reading instruction.

We encourage greater attention to how principals and coaches communicate ideas about SOR reforms and consideration of how to support these leaders to engage in clear, persuasive communication on reading reform.

Discussion

The current wave of SOR reforms focus heavily on how individual teachers translate the findings from scientific research in the teaching of reading. However, a more salient focus is needed if lasting instructional improvement is the goal. Students need educators who have the support of a coherent, transparent, and feasible infrastructure, supporting system-level changes in reading instruction. This infrastructure provides the conditions so teachers and leaders can work together to implement SOR, including interpreting ideas on SOR and magnifying ideas to the system-level—with the ultimate goal of improving outcomes. 

When reading curriculum, PD, and leadership are coherent, pillars of the infrastructure are mutually facilitative (Cohen & Mehta, 2017Honig & Hatch, 2004Hopkins et al., 2013). Logical alignment between pillars creates combinations of support promoting educators’ learning and change. For example, when district and school leaders provide aligned curricular resources and professional learning opportunities for teachers on SOR and aligned instructional leadership on SOR, this catalyzes changes in instruction aligned with SOR. In contrast, when there is a mismatch between pillars, educators encounter clashing supports as well as mixed messages about what counts as SOR, what the priorities are, and what changes are needed. 

Second, the transparency of infrastructure makes it stronger. Clearly defined infrastructure is comprehensible—and not deemed as “too much”—by educators and stakeholders. Transparency enables educators to understand the big “why” or foundational principles of each component of the SOR, so that educators hold the knowledge and motivation to engage in deeper levels of change in classroom practice (Coburn, 2001). For instance, district leaders should explain to teachers why they are receiving new instructional materials aligned to SOR and how elements of PD are aligned to SOR. And coaches should be transparent about how their work with teachers, who will seek to align with current reading reforms. Delineating what is what—as well as who is doing what—creates a transparent infrastructure that enables educators to learn about concepts, tools, and routines to reshape reading instruction. 

Third, infrastructure must be feasible so it can function across contexts and be brought to scale. The curriculum, PD, and leadership for SOR must be grounded in the realities of the education system. That is, they should not require extraordinary resources and, as such, can be scaled up by leaders and then sustained over time (Coburn, 2003). Similarly, reading reform should not require extraordinary effort on the part of any one educator or group, so that pillars do not collapse from leadership turnover, budget cuts, and other pressures. In the COVID-context, the feasibility of SOR is paramount or else this wave of reading reform will be experienced as a flood, contributing to educator burnout, and blocking implementation efforts.

In sum, surface-level shifts, including adoption of new curriculum, or offering PD to only a subset of teachers will fail to change deeper dimensions of reading instruction and outcomes. Likewise, investments in developing the capacity of teachers or in curricular programs may not matter if they are misaligned, murky, or unwieldy for educators. Thus, we urge administrators to devote greater attention towards simplifying—and making transparent—a robust infrastructure for reading to promote adult learning and change in their contexts.

Conclusion

The knowledge base for reading instruction may have accumulated through systematic inquiry over several decades into a trustworthy science unto itself, but SOR still needs to be embedded into numerous facets of schools as organizations to positively affect teaching and learning. Instead of seesawing from rhetoric and resources matching various approaches to reading instruction, researchers and practitioners should pause to redesign the coherence, transparency, and feasibility of the instructional improvement infrastructure for reading. 

As SOR policies continue to call for change in classroom practices, it will be important to not only analyze evidence on the outcomes of implementing SOR, but to also gather data on conditions for—and activities in—the implementation of SOR across different contexts. For example, what are teachers’ and leaders’ perceptions of the strengths and gaps of new reading instructional materials? To what degree are teachers engaging in in-classroom coaching matching the reading curriculum? Policymakers, reformers, and leaders should draw on these sources of  evidence to develop more coherent, feasible infrastructure. This may necessitate additional resources for systems and schools, so that educators can deeply change the quality of reading instruction to reach equity-oriented goals. By building systems for reading reform, rather than tinkering with individual pillars, SOR can work towards positive outcomes in a range of contexts.

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Sarah L. Woulfin

Sarah Woulfin is an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas-Austin who studies the relationship between educatio...

Rachael Gabriel

Rachael Gabriel is an Associate Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut. Rachael’s research is focused on: literacy instruction, le...