School & District Management

Principals Have a Lead Role in the ‘Science of Reading.’ Are They Ready?

By Olina Banerji — May 24, 2024 9 min read
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This is the first of two stories about how to support principals in the work of shifting how schools teach reading. Read about principals’ own learning trajectories in part 2.

Nathaniel Messick thought he’d learned a lot about reading. The biology teacher-turned-principal of the Fertile-Beltrami school in northwest Minnesota had little knowledge about “evidence-based” literacy instruction when he first took on the role in 2014, so he taught himself the basics by reading the teacher guides that were part of the school’s curriculum. Hoping to become more valuable as an instruction leader, he even put himself through the LETRS for Leaders training program, which took him deep into the research about how children learn to read.

But Messick has had no time to rest on his laurels. In 2023, Minnesota became one of the 38 states to pass legislation overhauling how reading is taught. Like those others, the state is trying to shift towards a vast body of theoretical knowledge and practice called the “science of reading.”

The new law brought with it a tightly curated set of three curricular choices, new screening tools that must be applied to all grades, and brand-new professional development for teachers.

Messick is especially nervous about the last part. It means he’s got to cajole his staff—teachers, literacy coaches, paraprofessionals, and assistant principals—to change the way they’ve taught reading for the last decade. And he has to retrain himself for unfamiliar aspects of the new curriculum, which is supposed to be more culturally responsive.

“Teachers understand that reading well is the foundation of everything. But they are overwhelmed, … worried about when they’ll find the time to learn [a new curriculum],” Messick said. “I’m trying to find ways to do this well. But we don’t have a choice. It’s the law now.”

Messick’s conundrum is one that principals all over the United States are facing as they shift practices on reading.

Principals are a linchpin to the success or failure of any school’s instructional reform, but despite decades of research showing the link between principals, student achievement, and teacher satisfaction, the contours of their role as instructional leaders aren’t always clear, experts say. Principals are treated, at best, as supporting cast members.

“In the last 20 years of education reform, the entire orientation has been to stay close to the classroom. The policy instinct is to think of teachers first, get them what they need,” said Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instructional Partners, which works with school districts to train teachers and principals on using evidence-based curricula. “But very rarely do we think through what principals need to know and do to make this change happen.”

Building principal knowledge on ‘science of reading’ shifts

In the text of Minnesota’s new reading law, for instance, there are extensive directives to schools on the content and frequency of teacher training. Training for principals—which isn’t specifically differentiated from teacher training in the law—is only mentioned in a reference to unspent district funds. Minnesota’s state legislature has earmarked $70 million to implement the new reading law.

“Maybe it feels too hierarchical, too removed [from the classroom] to focus on what school leaders need to know about instruction. But we’ve paid the price for that over and over. We simply have to change that strategy,” Freitag added.

For one thing, the science of reading doesn’t come neatly in a box of textbooks; it’s a body of knowledge that braids together numerous strands of research. That’s why, said Freitag, it’s important for principals to be steeped in the science. The distinct components—phonics, language structure, reading comprehension, writing, and building knowledge—all work in tandem, and principals need to know how these parts are connected to each other, where they’re embedded in the curriculum, and making sure lessons attend to each.

Maybe it feels too hierarchical, too removed [from the classroom] to focus on what school leaders need to know about instruction. But we’ve paid the price for that over and over.

“Anyone observing can know if the curriculum is being used. But principals need to know if it’s being used well. They also need to know what parts teachers are likely to skip,” said Freitag.

It’s complicated to build this depth of knowledge quickly. Before Kathy Daugherty, the coordinator for reading and RTI for the Murfreesboro district in Tennessee, took on the challenge, the district had been using a “hodgepodge” of reading techniques and modules from the lesson marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers.

“Everything you heard on Sold A Story was happening in our district,” Daugherty said, referring to a popular 2021 podcast about how reading curricula used by schools had long eschewed the evidence-based practices associated with the science of reading.

Staci Pollock teaches reading comprehension to her second grade class at Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., on May 25, 2022.
Read-alouds—like the one Staci Pollock is teaching in a 2nd grade class at Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.—introduce content knowledge and spur conversations among students who are still mastering reading fundamentals.
Kate Medley for Education Week

Daugherty’s job was to bring coherence in the district’s literacy instruction. She needed to attack on two fronts: to implement an explicit approach to word-reading that begins with manipulating sounds and letters in parallel with improving comprehension. And principals had to be trained alongside teachers.

Murfreesboro, which has 13 schools and about 750 teachers, created an in-house literacy network—a system of district literacy experts—who train teachers and coaches in the schools. Principals attend the same meetings.

“Some of the principals even attended our summer bootcamp on the sounds-first approach when we first started,” said Daugherty. In addition to this general training, the network hosts a monthly meeting with principals separately, to discuss new instructional strategies and identify challenges that principals may face in implementing the curriculum.

