Science of Reading: The Podcast

S6 E7: The how and why behind high-quality instructional materials with Rebecca Kockler

November 30, 2022 Amplify Education Season 6 Episode 7
Science of Reading: The Podcast
S6 E7: The how and why behind high-quality instructional materials with Rebecca Kockler
Show Notes Transcript

As the former chief academic officer at the Louisiana Department of Education, Rebecca Kockler made it her mission to empower districts to select higher quality materials. This involved a thorough and rigorous curriculum review, and allowing teachers to choose the program they wanted once they knew exactly what they were getting. This work built Kockler’s case for focusing on quality curricula as a vital part of student success. Using Kockler’s work in Louisiana as a case study, this episode shows why state governments should focus on logistics, procurement, and equipping educators with the information they need to make the best decision for their students.

Additional Resources:

Quotes:

“It was really our teachers who led so much of the charge to say, ‘No, this is what we want. We believe kids should be held to high expectations. We believe they're capable, we believe they deserve it.’”
– Rebecca Kockler, Program Director of Reading Reimagined within AERDF, CEO and Founder of Illuminate Literacy, and former Assistant Superintendent of Academics at the Louisiana Department of Education

Speaker 1:

This is Susan Lambert and welcome to Science of Reading the podcast. If you're a listener of this show by now, you've probably heard about the disappointing results from the country's latest scores on the na , the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Speaker 2:

Students posted alarming math and reading scores

Speaker 3:

Across the country. Test scores dropped and significantly in

Speaker 4:

Reading just 33% of fourth graders were proficient or above, down from 35%.

Speaker 1:

But for one state, the news was a bit more positive.

Speaker 5:

Louisiana's fourth graders are being recognized for their reading improvement.

Speaker 6:

Louisiana fourth graders were among only a handful of states to show growth in reading skills. In fact, it was at the top of the growth chart.

Speaker 1:

And on this episode, we're taking a closer look at Louisiana. My guest today is Rebecca Koler , former assistant superintendent of academics at the Louisiana Department of Education. The reason I was thrilled to speak with Rebecca is that on this season of the podcast, we've been exploring how different parts of the education system can each contribute to spreading science based literacy instruction. On our last episode, we focused on the role of state legislatures in passing literacy laws. This time around Rebecca offers another tactic available to state governments harnessing the power of logistics and procurement. On this episode, Rebecca explains how Louisiana was able to get higher quality curricula to districts throughout the stain. Here's my conversation with Rebecca. Rebecca, it's so nice to have you on today's episode. Thanks for joining me.

Speaker 7:

Thank you so much for having me. So happy to be here.

Speaker 1:

You know, what we always like to do is introduce our listeners to who the guests are. So I'd love if you could introduce yourself and talk a little bit about how you found yourself smack d in the world of literacy.

Speaker 7:

Yes. Um, thank you. Happy to. Um, so really I started by teaching middle school , um, history and reading and saw successes, but really struggled with lots of things to see the kind of improvement I had hoped to see and felt like I didn't always know what I was doing and had the resources to figure out the right answers as a teacher. And so have really spent a lot of my career trying to find better answers to help teachers do their jobs, to make sure teachers are positioned to support students in the best way. Um , I spent a lot of time coaching teachers, doing a lot of curriculum work. I was the chief academic officer at the Department of Education in Louisiana for six years and led our work around curriculum building, curriculum implementation, teacher training and assessment work in Louisiana for the six years I was there. And we saw a lot of progress as well and struggled the most in reading, particularly with our older readers, so late elementary and middle school readers. And I think that really has led me to this project now just feeling like in all the systems I've been in and all the work that I've done , um, have felt like seeing real change that sustains itself in reading has been my greatest challenge. And I think our country's NA results both recently and historically have proved that there are country's greatest challenge and yet it's the most essential thing we can give a kid when we take in students, when parents give us their kids every day and we say , we're gonna teach you how to read and make sure you have the basic things you need to really excel. And so for me, figuring out why we struggle so much to help all of our kids excel here and what they need is really become my focus and love and obsession.

