Decades of Dedication to the Science of Reading
As director of the Albert Shanker Institute, the think tank endowed by the American Federation of Teachers, I had the privilege of leading the development and release of the ASI’s new report released in late July, Reading Reform Across America. It’s a survey of reading legislation adopted over the course of four years by states across the country, with good and bad news. The report was met with immediate interest, and attention.
To the good, states are finally noting that the research underlying strong reading instruction is not typically matched by the curriculum and instruction in most schools, and they are taking legislative action. Also, despite fears that much of the legislation might only call narrowly for phonics, most states called for the full range of instruction noted as essential in the renowned 2000 National Reading Panel report.
On the downside, the legislation is generally too narrow. In almost every state, there is scant attention to the importance of background knowledge, oral language, and even writing, now understood to be vital to strong reading comprehension and overall literacy.
Also in late July, the American Federation of Teachers hosted TEACH, Together Educating America’Children, the union’s biennial professional learning conference. As part of that conference, AFT president Randi Weingarten announced Reading Universe, a new partnership involving WETA (Washington DC’s public broadcasting station), AFT and First Book, and the Barksdale Reading Institute, known for its work in early reading instruction (most notably in Mississippi’s well-regarded reading initiative). She also announced a special issue of the AFT’s quarterly magazine, American Educator, devoted to family literacy. It’s filled with short, family-friendly articles in English and Spanish on helping children learn to read and partnering with educators.
All three announcements were familiar territory for the ASI and the AFT. Both organizations have been disseminating research on reading and on research-based teacher training in reading for decades. They have been instrumental in disseminating this research and training to educators during the long period when districts and states largely neglected it. Often, instead, they provided staff with reading materials and training that did not reflect up-to-date reading research—and often left paraprofessionals out of the professional development opportunities entirely.
All three announcements were met with interest and enthusiasm, but not universally.
Oddly, a small group of activists, arguably advocates for the same needed reading reforms that AFT has supported—supposedly allies in the cause—took these announcements as an opportunity to criticize the AFT for not “doing more,” suggesting that the organization hasn’t made it a top legislative or budget priority or, even, that the union should go on strike to get effective literacy instruction.
Perhaps these antagonists are so anti-union they can’t take yes for an answer.
So, here’s a little history lesson.
Earlier in my career, I was the president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, during which time I worked with and relied on the AFT, as did many others in Minnesota and around the country, to know what was best practice in early reading and, importantly, to get training to our teachers on instructional practices in early reading that met standards of evidence that our school districts and states were ignoring.
I experienced this “can’t take yes for an answer” attitude immediately and thoroughly in my role as local president. As the new union president, fresh from earning my board certification in Early Adolescent English/Language Arts and being the model classroom for middle school writing instruction, I was accused by a principal (who had regularly tried to poach me to teach in his building before my union election) of wielding Darth Vader’s lightsaber, as if I had somehow switched to the Dark Side by becoming my union’s president. After supporting Minnesota’s application for Race to the Top funding—in part because of its innovative language to strengthen teacher evaluation with peer assistance and review—I had more than one elected official compliment my out-of-the-box-thinking, only to have those same officials tell me, when I brought that thinking to the bargaining table, to get back in the box of only negotiating wages and benefits. So many conversations that began as lectures about prioritizing teaching and learning were turned into lectures about staying in my lane as a union leader when I discussed our union’s priorities for teaching and learning. So, as I have seen the enthusiasm for the reading work announced by the ASI and the AFT in the last month peppered with ignorant critiques, it felt just as familiar and just as tired.
Here are facts: When I was president of my local union, I saw the substantial resources and support my national union, the AFT, put into our local professional development work. Our local union offered members a dozen different courses offered through AFT’s Educational Research and Dissemination program (now Professional Learning, with over 50 courses). Because the AFT subsidized the costs, we were able to send at least half a dozen teachers and paraprofessionals to “train-the-trainer” training every summer. Those trainers would come back and create a yearlong schedule packed with evidence-based courses in reading, math, and family involvement. My local union’s meeting rooms were packed virtually every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of the week, filled with educators committed to attending the full 30-45 hours of each class. Often one year’s student learner became the next year’s trainer because the enthusiasm for our union’s professional learning was palpable among members.
None of this would have been possible without the financial, technical, and sustained support from the AFT. None of it.
Our local union was able to make professional learning the largest portion of our budget and our priorities because the AFT made professional learning such a large portion of their budget and priorities. My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that in my nine-year tenure as local president, when we offered over a dozen professional learning opportunities, with a likely average of 20 educators attending each course, over 3,600 educators received the evidence-based reading, math, or family involvement classes that the AFT developed and subsidized to bring to Saint Paul’s educators. I know my local union was not alone. The AFT’s investment in developing and disseminating evidence-based professional development in programs like my local union’s was happening across the country for the better part of three decades—and it’s still happening .
