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Straight Up Conversation: Teaching Matters CEO Lynette Guastaferro

By Rick Hess — March 28, 2019 8 min read
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Lynette Guastaferro is the CEO of Teaching Matters, which currently serves 237 urban schools. Their programs include Early Reading Matters, which coaches teachers on how to better teach reading skills. Lynette’s background includes working as a teacher, school-network leader, and management consultant. I recently talked with her about Early Reading Matters and efforts to improve how we teach reading skills.

Rick Hess: So, what is Teaching Matters?

Lynette Guastaferro: Teaching Matters is a national professional learning organization that is dedicated to increasing teacher effectiveness. One of Teaching Matters’ key initiatives, Early Reading Matters, is focused on closing the reading gap by second grade. We partner with the school to ensure that a child has three consecutive years of effective reading instruction in those critical early years. We do this by ensuring there is a systemic approach to how teachers teach reading, monitor student reading progress, and collaborate to learn and improve. Early Reading Matters is in 34 public schools in New York City, and it began about four years ago.

RH: How exactly does the training work?

LG: Teachers across K-2 are coached and mentored on a weekly basis for three years with a gradual release model that develops the capacity of school-based literacy leaders and teachers. This is supported by online resources, videos, and tools and a data tracking system that highlights children and classrooms that need more support. Finally, we help teachers work as a team to use data to monitor and advance student progress. This ensures a common systematic approach to reading based on research.

RH: You were pursuing a consulting career at PriceWaterhouseCoopers before you got into this work. So how did you wind up doing this? And, for readers skeptical of non-educators coaching teachers in instruction, what skills or expertise do you bring that equip you for this work?

LG: Out of college, I accepted a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers as a management consultant supporting public sector organizations, including schools. Time and time again, I’d meet with teachers who seemed to have a much clearer idea of the challenges than the consultants but were rarely involved in solving the problems. I also became convinced that “we” on the outside didn’t really understand the challenges. So I became a teacher. I wanted to understand the system from the inside. I spent a few years teaching second graders in a school in Baltimore city. As a teacher, I experienced first-hand the gaps in the system that make teaching difficult. For starters, I didn’t have basic data on my students. Even things like not having access to a working copy machine became frustrating barriers to the work.

RH: How was your school experience different from what you saw in the private sector?

LG: I was struck by the isolation of teachers, the lack of collaboration, the absence of mentoring, and the infantilization of the profession. My experience at the school was in stark contrast to what I witnessed in the private sector/white collar world. The work culture at PriceWaterhouseCoopers was one that thrived on motivation, team work, encouraging collaboration and problem solving, and weekly supervision and mentoring within the work. As CEO of Teaching Matters, we work to bring that kind of mentoring and these structures for working together to schools. It’s my job to bring in the reading experts, the data experts, the experts in adult learning to ensure that the teachers succeed.

RH: Okay, so why is there even a need for what you all do?

LG: It might surprise readers, but graduates of education schools take maybe one course in reading. In less advantaged schools that can have trouble attracting teachers, they often place new teachers in early K-2 non-testing years. This means that teachers who have not yet developed mastery of teaching reading are learning on children during those critical years, when falling behind has huge consequences for children. In more affluent suburbs, teachers can’t get these early elementary positions without experience. Well where do you think they get that experience? On children of color in our highest need schools. We partner to ensure these schools provide a new teacher with a systematic approach and a team they so that can hit the ground running.

RH: Given all the things you might be focusing on, why reading skills?

LG: Reading is the foundation of future learning. You have to learn to read so you can read to learn. Learning is a set of building blocks and we need to make sure that foundation is in place especially for our poorest children. Research shows that low-income children who cannot read at grade level by third grade are six times more likely to become high school dropouts. The research also shows that three years of effective instruction can have a transformative impact on kids. We need to invest early and focus on K-2 learning to make a difference.

RH: In your time around schools, what’s been your most striking experience—and how has that impacted your work?