Speaker 1:

Well, I know a lot of our listeners are, are just, you know, clamoring for more information about middle school readers too and what they can do to support them. And so I think they are going to be cheering and high fiving and can relate to you and the work that you did in your early career around middle school , uh, middle school reading and history. Cuz it's really, it is a , is a thing. We spend a lot of time talking about early literacy here, but we do know middle school is a really challenging time for kids.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, absolutely. Um, my brother learned to read really as a freshman in high school and so a lot of this is also motivated by a personal experience where I saw him and my mom struggle for so long and he , uh, was lucky to get , um, an amazing teacher who sort of started from the beginning with him and actually understood his needs that really helped him excel. And he was lucky to graduate and he was a principal and is, you know, very successful now. But I just think, you know, any child could learn to read at any time and yet we aren't doing enough, especially for our older readers to understand why they're still struggling as they grow older and what, how we can best help them in a context that is appropriate and meaningful for them. So yeah, it's a huge part of our work and challenging

Speaker 1:

What a great personal story and personal connection then, and a success story too for your brother. So shout out to that teacher that really helped <laugh> .

Speaker 7:

Yeah, he's amazing. And so was she .

Speaker 1:

So let's talk a little bit about this work that you referenced in Louisiana. Um, first of all, how did you come to that role in Louisiana? How interesting. Let's, let's talk there first.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, I , um, had spent a lot of my career doing, again, teacher training work, implementation work. I love thinking about the complexity of how kids learn and how do we help more and more of our classrooms and moments of interaction with kids be the most meaningful and powerful they can be. So it spent a lot of time coaching , um, and was asked to join the team , um, in Louisiana and really I didn't go in , uh, you, you know, as a chief academic officer, but um , sort of was going in, trying to think, we Louisiana had basically had a bunch of things happening at the same time. So they had just passed a major teacher evaluation set of policies.

Speaker 1:

What year would that have been? That

Speaker 7:

Was 2012. Okay . 2012 . Just for some context. Yeah , so right at the, they just passed a huge set of bills around teacher evaluation. So they were implementing those, which those are just intense and scary and complicated. Yeah, the new standards Common Core had just come out and the state of Louisiana had adopted them. So that had just happened and Louisiana at that time was a park state, so it was joining a new consortium, putting in new assessment. So, and all of that existed in the context when I joined the team and actually the team that was, you know, taking on leadership roles there inherited sort of all of those changes simultaneously too . So they didn't bring any of those forward. They were there

Speaker 1:

For our listeners. What does it mean to be on a team at a state department of education, <laugh> ? What different kinda roles are there? Just just outta curiosity?

Speaker 7:

Yeah, we had um, I think in some ways lots of roles you see at the school level. Lots of roles you see um , at the district level. So I led academics and thought about the content of our assessment system. We had a data and evaluation team that really thought about the operations of our assessment, all of the data around them, all of the accountability systems and measures we put in as a state. You know, really just a senior team of folks, an operations team, a team that oversaw all of our high school sort of career transition work, a talent team that thought about a lot of our higher ed partnerships, our certification work , um, internal operations, hr, you know, finance, lots of finance work, there's lots of federal programs and funding flows you're managing. So, and then a team that oversees the implementation efforts and support of districts. And so all of us at the senior team trying to get aligned, share priorities and make sure our efforts are really reinforcing and supporting each other.

Speaker 1:

That's great. Thank you for that little segue . Um, sometimes I think it's a little bit of a black box Totally . Of how all these things work. So <laugh> so that was help . Okay. Go . Go ahead. With your story of Louisiana um , and where they were at and sort of how you moved into that work. Yeah,

Speaker 7:

So we um, that's a lot of things for teachers and schools to manage simultaneously. Wow. You're changing all of the standards. You're, you know, dramatically raising the expectations for what we expect kids to do. You are going to assess them completely differently than you've ever assessed them before and now you're also gonna hold me accountable to them and have an evaluation policy that puts my student results as a part of that. That is a lot of change for an instructional system and really one of the very first things we did was we started a group of teacher leader advisors, which was some of the most profound work I think I had the opportunity to be a part of in my time in Louisiana. We started just with a hundred teachers who represented the state in lots of different ways and brought them together to really help us figure out what they needed as we were gonna implement these changes. And there was a lot of angst and worry and nervousness, which makes total sense cuz the whole system felt like it was changing and it legitimately was. And they told us basically you need to give us better resources. You cannot hold all of these expectations on us and not train us, not give us tools to do this. This is an impossible ask that you're making of us. And so a lot of our early curriculum work came from that push for them to say, well that's amazing. Like we need better tools, you need to train us. Like you can't both hold us accountable and change the standards and then do nothing to make sure that we have an opportunity to succeed. And so those pushes were really helpful and actually led us, the very first thing we did was start an instructional review process to figure out what resources this was again 2012. And most publishers had not changed their materials to really represent Sure the bar of the standards. So we started saying, okay, at the very least we can start to figure out here like what is of quality in the marketplace, how can we help teachers get their hands on it? How can we train teachers? And from there really started to evolve our strategy over time with our teachers really weighing in and telling us here's what's working, here's what's not working. We kept that close group of 100 advisors with us the whole time that I was in Louisiana and actually also had a very large group of teacher advisors, which were about two from every school, almost 7,000 teachers actually that we brought together quarterly to just again, like keep a close pulse on what was happening, make sure we understood the needs and also try to get better resources to teachers as quickly as possible. So that group was really the start of a lot of the curriculum work that we took on in the state.

