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Margaret Goldberg
Right to Read
Margaret Goldberg

Making Changes That Last: The End of the Pendulum?

There’s new momentum behind teaching reading more directly and explicitly, but many of us are wondering: is this just another swing of a pendulum? It’s hard to believe that investing in new reading practices is worthwhile if the new practices will fall out of favor in a few years. But for district leaders who want to make a lasting impact, there is no better focus than reading instruction — and if we proceed thoughtfully and bravely, we have the power to stop the pendulum.

We cannot sweep the last adoption under the rug.

Why can’t we simply replace balanced literacy with new curricula? Because we need to stop history from repeating itself. The pendulum exists only because we haven’t allowed matters of instruction to be settled by science.

Evidence available to us since the 90s could have ended the reading wars, but rather than embrace “settled science,” we allowed publishers and educational gurus to swing us back towards ineffective practices. Since then, advances in cognitive science have added depth and dimension to what what was known 30 years ago, but that new learning has yet to reach our classrooms.

In order to stop the pendulum, we must commit to staying up to date with reading research and pursuing only evidence-based practices.

We need to take action.

Many of us regret the balanced literacy programs being used in our schools (especially when we look at the resulting student data) and turning regret into action is a daunting task. But every day we permit reading instruction to continue as it is, we miss an opportunity to help children.

To throw a previous administration under the bus is not a viable option either. If we blame people or politics rather than seize this opportunity to discuss instruction, we’ll miss a chance to inoculate ourselves against practices that do not benefit children but will likely resurface. Leaders in education must not only model how to embrace reading research, but also how to sift through and push aside practices that are not worthy of our students.

Brave leadership teams across the country are taking action and are asking themselves powerful questions.

Reviewing current reading research, together 

  • What is known about effective reading instruction?
  • How can teachers trust a new initiative is progress, not the swing of a pendulum?

Conducting curriculum and professional development audits 

  • What values or beliefs are reflected in your district’s current approach to teaching reading?
  • Which values do you still hold? 
  • What beliefs about reading or teaching have you reevaluated?

Reviewing past and planned expenditures

  • As you review materials or trainings, which are aligned with reading research? Which are associated with practices you’ve evaluated and discarded? 
  • How will you close the door to professional development that runs contrary to reading research?
  • How will you ensure teachers transition completely to the new curricula?
  • What will happen to old materials? Sort them:
    • Materials that might be reused if, after the new program has been fully implemented for a year or two, data show supplementation is needed.
    • Materials that promote ineffective practices.  These will need to be discussed and permanently removed.

Exploring new options

  • Embark on thoughtful curriculum/assessment adoption and engage teachers, principals, union representatives, parents, etc. 

Making and communicating decisions

  • Clearly communicate the rationale(s) behind decisions.
  • How will the new curricula, assessment, and professional development benefit teachers and students?
  • How will classroom instruction change? What supports will be provided to school sites as they transition?
  • Which changes are non-negotiable? Where is there flexibility or room for teacher and school autonomy?

Training leadership and then teachers

  • What support and guidance will teachers receive from the administration?

Conversations like these are difficult because we know what is at stake and we care about the outcomes, but our students need for us to have them. Professional discord and debate can allow leadership to vet ideas, prepare for difficult questions, and troubleshoot. 

It’s worth it.

Research has shown reading proficiency rates can be near 100%, so the potential for large-scale change is both daunting and exciting. We have access to more information about student learning, instruction, and implementation than leaders before us, and new knowledge brings new possibilities. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to align classroom instruction with reading science so that all of our students learn to read.

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 21, 2019