Time to Burn the Boat
by Faith Borkowsky
It has been twenty years since the National Reading Panel (NRP) issued its April 2000 report, “Teaching Children to Read,” which summarized the importance of evidence-based reading instruction. As mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the federal Reading First initiative allocated massive amounts of money to Title 1 Schools to help disadvantaged students in grades kindergarten through third grade. The money funded programs, materials, and assessment tools, and provided coaches and professional development aligned with the NRP’s findings. Reading First was supposed to be a turning point in education after years of stagnating reading scores, and I was proud to do my part as a regional reading coach, providing embedded professional development to teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators on Long Island. Unfortunately, Reading First did not produce the intended results, as twenty years later we are still talking about the same issues.
Interested parties came up with various theories to account for Reading First’s demise: too much emphasis on phonics; not enough attention to vocabulary and comprehension; the marginalization of content area subjects; no attention to writing; and so on. In other words, it was argued, instruction based on “Scientifically-Based Reading Research” (SBRR), the premise underpinning Reading First, was not the solution to the growing literacy problem in this country. My experience working in the trenches, however, left me with a firm conviction that such arguments missed the mark. While the pundits and analysts may have viewed data after the fact, they had no way of knowing just how SBRR was actually implemented in the schools, a frequent problem when looking at just numbers. In my view, attributing Reading First’s lack of success to perceived pedagogical deficiencies in an SBRR approach revealed a lack of nuance and understanding of the real-world resistance the initiative faced from the inception.
The Reading First grant was dedicated, first and foremost, to bringing SBRR to “low performing” schools. Not surprisingly, many educators confided in me that they viewed the grant as a “booby prize” and resented that they were being perceived as bad teachers in need of “fixing.” From those teachers’ perspectives, Reading First was punitive, which made it more difficult for them to embrace the coaching and new ideas. Even worse, many of the administrators and teachers in Reading First schools had the same schooling and training as their counterparts in schools without the grant. More affluent school districts were not requiring their teachers to change their practices and continued to use strategies that confirmed their bias for “balance.” Clearly, if what they were taught in their teacher-training and professional development programs was still valued in high performing districts, then it was the children and families who were failing, not the practices. Such teachers naturally felt threatened and angry. To smooth over the feelings of resentment, Reading First administrators made many unforeseen compromises. These compromises diluted the efficacy of SBRR, were not reflected in the Reading First impact evaluations, and had long term consequences.
For instance, some districts layered leveled books and “Guided Reading” onto Reading First’s recommended core reading instruction. Despite our attempts to instill “fidelity to the core” SBRR curriculum, some districts had their building coaches write guidance documents for bridging the two philosophically divergent approaches. In some cases, administrators trained in “Literacy Collaborative,” a learning model promoted by Lesley University in partnership with Guided Reading gurus Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, were in charge of executing the grant. Those administrators could not separate themselves from their allegiance to that model. Thus, notwithstanding that their districts had signed on to the grant, teacher observations were being conducted by school leaders who followed a contrary philosophy. Inflexibility and skepticism on the part of school district administrators, combined with directives from some Reading First administrators to placate the district administrators by “not throwing the baby out with the bath water” undermined the efforts of all who believed in SBRR. Those were just some of the unseen factors that were not examined or considered in the impact evaluations.
As a regional coach, it was easy to see why school leaders resisted a new model and held onto old patterns. Human interaction and transformational change experts Sheila Campbell and Merianne Litemann state in their book, Retreats That Work, “It’s natural for people to want to hold on to things. It is said that the hardest thing for a trapeze artist isn’t grabbing hold of the new trapeze as it swings within reach but letting go of the one she’s already gripping. So, it is with change; it’s hard to let go of the familiar and comfortable.”
It was painful for many of the grant’s participants to take on new learning and behaviors when their belief systems were so entwined with their identities as educators. Many of the teachers and administrators were not open to coaching because of this internal conflict. Science alone was not going to convert them. Visualize a trapeze artist in mid-air holding on to two bars at once and not going in either direction. Balanced Literacy is like a trapeze act gone wrong. Many educators find it more palatable to “swing using both bars.”
And, that is why we have not gotten anywhere in twenty years.
It was not the pedagogical premise of Reading First that failed. The science was and is clear. What the pundits and analysts failed to account for was the human component and the recalcitrance of people too entrenched in their ways to accept change, no matter how beneficial to children. From my perspective, that, more than anything, led to the view that Reading First was not effective and successful.
Without honest reflection, a cultural shift is not possible. We cannot expect change if we do not address the elephant in the room: school districts resist change because educators contribute to the existing problem and have a vested interest in sustaining Balanced Literacy practices. We cannot expect them to view the problem objectively and not become defensive when it is their identity and philosophy that are being questioned and they are trying to protect their image. Even teachers who understand the five pillars of literacy and believe in SBRR quickly learn what is valued by their supervisors and adapt to the cultural norms in order to fit in. Just take a look at district leadership. Who gets hired? What is their background? What is the educational lingo they use? Literacy Collaborative proponents believe that they are “student-centered” and value “differentiation” and “balance.” Their tagline is to “build school communities rich in books and words.” Who wouldn’t want to have those positive attributes attributed to them? So, an outsider trying to buck this approach is seen as anti-child, extremist, and inflexible.
Consequently, the drivers of change today are not educators but knowledgeable parents who recognize and understand faulty practices and have been questioning basic assumptions about literacy. They do not have time or patience to wait for the schools to come up with solutions or accept educators who are not flexible enough or refuse to change in the face of scientific evidence and common sense. They are demanding that their schools let go with “both hands” and make a radical change. There should be no “safety net” for those who hold onto old, faulty strategies. Parents are not concerned with ideology or philosophy; they just want their kids to learn to read and write.
So, once again, it will be a small, vocal group fighting very hard against a system that is not groomed for change. As in the past, educational leaders will undoubtedly try to placate them. They will provide professional development to help teachers recognize dyslexia or learn multi-sensory strategies for struggling readers. They’ll add a phonics component to a faulty program and claim it’s a “game-changer.” Yet, time and time again, we have seen that they, themselves, don’t really believe it necessary. For the majority of children, they believe, the status quo is working just fine, and they have no intention of rocking the boat.
Unless we begin to hold everyone in education accountable for bringing about change, not just some schools, not just some teachers, and not just for some children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs, we will continue to be faced with the same poor results.
Maybe, the only way to promote true change, then, is to “burn the boat.”
Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner and provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations. Ms. Borkowsky is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention and the “If Only I Would Have Known…” series. She is also a board member of Teach My Kid to Read, a 501(c) non-profit organization with a mission to support and empower students, teachers, and parents through education so all kids, including those with dyslexia, learn to read.