Speaker 1:

Hmm , that's interesting. And the curriculum work that you did in the state was different from some of the curriculum review processes other states did and currently still engage with. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about how Louisiana's was different from other states?

Speaker 7:

Yeah, we felt like we had a particular role to play, which was not to have oversight necessarily or to tell districts what to do, but to, we thought in the simplest terms we would say our job is to help districts and schools access the best stuff. How can we make the best stuff, the easiest stuff for them to use and implement and get in teachers hands? That's really how we thought of our role. So that led us to do a couple of things. One, we actually ended the policy of people only being able to purchase from our list, which seems sort of counterintuitive.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, that's the way most states work, right?

Speaker 7:

Yeah . People that we have a list and we forced people's hands and that's how we got so many folks to buy quality materials. We didn't, we ended the policy of that and ultimately said this is a local decision and people should purchase the materials that are best for them. And instead what we said was, but let us help you really understand what's out there. And so we put in place, this was before Ed Reports existed, we put in place a very rigorous review process where we looked at math and reading curriculum first and then we started to do benchmark assessments and we put them into three tiers. So we had a first cutoff. If you don't even meet these basic criteria, we don't even evaluate you further. And you're what we call tier three. And I would say, I don't know the exact number, probably about 80%, 75% of what we evaluated was tier three. And actually Louisiana maintains this process and about that person maintain themselves, it's about tier three, so not aligned to the standards, you know, basic requirements not met. If you met basic threshold, we moved you up into a full scale review of your product and you either became tier two partially aligned to standards or tier one fully aligned. And we took tier one very seriously. So you had to be truly fully aligned to the standards to make it to tier one. And so if you were tier two, we tried to be very explicit with districts, you can purchase tier two, frankly you could purchase tier three if you want to. Sure. But you should know where it is aligned and where it's not aligned. Mm-hmm <affirmative> so that if you need to train teachers to make up for that or teachers have questions, it's open, it's transparent, it's clear around what you're gonna need to do to supplement this product to really work for students. So we just put together a very rigorous review process and early on I think we had less than five products across math and reading make it to tier one , um, in our first round of reviews. So that was sort of the first process process which was just like, let's just show people what the market , like what's of quality in the market.

Speaker 1:

Well I do have to say something because it's rare that you hear a policy ends, a policy ends <laugh>. So that had to be a , a bit of a surprise to the folks in the state of Louisiana that wait, what? They're ending a policy that we, we don't have to pick off a list.

Speaker 7:

