School & District Management

Who Trains the Trainers in the ‘Science of Reading?’

By Olina Banerji — June 14, 2024 5 min read
First grader Geniss Gibbs practices reading skills at Eastern Elementary School in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
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When a school begins to move its practices closer to the “science of reading,” the large body of knowledge about how kids learn to read, they must manage a number of significant changes. Schedules may need to adjust. Teachers and leaders both need training. Students will need to adjust to new routines. Often, all these parties will also be working with new curricula.

Principals are responsible for smoothing over this transition for their staff and students. One step ahead of the principals, though, is the support districts can marshal: A team of literacy coaches, curriculum directors, and trainers, who create the behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

School districts in the United States come in many shapes and sizes, and the support they give will look differently. Education Week spoke to three differently oriented districts to compare their approaches, both top down and bottom up.

Large or small, districts largely follow a three-step plan to roll out a new, science-of-reading-based curriculum: build knowledge, train, and sustain.

Building knowledge about reading among educators

The sprawling, suburban Katy Independent district in Texas needed a plan that could work at scale for 46 campuses. Katy switched to a new reading curriculum in 2022, prompted in part by state legislation that mandates that all teachers and principals who teach kindergarten through 3rd grade be trained in evidence-based reading instruction.

“Whatever we decided to do, it had to work for everyone,” said Karen Muller, the director of elementary curriculum and instruction at Katy.

The district began a task force in 2023 to take stock of what principals, administrators, and teachers, including bilingual teachers, knew about the science of reading. Then it created its own in-house training for administrators and teachers, instead of contracting with a vendor. Building this capacity in-house, Muller said, means the district has been able to offer continuous support throughout the implementation, as well as for new teachers and principals who join the district.

Principals and teachers in Katy had already attended a few years of training introducing them to the basic tenets of the science of reading, so by the time the task force was formed, members were familiar with the core concepts. The task force reviewed all the curricular choices and picked one resource that would best suit the needs of a large district.

Then, Muller had to figure out how the knowledge would be disseminated to teachers and principals. Both groups are required under the law to do 60 hours of coursework every year on evidence-based reading practices, and until last year, this could be done virtually. In the upcoming school year though, these trainings will only be in-person, so it will have to be done in cohorts.

Katy’s curriculum team has also created a virtual toolkit for principals, which houses all the documents and resources they would need to onboard new teachers in their schools.

In contrast, with only four elementary schools, the school district in Seaford, Del., has had a different approach to its science of reading rollout. Because of its small size, Seaford relied on the University of Delaware to provide training to its principals, rather than in-house training.

Knowledge transfer was a shorter and more organic process. Kirsten Jennette, who was then an elementary school principal, said she often brought doubts and concerns from her teaching staff directly to designers of the district’s new curriculum.

Now the district’s curriculum and instructional director, Jennette has built personal relationships with all the principals, and meets with them every month to go over their schools’ progress in reading.

“We can just call or text each other if we needed to meet or get information. We’re collaborative,” Jennette said.

District leaders coach principals through early implementation of new reading techniques

Kathy Daugherty, the reading and Response to Intervention coordinator for the Murfreesboro school district in Tennessee, has spent a majority of the last four years in the classroom working with principals.

Reading specialists like Daugherty supported principals by accompanying them on their observational “learning walks.” She also modeled lessons for teachers in professional learning community meetings, who struggled initially to figure out how to teach the new curriculum. These frequent touch points are essential, said Daugherty, because it allows the district to keep track of which school teams need additional help.

District leaders like Daugherty balance working with administrators on one-off, individual challenges with noting common patterns that crop up in several schools. In her latest meeting with principals, Daugherty noticed that a lot of them had questions about how to make use of small groups in a classroom. Daugherty modeled a lesson, videotaped it, and brought it back to the principals’ group.

“I asked them to use their evaluation tool to figure out if I’d done a good job,” she said.

Katy’s curriculum team has rigged up a partly decentralized system to keep track of implementation. Its 46 campuses are divided into three segments, and each is led by a curriculum coordinator, said Muller.

On site visits, which include going on learning walks with principals, the district leaders can pick up patterns of what’s working, and what needs additional work.

“One simple thing that teachers weren’t doing initially was putting up sound walls in their classrooms. This summer, we’re going to do a robust training for teachers on why sound walls are useful to their instruction,” said Muller.

How districts can sustain momentum

After four years of coaching and support, Daugherty is planning to gradually step back. She and her team have planned some immediate next steps for each school in the district.

“We tell them we’re going to be back in four to six weeks to check on their progress,” she said."We ask the leadership [in schools] to figure who’s accountable for implementing these steps.”

Leaders of smaller districts, like Seaford, don’t need to retreat as much from their schools. Their size ensures that checking in with each school individually isn’t as time-consuming.

However, Jenette said looming budget problems are worrisome and could affect the district’s ability to secure additional training. As a fix, she is now focused on creating a pipeline of trainers within the district, while she still has the money to do so.

“We want to train teacher-leaders in our schools, who are interested in joining the administration,” she said. “That way, when new folks come into the district, we don’t have to rely on outside help to train them.”

Coverage of leadership, social and emotional learning, afterschool and summer learning, arts education, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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