The principal’s delicate job of working with teachers on reading

About a decade ago, Kirsten Jennette was an elementary school principal in the Seaford. Del., district as it switched to the Bookworms reading curriculum. Jennette was tasked with implementing a switchover much like Murfreesboro’s—from guided reading, which relies heavily on tiered books assigned on the basis of iffy gauges of students’ reading levels, to the science of reading.

The new curriculum didn’t raise any red flags for Jennette, when she first spent time learning it. In fact, she liked how it threaded together instructional strategies across grades. But getting her teachers on board was a whole other story.

“The curriculum has a specific way of teaching letters in kindergarten. It focuses on the letters ‘b’ and ‘m’ before any others. Teachers found that strange because they were used to starting with ‘a,’” said Jennette.

For the first few years of implementation, Jennette simply asked her teachers to implement the strategies, without worrying too much about the background science. Implicitly, she also asked teachers to trust her. What helped, said Jennette, was that both principals and teachers were trained on smaller chunks of teaching techniques instead of everything at once.

First, they’d learn strategies to teach the whole class to read together, and then move on to tailoring instruction to skills each student needed extra help on. It helped teachers adjust to the new curriculum, and for principals like Jennette, giving feedback wasn’t overwhelming.

Jennette wasn’t afraid of putting her foot down if her teachers resisted the curriculum or questioned it too much; she trusted that its creators knew more about translating research into practice than she or they did. What helped, Jennette said, was that she always presented herself as a partner to the teachers in their inquiries. She would carry back teachers’ questions about the lesson plans to the curriculum designer to get answers.

The state of North Carolina is taking measures to improve reading rates in elementary schools, including this classroom at Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.
The state of North Carolina is taking measures to improve reading rates in elementary schools, including this classroom at Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.
Kate Medley for Education Week

Teacher attitudes also shifted as the receipts came back—the school’s literacy scores improved across grades. By the second year of the implementation, teacher professional learning teams had begun to address the deeper science behind the instructional strategies.

Principals use ‘learning walks’ to support shift to ‘science of reading’

One of the key characteristics of an effective principal, as detailed in the research, is their ability to support their teachers on instructional strategies.

Murfreesboro’s main intervention with principals on that front was training them on how to do an observational learning walk in their school. The purpose of the walk is to observe how teachers enact the curriculum in action and give teachers granular feedback on specific instructional decisions.

Each observation could target something different. For instance, if a class is supposed to work on decoding, principals must look for specific signs: Are the students sounding out words? Are they manipulating letter sounds? Are they encoding—writing the letters and words down? On their learning walks, principals need to pay special attention to the sequence of the lessons—decoding letters, for instance, generally comes before writing, and alongside knowledge building.

Learning walks also highlight where teachers have let old habits slip back.

“I don’t think it’s intentional. Teachers had their first training back in 2021. There is a tendency to go back to what’s comfortable,” Daugherty said. “We noticed on our walks that teachers weren’t spending two to three minutes manipulating sounds at the start of their class, like they’re supposed to.”

That accountability component is critical and can distinguish what principals bring to the table that’s different from what informal coaches do, said Freitag.

Principals may leave it up to the coaches to observe and tweak instructional strategies. Ultimately, though, coaches are not evaluators. The principal holds that responsibility, said Freitag. “For teachers, [it’s like] a mom and dad effect.”

Districts must support principals’ efforts on reading

Four years into implementing the new curriculum, Murfreesboro’s literacy network is pulling back from its schools, and has put principals in charge of the whole operation.

The pullback will be a meaningful change for the principals, who until now have relied heavily on Daugherty or her colleagues to be physically present in the schools, and by their side, on the learning walks.

The district wants principals to run the learning walks, give teachers feedback, and direct them to more training if required—a delicate balance toggling between their roles as managers and instructional leaders.

But as principals grow in their confidence and take on more responsibility for getting the work done, they’ll still need ongoing guidance. Jennette’s former role as a principal informs her new one, as the district’s instructional lead, a role she just stepped into this year. She now meets with the school leaders three times a month and spends at least an hour discussing their school improvement plans and schools’ literacy scores.

Small or large, her new job is to support the instructional team that principals put together. This kind of support is best given, said Freitag, when it’s coupled with on-site visits to schools as principals observe and give their feedback, instead of delivered as one-off PD meetings.

Best practices for principals who lead change in reading are still emerging. Freitag’s organization has recently concluded a 17-district survey to pin down more exactly what that role should look like. That research is forthcoming.

I’ve learned that you must take yourself out of the moment. Keep one eye on what’s being taught, and the other on how it meets the standards. It takes a long time to become proficient.

It can’t come fast enough for principals like Messick, who will begin the next school term with a new reading curriculum.

For now, Messick’s counting on his previous experience.

“I’ve learned that you must take yourself out of the moment. Keep one eye on what’s being taught, and the other on how it meets the [state’s] standards,” he said."It takes a long time to become proficient.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2024 edition of Education Week as Principals Have a Lead Role in the ‘Science of Reading’

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