Yeah. And um, that's always good and bad, you know, because with policy comes process and bureaucracy for the most part and there's so much to do when you're in a district and a school. And so sometimes process is valuable because it makes things simpler and easier. So there were unintended challenges that came with ending that policy like wait, how do we know what goes to the, you know, the textbook de depositories and like how does procurement happen from the depository because those state things got state contracts and there's all of these like actual ease of process that comes from some of those policies. And so on one hand people were like, yes, thank you. We'd like to make our own decisions. On the other hand, there was a lot of support that kind of came from some of those things. And so what we had to do very quickly was figure out what support do people want and what support do people feel like ties their hands? And so early on we learned very quickly, and this was sort of the second stage of our work, was sort of stage one show people lots of quality so they can make informed smart choices. Two, make the process of buying the best stuff easier. And when I would talk to chief academic officers, they would tell me all of the reasons why the things that were the best quality products were super difficult to buy and use. Some of them were open source , so required tons of printing. So we actually set up printing partnerships across the state to make it super easy to just get printed materials in the hands of teachers. Like I did not anticipate that challenge. Right . We learned that statewide contracts really helped a lot and helped with board decision making . Local boards really need to make sure they're protected on purchasing when you're making big purchases like curriculum, which are very expensive, having state contracts eases that process. So we realized, we went through a procurement process for all tier one curriculum to make sure there were statewide contracts available for everyone that met a bar so that it was easier for local procurement people really wanted to make sure teacher voice was a part of curriculum procurement. So we had a very tight teacher process in our reviews to make sure there was representation from across the state in all of our state reviews as well. So teachers were weighing in on our curriculum reviews from the beginning. So we basically had a close process of staying connected to districts, making sure we understood the pain points for how to access the highest quality materials. And then we felt like our role was to take barriers away. How do we make it easy for people to purchase? What's the best quality? We had no opinion across what's up quality, we just wanted to make sure quality curricula were going in front of kids. And so that was sort of the second stage. Um , we did get into a third stage around implementation and then ultimately we started to put some different parameters on it around funding flows. But those first stages got us very far. I mean, I would say just those first couple of steps got us really almost about 60% of our districts purchasing a tier one curriculum for math and reading within two years, which we thought was a huge success.

Speaker 1:

Hmm . How were the , um, you talked a little bit about the role of teachers and how they were important and probably continue to be important there in the state of Louisiana. What did that look like for teachers as they were, they were doing their work both in the classroom and then and then helping support this process?

Speaker 7:

Yeah, I mean one was , um, we put teachers on on all of our committees. So again, we had that group of close advisors. We had the 7,000 teachers we were bringing together regularly. They just had a lot of influence in telling us what was working and what wasn't working. And that changed a lot of our strategy as we went. Um, things like, yes we're getting training, but like these days aren't sufficient. So we started to really think about, you know, deeper professional learning support plans with districts and a lot of things that evolved and changed as a result of their input and feedback. Um, too , they were just on actual committees. So like they were actually reviewing curricula and they had a voice and like they were a part of the process of tiering program programs and other parts of the work. But they also helped really protect a lot of the efforts to raise expectations for kids. And I think the teachers in Louisiana deserve, I mean the teachers I worked with and these groups were some of , by far the best teachers. I mean just incredible teachers. Some had been in the classroom for two years, some had been in the classroom for 20 years, you know, some more just incredibly diverse and talented teachers and very passionate about raising expectations, making sure schools were doing the best for all kids. And they thought for a lot of this work, which was so powerful. So we had a very messy political battle in the middle of all of this. No surprise. Um , it makes me so empathetic for all of the things school districts are wrestling right now and how hard it is when politics in such intense ways come into uh , you know, such well intentioned work around making sure students have what they need. And it was really our teachers who led so much of the charge to say, no, this is what we want. We believe kids should be held to high expectations. We believe they're capable, we believe they deserve it. So our teachers started a massive letter writing campaign during this process. Um, every state legislator got a personal letter from multiple teachers in their district in this entire state. Over 60% of them actually went to visit classrooms in their region from teachers who had written letters and invited them to come in and see the math lessons they were teaching and the reading lessons they were teaching with new curricula and sort of under the higher expectations. And they wrote up ads and you know, and it's not like we didn't do like training on coms or anything, like they were passionate. They believed in this stuff and they were very authentically fighting for a lot of this. And so they did so much to protect the high standards that still exist in Louisiana , um, and really deserve a lot of the credit for where Louisiana's at.

Speaker 1:

Wow. And just to get them into classrooms to see the actual work that's happening

Speaker 7:

On the gun . It was very powerful.

Speaker 1:

I bet. Very powerful. Oh I bet there's some amazing stories Yeah . From those visits. Yeah. That's awesome. So you've, you've kind of been talking, we've been talking a little bit of around some things, but I think we were talking about this in the pre-call that traditionally we think the role of states is what exactly you came in to do, which was okay, there was standards in place, there was a new assessment in place, right? There was some new accountabilities in place, that's what states should be doing. But something different happened, like you took a turn to something different. I think that's really important to just clarify that you took a different point of view in Louisiana. How did that come about that you actually decided no, this isn't the right, like we're gonna turn and do something a little bit different?

