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School & District Management

The Behind-the-Scenes Work of Implementing the ‘Science of Reading’

By Olina Banerji — June 06, 2024 5 min read
Image of a spotlight on a child reading a book.
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A total of 38 states have passed laws or policies about changing reading instruction, hoping to shape it in line with a collective body of knowledge and practice about how students learn to read.

For individual schools, it’s often difficult to unspool its various tenets, put a new curriculum into practice, and stay the course on implementation.

And the main person tasked with navigating this complex change, in most cases, is the principal.

Principals have to toggle between managing, coaching, and evaluating, as they lead implementation. The role is both granular and grand: principals need to familiarize themselves with every lesson plan that teachers use so they can give useful feedback. But they also need to build the core infrastructure behind the curriculum change—such as reworking the school’s schedule and finding time for professional development.

Despite their central role in shifting schoolwide practice, the principal role has often been sidelined in education reform. No clear role or responsibilities have been etched out either in the reading laws that states have rapidly adopted.

“The entire orientation of reform for a [school] system leader has been towards the classroom. They make sure that teachers have what they need. But very rarely do we think through what principals need to know and do to make this change happen,” said Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, which works with school districts to train teachers and principals on using evidence-based curricula.

In a series of recent stories, Education Week spoke to several principals about three crucial parts of this role. Here’s what they said:

1. Principals must be open to learning

Principals need to be steeped both in the science of how children learn to read, and the instructional practices that help them get there. This isn’t straightforward for principals, any of whom have never taught reading, or taught it using other methods.

Principals must also be trained, just like teachers, on the new curriculum that helps translate research into practice, and how to implement it.

The training helped Quinena Bell, the principal of Hobgood Elementary in Murfreesboro, Tenn., see reading in a new light.

“I thought I knew how to teach reading as an academic coach. But there were several practices, like splitting up reading and writing, that don’t help kids at all,” Bell said.

Principals like Nathaniel Messick, from northwest Minnesota, have also sought out leader-focused training, which can train them in the basic tenets of how children learn to read through evidence-based strategies. When principals know the science, and the curriculum upfront, they do two things more effectively, the leaders said. One, they have a full view of how specific parts of the curriculum are connected to each other, and across grades.

Second, once principals know the scope and sequence of the curriculum, they can help roll it out for teachers in smaller, more learnable chunks. That’s what Kirsten Jennette did, as an elementary school principal in the Seaford school district in Delaware, when the district shifted to a new reading curriculum almost a decade ago.

“I focused on learning one block at a time. So did my teachers,” Jenette said. For example, they might focus on just one specific instructional strategy, like reading a grade-level text together. “My feedback, our PD was all connected to that first block of learning. It was less overwhelming that way.”

2. Principals also create the infrastructure for change

Principals need to efficiently toggle between being instructional leaders and program managers.

Messick is currently prepping a new PD schedule for the new reading curriculum that’s set to kick in when the 2024-25 school year begins. To get teachers the training they need, without impinging on non-contractual time, Messick has planned an early release from school for one day a week.

Like Messick, Chandra Phillips also had to juggle between priorities to give her teachers the time they needed to plan how to teach the curriculum. Phillips, the principal of Central Elementary in Seaford, Del., carried timers into classrooms to familiarize teachers with the new curriculum’s three reading blocks of 45 minutes each.

It can be a difficult job. For Dana Perez, the principal of Pembroke Elementary School in Danbury, Conn., its been a struggle to find time in the schedule for teachers to spend extra time with students who are reading below grade level.

“Our curriculum is grounded in equitable grouping. One of the obstacles for our teachers has been to monitor these groups more closely, and collect data on their progress,” Perez said.

3. A principal must balance being tight and loose on implementation

Often, when principals start rolling out a new curriculum, they are more strict about how it’s implemented.

Bell, the principal from Murfreesboro, does “learning walks” with her instructional coaches to observe teachers. She pays special attention to the sequence of the lessons—decoding letters, for instance, generally comes before writing, and alongside building content knowledge. Learning walks also highlight where teachers may have slipped in their implementation.

See Also

A member of the Instruction Partners team works with instructional leaders during a learning walkthrough at a school in Brownsville, Tenn.
A member of an Instruction Partners team works with leaders during a learning walkthrough at a school in Brownsville, Tenn. Learning walkthroughs help principals learn how to support their teachers in new methods for teaching reading and provide feedback to them.
Courtesy of Instruction Partners

“Teachers would sometimes do too much scaffolding. The curriculum called for letting the kids have a ‘productive struggle’ with the texts ... and some teachers wouldn’t let that happen,” Bell said.

Bell had to remind them not to give away answers easily.

Perez noticed on her observations that teachers who skipped an early step, establishing fundamental routines early in the rollout, struggled to follow the curriculum in the following weeks.

Teachers can also resist the changes—and principals may have to pull out all their stops as a manager.

Jennette let her teachers air their doubts about the new curriculum, and even ferried their questions back to the curriculum developers. But she was clear that teachers could not deviate too much from the instructional path set up for them.

Bell, too, put her foot down with teachers. “Just because they had done things a certain way before the new curriculum wasn’t a good enough reason to resist change,” she said.

Once the initial rollout is done, and teachers have had some time with the curriculum, leaders like Phillips can transition into the role of facilitators from enforcers, as they encourage teachers to share strategies and tips with each other.

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