LG: A few years back, I took leave of my position as CEO of Teaching Matters and became a network leader for 28 urban schools for NYC’s Department of Education. Among many duties, I was also the “red phone.” Anytime of day or night if the principal at one of these schools had a serious problem, he or she would call me and I would provide the necessary support. This reaffirmed my appreciation for the toll this work can take on school leaders and of the need urban schools have for a strong social and emotional support system for administrators as well as teachers.

RH: In your experience, what do teachers need when it comes to reading instruction?

LG: There’s not one answer to this question. Teachers have to teach children not only how to decode but also how to make meaning of what they read. This requires teachers to master a range of instructional methods. Teachers need guidance on how to structure classrooms so that the kids have adequate time to practice their reading in the right ways. They need to better assess each child’s reading level so they can provide more targeted materials. They need to know what students need to know and when they need to know it. Early reading teachers also struggle with managing children whose reading levels can vary widely. Finally, a lot of educators are just not accessing the research on how to teach reading effectively.

RH: You’ve talked a lot about how teachers should be more like doctors. What do you mean by that?

LG: Recent medical school graduates continue their training after graduation. They become medical residents at hospitals, where they work in groups and are supervised by senior doctors. No one would take a medical school graduate, put him or her in a hospital, give him a group of patients and say, “Figure it out.” Yet, that’s what we do with teachers. I would love to see a residency model focused on teachers developing mastery in reading before they were fully accountable for children; however, what we are doing is the next best thing. We work with the senior leadership to make sure all teachers have the time and effective structures for collaboration, diagnosing learning challenges, and improving instruction together. We believe that if you set the schools up where there’s a clear systematic approach to learning, new teachers will get the support they need and be more likely to stay in the profession.

RH: Given the general school of thought that a lot of professional development is a waste of time and money, why should readers trust that what you’re doing is any different?

LG: We put students at the center of assessing our work with teachers. In this program, we are constantly using the student data to drive and improve our professional learning. We look at the student reading assessments and measure how they are progressing. We are constantly reviewing our results and continuously improving based on our findings.

RH: On that note, what kind of results have you seen?

LG: Early Reading Matters is having tremendous success. Teaching Matters’ reading program has dramatically boosted the reading scores in dozens of elementary schools in NYC. Many of our partner schools have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of children reading at grade level from 1st to 2nd grade.

RH: As you know, multiple factors might help explain that increase. So how much of that improvement can be attributed to Early Reading Matters?

LG: We are asking ourselves that same question and are in the early stages of designing comparative studies to figure that out.

RH: Last year, the New York Community Trust announced it’ll give more than $3.6 million to expand Teaching Matters’ early literacy program to 62 schools. How reliant is Teaching Matters on such donations, and what’s the cost to schools, and what are your plans for future growth?

LG: We have the potential to grow this program to 80 to 100 schools in the next three years. But to do so we have to have a mixed model where schools cover 50 percent of the cost and private donations cover the rest. Right now Teaching Matters is covering the entire cost for 32 schools in the Bronx. The new model of a mix of private and foundation and school funding is in effect in about 10 schools in Brooklyn and Queens. We are also exploring alternative delivery models, including an e-learning strategy, so we can bring the cost down and be even more efficient.

RH: Finally, what’s the fairest criticism that might be made of your work to date, and what are you doing to address it?

LG: We are reorganizing parts of our program to focus even more on kindergarten. We have a large number of kids who come into kindergarten without basic pre-reading skills. A lot of our students haven’t had the same access to books and print before they entered school. We have too many children in January that still don’t recognize the letters in their own name. Teachers need to learn what the signs for future reading problems are and to address them starting in kindergarten. We are not looking to turn kindergarten into first grade, but we do need to identify these kids earlier so that we can get them the basic pre-reading instruction they need. Developing basic pre-reading skills in the first few months of kindergarten is a strong indicator as to whether children will be reading on grade level later on.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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