Speaker 7:

I think there were two major influences on it. I think one was just feeling like a lot of us had been in systems before and felt like states made our lives harder, not better. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and felt like, you know, there's economies of scale that come when a state can help you with things. And so why aren't states leveraging more of the effort? I mean all of us in education are about one core thing. Do we help kids learn and do we help kids learn what they deserve to learn every day in school? And so it felt like we should not just hold people accountable to that we should do more to actually ensure we're delivering on our promise to the kids and parents that's send their kids to school every day . And so one, it just felt like we, we felt like we were not doing enough to make sure our students were learning at the rate that they should. But two, again, we felt like we were hearing so much from, you know, I talked to a lot of chief academic officers a lot in school districts who were saying like, this is hard. The marketplace is so complex. I get so many vendors knocking on my door selling their stuff, telling me they have this study and this study and like it's amazing and I have no idea if that's true. And talking to so many teachers saying like this is overwhelming and scary and are you , am I gonna get fired with new accountability measures? And so we just had people also asking for help and felt like there were things we can do. And I think one of the reasons I think states don't always step in in this space is one, they're nervous about local control, which we all should be cautious of that and we should not overstep local control. Um , because we know people closest to kids know the best about what's happening for kids and families. And because I think the model of how we do support comes from a district vision in our head or even a school vision in our head. And so I think the thing we really tried to say to ourselves was, we don't need to emulate a big district. We're not trying to be a big school district essentially at the state. So the way we can help with teaching and learning doesn't just have to be what do districts do and let's just do it at the state. Yeah . But we have to figure out what barriers do we cause and how can we basically enable districts to excel at what their best position to do. And that orientation was a really different orientation. So it didn't mean that we were gonna manage everybody on sort of direct, you know, management of how to do professional learning, et cetera , but instead forced us to understand what the barriers were to other people excelling. Some of which were barriers we put in place by the way. Yeah . And some of which were just things we had an easier place and vantage point to take barriers away and sort of make easier. And that approach allowed us to play a better role. We don't have to make decisions for people, we don't have to control people, but we can enable people to be best at what their best position to do. And I can give a bunch of different examples of that. But essentially that was kind of the approach we tried to take again, really from a lot of requests from districts and teachers and needing help to solve a lot of the challenges they were up against.

Speaker 1:

Hmm . And I'm pretty sure you didn't sign up to be a logistics expert when you decided to go to the state of Louisiana, right? <laugh> . So probably some things you never anticipated that you would be doing.

Speaker 7:

Oh my gosh. We say that all the time. Like sometimes there's this sort of image that the work you're gonna do is like oh high level strategy and it's so, you know, and I'm like, we were deep in the weeds of procurement issues. We were deep in the weeds of printing and how do you get print? We were deep in the weeds of how do you get books that are expensive to people quickly and in bundles that are efficient, like operational things that make districts lives much easier in schools' lives much easier is actually a great role for states to enable the access to quality. And it's not sexy and it's like detailed and messy , um, but it's super important that you get in those weeds and you figure them out because it really makes districts jobs so much easier.

Speaker 1:

And I'm sure districts appreciated the work that you were doing too. And so then that reciprocal relationship and feedback loop that you had with them must have been pretty effective at that point.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, and I think it got better over time. I think when you're a state implementing new standards, new tests , the new accountability, there's a lot of skepticism for good reason <laugh> , that you're going to be helpful to anybody, which I get and I totally understand the skepticism. But I do think over time we built a lot of great relationships and credibility both with districts and with teachers. And I think that enabled a lot of our success over time. Partly just because they also started being more honest with us and we could actually figure out what the real barriers were so we could actually take them away too. Yeah . Which was really helpful to us and hopefully

Speaker 1:

To them. Well , listening and starting that trust process right then leads to more of that. And really then the ability to solve problems. My gosh, that's, that's amazing. And makes me have hope for other states across the country. Uh , <laugh>, the other thing that you mentioned in the pre-call too was your belief that really the marketplace has this real potential for profound impact, maybe even more than policy. Can you explain a little bit about, about what you mean by that?