I asked Ruth Wattenberg to reflect on the AFT side of that support and to weigh in about the AFT’s historic role promoting the science of reading. She is the former director of Educational Issues for the AFT and editor of American Educator magazine, and most recently president and member of DC’s State Board Education.
Seriously, I saw this back and forth on X (a.k.a. Twitter), with folks who should know better complaining that AFT hasn’t done enough to support improved reading instruction.
A former senior education advisor to George Bush, who definitely should know better, bragged (accurately) that the “Bush folks helped encourage and fund” much of the reading research. He then dismissed the AFT’s work, wondering what the AFT does to support effective reading instruction beyond the “spread of literature,” suggesting that the AFT’s work “amounts to a fraction of what else could be done” and that the union should do “even more, including PD.”
Good grief. Here are a few more facts to add to Mary Cathryn’s, from my experience:
First, it’s great that the Bush administration helped to encourage, fund, and spread much of the research! I was a fan. But a lot of that research happened long before Bush was president, and AFT was already promoting it!
The AFT launched its Education Research and Dissemination program in the ‘80s and its research-based early reading instruction training in the ‘90s.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, and ever since, the AFT has published key reading researchers including Marilyn Adams, Nell Duke, Barbara Foorman, Mark Seidenberg, Timothy Shanahan, Keith Stanovich, Susan Neuman and many others in the American Educator. It published the famous, massively distributed Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science by Louisa Moats in 1999, and published an updated version again in 2020. It first published E. D. Hirsch, Jr., on the importance of background knowledge in 1985 and has published Hirsch, Daniel Willingham (the researcher behind American Educator’s highly regarded “Ask the Cognitive Scientist”), and many others on this issue—more than any general education organization I know.
As for the complaint that the AFT isn’t doing as much as it should…well, it’s worth understanding what a teacher unioncan—and can’t—do.
Let’s be serious: A teacher union is not a state agency or school district with the authority to adopt standards or mandate a curriculum. It doesn’t have the authority to require teacher training institutions to prepare elementary teachers to teach using practices supported by the science-of-reading (SOR) or the power of a district to make such teaching the expectation. It doesn’t have the authority to require teachers to engage in professional development.
Unions are democratic institutions with limited legal authority. At the local union level, a union’s unique legal authority is very limited—mainly to represent teachers in contract negotiations and in grievances based on the contract. In most districts, despite great effort on the part of local unions, districts resist union efforts to negotiate professional issues. Just ask Mary Cathryn!
What teacher unions can do, just like other groups and citizens, is use their resources—which are, to say the least, far more limited than those of districts, states, and the federal government--to educate their members and advocate for their workplace and professional needs. On improving reading instruction and curriculum, we learned long ago that AFT’s special power is in its ability to reach out and educate its own members and leadership—and it has used that resource well.
- The AFT’s educational issues magazine, the American Educator, goes out to nearly a million members—bringing members some of the most important findings from some of the most important experts on reading (and many other issues!). It’s been doing so since the seventies.
- The AFT runs educational issues conferences that attract thousands of teachers, teacher activists, and local and state union leaders—who then take the messages and materials home. I remember some years ago, the national conference theme was “Building on the Best, Learning from What Works .” It sharply focused on connecting teachers to the importance of education research, especially in reading.
- Those professional development programs Mary Cathryn used in St. Paul are used by hundreds of local unions. Sometimes, the training is offered by the union in partnership with administration on district sponsored PD days.
Getting it right: As the science of reading gets its long-awaited, much-needed moment, two big alerts need to be sounded:
- Quality implementation, with attention to continuous improvement. In education, even great evidence-based research and programs require tailoring to the local situation, with attention to local input. As we put new curricula and training into place, we need to look at the data and listen to the people involved. Is it working as hoped? What could be better? What isn’t working and how can we improve it? We need the kind of attention to “continuous improvement” and “improvement science” that Anthony Bryk, founder of University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, has been researching and advocating.
- Background Knowledge for reading comprehension. Importantly, we need to keep pushing all of our education agencies to pay as much attention to the knowledge needed for comprehension as they are now (finally!) paying to the skills needed for decoding. The ASI report is clear that this receives almost no attention in the current legislation. But if we don’t fix this, we’ll end up with 3rd graders who can decode well—but not middle-schoolers ready for greater rigor and 12th graders ready for higher education and the world of work.
I am thrilled that the science of reading’s moment seems to have come! I like to think that all of us at the AFT have been tilling these fields, helping to create fertile ground for the current science-of-reading movement. Let’s use the moment well! I thank the AFT and the ASI for their contributions so far—and encourage others to learn more and support those who have been tilling the field. Let’s work together to make this movement successful!
MARY CATHRYN and RUTH
Keep forging ahead AFT, First Book, Barksdale Institute, and WETA. We are so grateful for these initiatives, which will provide support regardless of what a state legislature has or has not done to address student learning. We can’t wait to see what comes next!