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School & District Management Opinion

It’s Not Just Teachers Who Need a Lesson in the Science of Reading

Why aren’t administrators required to know more about reading development?
By Gail E. Lovette & Kenni L. Alden — December 16, 2019 5 min read
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Despite the billions of dollars devoted to improving reading outcomes, the 2019 NAEP results confirm that our country remains mired in a decades-long literacy crisis: Nearly two-thirds of our nation’s 4th and 8th grade students are reading below proficient levels. In response, education and mainstream media have focused on gaps in teachers’ knowledge of the settled science of reading development, as well as the widespread implementation of popular but disproven and ineffectual instructional approaches for teaching reading.

Backed by powerful dyslexia advocacy groups, some state legislatures have reacted by proposing and enacting policies to target teacher-preparation programs, mandating that both pre-service and practicing teachers receive additional training, and in some cases, demonstrate their understanding of the science of reading on a required assessment to receive or renew their teaching licensure.

Would the school, district, and state educational leaders in your community be able to demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading?"

Teachers, however, do not work in a vacuum. Collectively and individually, they seldom have the autonomy or the authority to implement significant changes to ineffective district-mandated reading assessments and curricula. Moreover, teacher evaluations are often linked to their fidelity to implementation of these curricula. Although research has found that instructional leadership is the second most important school-related factor contributing to what students learn in school (after classroom instruction), the role of school and district leaders in perpetuating these poor reading outcomes has been largely overlooked.

An estimated 90,400 principals work with over 3 million full-time teachers and 50 million students in K-12 public schools each year. On a daily basis, school leaders face decisions that significantly affect the quality of the instructional programs delivered in their schools. Such decisions include analyzing student data, selecting and monitoring assessment and curricular materials, developing master schedules, and observing and evaluating classroom instruction.

In fact, almost all public school principals report having major input in evaluating current teachers (95 percent) and hiring new ones (87 percent), and more than two-thirds report determining the content of the professional development provided within their schools (68 percent).

Yet, as the demands for teachers to demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading increase, are there similar requirements for those who lead them? Would the school, district, and state educational leaders in your community be able to demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading?

Two high-profile examples offer some insight. During her recent tenure as the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña was a vocal advocate for balanced literacy and mandated that all city schools reinstate this questionable practice with little research supporting its efficacy. Likewise, in the 2018 radio documentary “Hard Words,” journalist Emily Hanford reported that the chief academic officer of a large school district in Pennsylvania told her that he knew “little about how children learn to read or how reading should be taught” because he had previously only taught in middle and high schools. Hanford reports that it was only after this CAO turned to the internet to research the district’s poor performance in reading that he realized discredited methods of reading instruction were being widely implemented in classrooms throughout his district. He then took commendable steps to improve reading instruction and, ultimately, reading outcomes for all students in the district, starting with his own self-propelled education in reading development.

Individuals with only minimal knowledge of the science of reading assuming top instructional leadership positions at district and state levels is both troubling and all too common. This September, we surveyed the regulations of 51 state educational agencies (the 50 states and the District of Columbia) to see what, if any, knowledge of the science of reading is required for licensure as an administrator in each state. Our results were as disappointing as they were revealing. Currently, no state agency requires that individuals seeking initial, or renewing current, administrator licensure demonstrate knowledge of the science of reading.

One possible explanation for the lack of reading development requirements could be the state educational agencies’ reliance on administrator candidates’ prior teaching experience. All but five of the state agencies require a minimum of two years of school-based experience; however, the nature of this mandated experience varies greatly. Some agencies accept school counseling, nursing, and other support positions as qualifying experience. Others require licensed classroom teaching experience but do not specify grade level or content.

Not one agency requires classroom experience within a specific subject area (elementary reading or otherwise) for initial administrator licensure, and all but six offered administrator licensure that spans grades K-12.

In other words, the vast majority of state educational agencies grant administrator licensure that allows for leadership at the early elementary level—a critical time in children’s reading development—to educators with neither the experience nor the demonstrated knowledge of the science of reading to act as effective instructional leaders for teachers at that level.

Considering our findings, we argue that it is imperative to acknowledge the crucial role that school and district leadership play in ensuring that all students receive scientifically aligned and evidence-based reading instruction. We cannot expect those with minimal knowledge to effectively lead the systemic and systematic curricular and instructional overhaul in reading that is long overdue, nor can we expect teachers alone to transform deeply rooted beliefs and widespread, ineffective practices.

As a nation, we must demand that all school, district, and state leaders are held to at least the same standards of knowledge and mastery in the science of reading and effective reading instruction as the teachers they lead. The only way to ensure this is for state education agencies to explicitly require and assess this knowledge for all leaders seeking—or renewing—administrator licensure.

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