Speaker 7:

Yeah, I think , um, that procurement is a complex thing in our systems for good reason . Again, because there's a lot of money in the public school system and you need lots of rules to make sure that that money is spent wisely and ethically and directed in the things that are gonna solve the right things for kids. So it's a good thing that procurement is messy and hard , um, in lots of ways, but it makes it really messy and hard. Also, there's a lot of money spent in education. So I think in Louisiana alone, you know, curriculum I think was, you know, tens of millions of dollars every year are going just to curriculum procurement. That's not including professional learning, that's not including devices that , you know so many other parts of it. And that money is allocated from the state. It exists, there's a , and it , a lot of it comes from the federal government that we're flowing through to support some of these initiatives. So there's just a ton of procurement happening all of the time in education. And we would always say, you know, if the book you're putting in front of kids is a second grade book and you're putting in front of sixth graders, that dictates the experience they're having. If the activities you're putting in front of kids are cutting out and coloring images for high schoolers, that dictates a lot. And so curriculum is a very powerful tool. It puts high quality materials even when they're not perfectly used more consistently in front of kids in a more equitable way. I believe that deeply in my core, I believe our RAND data suggested that teachers learned a lot and became actually deeper and better users of the standards themselves by the use of high quality curriculum in their practice. And so I think it's a development tool in and of itself for teachers. So I'm just such a believer in the equity of putting high quality in front of kids and putting great books and great math problems in front of kids every day . I think it matters. And so you can have an awesome policy, but if the money is still going to things that don't put meaningful tasks in front of kids, the policy really doesn't have a lot of value. And I do think that the marketplace, when people understand how to purchase within it can be a powerful lever because procurement's so difficult. People tend to keep procuring from the same place over time because you have to go through board approvals and there's so much oversight. And so I think if you can help people see in the market what's a quality, it's also very, that's difficult. Again, to the example I was showing earlier, like the number of people and I had this at the state , so many vendors, so many people telling me their efficacy study that was like, when you really dig in yeah , not that bo and like turns out not even an external efficacy study and like, you know, and those are complex questions to ask of every vendor and you know, of every person. It's just a hard thing to navigate in the market. And so when we can identify quality in the marketplace, one that alone makes the procurement work so much faster for people when we can then enable their procurement of quality faster, that helps. And then when we get people into high quality marketplaces, they tend to stay in high quality marketplaces longer over time. And so I just think it can be a , you can direct people towards quality more clearly and help them kind of stay in the space of quality more consistently through marketplace work. Which again is not something I myself really understood or anticipated before I was in this role.

Speaker 1:

Hmm . That makes me think too of, you know, the longer that you're using a particular high quality material, whether it's curriculum assessment, what it , whatever it is, the better you understand that tool, the more flexible you get with that tool, the better you can meet students' needs and help other people meet similar student needs based on the same tool that you're using. So there's a , there's a lot of benefits to being deep in understanding that

Speaker 7:

We've heard so many stories just given a math example where it was in a district, this was a district that was in year three of implementation of a high quality math curriculum. And I was talking to a fifth grade teacher whose kids had basically had three years of the same curriculum. And she said, you know what, one of the major things I've realized is one , I've spent zero time teaching my kids the strategies. Like I've only spent time in content of the math because they already know how to use the number lines . They already know how to use the different kinds of sort of strategies that are used. And so I'm not teaching them the strategy. And the other thing I'm realizing from that is that my teachers and I would use different strategies cuz we learn different strategies, right? So kids are getting confused, am I learning the strategy and is that the thing I'm supposed to learn to memorize or am I learning the content of how fractions work or how multi-digit multiplication works? And when you start to have shared strategies year over year over year standard procedures year over year over year, you save so much time not reteaching new ones and you don't confuse kids because they start to realize the thing they're learning is the content, not the strategy, not the procedure. And so I, we started to see that bear fruit and we would hear it from teachers who were like two, three years in to teaching a curriculum with kids who had experience it and they're like, it's like night and day teaching this curriculum with a kid who's been in it for three years. So it was a very powerful thing, amazing thing to start to see teachers and hear from teachers about the power of uniform curriculum and not uniform in that we all teach it perfectly the same way but uniform in that these sort of structures and routines consistently show up for kids so that you can go deep in the places that are the most important and the hardest.

Speaker 1:

Mm . That's a great story. I was just talking with somebody not too long ago , um, about how as teachers, this sounds really ridiculous, but we forget to put the content first. We forget

Speaker 7:

That there's a lot happening in a classroom. It's very hard. Every time I'm in classrooms I'm like, this is very hard. There's so much happening. I have four kids in my home and I like can barely manage the processes of that, let alone, you know, reminding myself what it was like in the classroom. Yes. It's hard.

Speaker 1:

It is hard. It is hard. So what about big lessons you learned or big key takeaways you learned in that , in that work from the state?

Speaker 7:

Yeah, I think , um, I'm more of a believer in curriculum than even before I started. I'll just say. Um, I believe it is such an important first step towards equity for kids. I believe that it starts to ensure there's a baseline of, again, quality and access that all kids are afforded. Um , and it's such a helpful, in my opinion, tool for teachers. I think there's this fear when states or districts are new to curriculum work where they're like, no, this will take away the autonomy of our teachers. And we felt like it enabled the autonomy of our teachers. Teachers, oh that's great . Are not mostly writing curriculum from scratch every night. I think a lot of our research around the work, you know, Google and Pinterest searches, teachers are going places to look for tools. We know that. And so why not give them something that's research based , something that's been tested to start from, they might well and probably will adapt it and change it as they need. But to start from that base is a fundamentally different base to start from. And so I just am like such a believer that curriculum is an essential first step for good instructional change in systems. And that deepened in my time in Louisiana to not lessen in any way. I definitely think that we focused a lot on the district and teacher level, which I think was very profound. And I think focusing so much on the teacher level was just really incredible. We learned so much and I think we did better things because of it. I wish we had done more work at the principal level sooner. And so that was a big lesson learned for me was just that principals also needed to understand what was happening in the curriculum and how to support things in the school to make sure they could create the enabling conditions for teachers to really excel. When we started to do that work, we saw a lot of traction for it and I, I think we did it a couple of years too late essentially. So that was definitely , um, a big learning of mine. And then I think there are just places we as a field don't have good enough answers and we should say that more honestly to our school systems and stop making our school systems and our teachers feel like they should just be getting it right sometimes. So I don't think we really know enough about how to support struggling late elementary and middle school readers. And we sort of do do this thing in school systems where we say, just teach the thing, just teach the thing. Just teach the thing. And they're like, it's not working. Like our teachers are saying it's not working for our struggling readers and we kind of wanna just like close our ears a little bit and not hear that it's really not working and I don't think it is working. And now in this place I'm in now I know all of the holes in research. I'm like, oh, we actually don't have well research answers in some of these places. And by acknowledging that as a community, we can then start to put money and funding into doing more of that work collectively. And so I wish we were less afraid to acknowledge broadly, broadly the places we have fewer answers. And I think it would put a lot less, it doesn't mean there aren't things we know to do. There are lots of things we know to do and we have kids in our classrooms today and we need to keep teaching them in the best ways we know how and we should be putting in more effort to find better solutions as a broad community. And I don't think we're good about seeing that, recognizing it and doing that collectively when we know there are major holes in what we understand.

Speaker 1:

That's a really good point. I see. And , and as an extension of that, often I see people say they will use the what we don't know as an excuse to not implement the thing that we do know. So maybe it's being willing to hold both things in our hand and say, well, we do know some things so we're gonna do that and also hold in our hand, well we don't know those things, but that doesn't mean we aren't gonna do the things that we do know for now and keep keep things for moving forward as we can.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, absolutely. I, we know we don't know all the things because we have a large percentage of our kids not doing well, which is not a result of our kids. It's a result of us not knowing how to give them what they need. And so I think we all know it, but I think sometimes yeah, we're afraid to say it because we worry that people will just stop, throw their hands up. But I think teachers, like for the most part, teachers show up every day to help kids. You know, like that's what they wanna do. Like very few teachers are like, I don't care. I'm not gonna do anything like teachers wanna do right by kids. And there are things we know even about middle school kids that we know matter. There's lots of fluency research that's been done that we know is critical and comprehension, lots of comprehension stuff around vocabulary and background loans . We know our non-negotiable, we should do those things. And I think most teachers, when they deeply understand them, agree that we should do them and continue them. And we should feel comfortable saying, here are the places we have questions. And so let's all collectively and, and sometimes we don't like to admit that when we're on the developer side or we're on the management side because we also have to acknowledge we have to change some of our stuff, you know, that we also don't always know. And that's scary having written a middle school curriculum myself, you know, I get get it. But I think teachers would appreciate more if we could be more honest about some of those things and trust that they're still gonna work really hard to do the things we do know. And that's all we can really do in education all the time. Yeah . Is like do the best with what we know and keep changing as we know more.

Speaker 1:

The whole thing though about , um, we , we don't like to change our our point of view or change what we're doing, it's, well , it's adult stuff. It's hard for us to , to say no , we maybe need to change that. But you guys did it at the state of Louisiana. That's pretty, pretty cool and really inspiring.

Speaker 7:

It's hard.

Speaker 1:

It is, it's really, it's really hard work and, and I'm not trying to , uh, negate , uh, the effort that it does take to change to , um, it's just not something that's easy to do. Um, one other thing that I wanna say, I had this, this , uh, vision in my head when you said no teacher wants to goes into a class not to help kids. It's so true because unless you've stood in front of a group of students, whether it's kindergarten or third grade or fifth grade or eighth grade or 11th grade, you would not go back every single day if you didn't care about those kids because is not an easy environment to be in. <laugh>.

Speaker 7:

No, I taught 125 middle schoolers when I was a teacher and oh no. Like no, it's the , I love middle schoolers, so actually don't get me wrong, but like, it's not easy and there are lots of other things you can do. And so yeah, I think and, and you just go to care about your kids so much, you know, I think when you're a teacher and so you want to help the kids that are struggling and you feel frustrated yourself that you cannot figure out what to do. Yeah . And that's what's so hard. You go through all , I have a very good friend here in Charleston who's a late elementary reading teacher and she just, she's been teaching for, you know, for 20 years. She's an incredible teacher. And I was talking to her many times this spring, you know, during covid and all the things and so many moments of just self doubt , frustration, fear, like, why can't I figure this out? This is so hard this kid's not learning this and this, you know , that's how a lot of teachers are. And so I think we have to be better partners to our teachers too, both to help them get what they need and then also to say, and that's how what I feel my role is now to say, okay, we can do some of that investigation. We can do some of that better tool creation for you so that you can do the very hard job of working with the 50 or a hundred kids. You have to make sure their needs are met in unique ways. And that's where I think curriculum professional learning partnerships with teachers can be so powerful.

Speaker 1:

And if you heard that in my , in the background, that was a loud clap of thunder that I feel like , oh , that was very loud . Just put an exclamation point <laugh> on what you had to say <laugh> . So that was a perfect timing. Yeah. Uh , well we're really focusing on this season of the podcast and building infrastructure systems to support students. And as we've already talked about, the heart of the work is really the students, but if I say the phrase to you, it's all about the students. What does that mean to you, you and to your work?

Speaker 7:

Um, I think to me what it means is that we have to stop accepting incremental progress. At least for me, I'm focused on reading and reading results and I think that sometimes we are satisfied with two percentage points , square third , five percentage points growth. But the reality is less, you know, 30% of American high schoolers are reading meaningfully on grade level. And , um, that should not be the case and that is not the case in other countries. And it is unacceptable that our systems have not figured out how to get 90% of kids reading on grade level. And so to me, I think being all about the kids means we are willing to question things. We assume to be true. We are willing to provide better supports, faster supports, take more responsibility as adults to find better answers faster. And we stay grounded in what is actually working at scale for kids , um, and trying to do more of that. So again, that's scaling more of what we know in research works now. We have to do that and people sitting outside of the system doing more work faster to find better answers to put back into the system to make scale easier. So I just think , um, I think sometimes we have too much of a tolerance for incremental progress in education. And I think if we said we're gonna go from three to four or 5% growth in five years as a country to 30 and 40% growth, we might do really different things in a system. And so to me that's what it means to be all about the kids, is to think differently about what we need to do.

Speaker 1:

Well, thank you for joining us and, and thank you for the work that you're doing for students. Um, we appreciate having you on this episode.

Speaker 7:

Yeah, thank you for having me. And , um, just very much appreciate the focusing questions, so thank you so much.

Speaker 1:

Thanks so much for listening to my conversation with Rebecca Coer , former assistant superintendent of academics at the Louisiana Department of Education. Rebecca is currently program director of Reading Reimagined and the CEO and founder of Illuminate Literacy. Check out the show notes for a link to Louisiana's instructional materials review. We'd love to know what you thought of this episode. The best place to keep in touch is our Facebook discussion group, science of Reading the Community. Next time on the show, we're going to take a closer look at the district level by speaking with Dr . Na Shaana Francis Thompson, the Deputy Chief of Curriculum and Instruction in the School District of Philadelphia.

Speaker 8:

When schools see that some students are benefiting, they continue to do the things that they're doing because some students are benefiting. But if we're only in the business of educating some students, then what are we really doing?

Speaker 1:

Stay tuned for that and thanks again for listening.