K-12 Education

  • Efforts to help strengthen and improve public education are central to the Albert Shanker Institute’s mission. This work is pursued by promoting discussions, supporting publications and sponsoring research on new and workable approaches to ensuring that all public schools are good schools. As explained by Al Shanker below, these efforts are grounded in the belief that a vibrant public school system is crucial to the health and survival of the nation:

    "...I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.

    "A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today.

    "Public schools played a big role in holding our nation together. They brought together children of different races, languages, religions and cultures and gave them a common language and a sense of common purpose. We have not outgrown our need for this; far from it. Today, Americans come from more different countries and speak more different languages than ever before. Whenever the problems connected with school reform seem especially tough, I think about this. I think about what public education gave me—a kid who couldn’t even speak English when I entered first grade. I think about what it has given me and can give to countless numbers of other kids like me. And I know that keeping public education together is worth whatever effort it takes."

    Albert Shanker, 1997

  • What Teachers Want From PD

    Teacher professional development (PD) often gets a bad rap. As a former educator of nearly a decade, I can count on one hand how many successful PD sessions I attended over the years. I can also remember how impactful those select few sessions were to my teaching craft.

    According to the 2020 International Literacy Association (ILA) survey for teachers, higher education professionals, literacy consultants, and school administrators, PD was identified as a top priority for improving instruction. Participants also stated that PD needs more focus and attention to support teachers in their ongoing professional growth. Teachers understand the need for PD, but often feel unfulfilled by the experience.

    So, I wondered—what do teachers really want from PD? After reviewing several articles and studies from the perspective of primary and secondary teachers, six common trends emerged.

  • The Struggle Over The Power Of Naming

    Our guest author today is Leo Casey, former Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute and current Assistant to the President at the American Federation of Teachers. He is the author of The Teacher Insurgency (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

    Do teachers have a “free speech” or “freedom of conscience” right to call students by the name and pronouns the teacher wants to use, rather than a responsibility to use the name and pronouns students’ provide for themselves—as some on the political right in education now claim?

    I come to this question as someone who has spent the last four decades of my life as a teacher unionist fighting for the “freedom to teach.” For me and for the great preponderance of the teachers I have worked with, that freedom was never an unconditional right to do whatever we wanted to do in a classroom. Rather, it was our collective right to teach in accordance with the best educational practices, as understood by the professional teaching community.* To properly address the question of what name(s) a teacher should use, therefore, we must situate it in the work that teachers do, and the responsibilities that work entails.

  • Early Reading: Screening, Diagnosis, And Prevention

    This is an updated excerpt from a publication I developed in 2000 while working for the AFT Educational Issues Department, “Putting Reading Front and Center: A Resource Guide for Union Advocacy.” By tapping the expertise of teachers of reading among members, local unions can use their collective voice to strengthen reading instruction.

    The best form of reading remediation is to prevent children from falling behind in the first place. To many educators, this statement seems so obvious that its an education truism. Yet its one thing to agree on a basic truth and quite another to figure out how to implement it as part of a comprehensive school improvement effort.

    The importance of assessing early reading skills

    The first essential step in building an effective support system for struggling readers is to identify difficulties quickly, before an achievement gap can develop. The second is to implement effective prevention and early intervention strategies—i.e., stepping in while students are so young that reading failure never occurs, or early enough that it is relatively easy for students to catch up. For reading, its particularly important that this support begin at the earliest possible grade level.

  • What Teachers Say About Literacy

    There is no denying the impact that literacy has on everyday life. Literacy skills allow us to seek out information, explore subjects in-depth, and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us (The University of Kansas, 2021). Given the importance of literacy, a teacher’s role not only plays a fundamental part in a child's education but also their well-being. To understand what drives a teacher’s pedagogical approaches, two recent surveys from EdWeek and The International Literacy Association (ILA) have attempted to capture how teacher practices, experiences, and knowledge shape their literacy instruction.

    In fall of 2019, the EdWeek Research Center set out to gain a clearer sense of teacher practices and knowledge by sending out two surveys about topics related to early literacy instruction. The first survey was completed by 674 K-2 and elementary special education teachers who self-reported having taught children how to read. The second survey was completed by 533 higher education instructors from four-year colleges or universities who indicated they had taught early literacy instruction to teachers or prospective teachers. Both surveys included questions about approaches to teaching early literacy instruction.

    The ILA survey, developed by a 17-member focus group of literacy experts, was completed by 1,443 teachers, higher education professionals, literacy consultants, and school administrators from 65 countries and territories. In winter of 2020, based on the survey results, the ILA released the What’s Hot in Literacy Report looking at the experiences of reading instructors and identifying critical topics to advancing literacy.

  • The Science of Reading Reporting: What’s in It for Parents of Young Children?

    The past two or three years have witnessed extensive media coverage of the research on reading (see here, here, here and here for a few examples). This work has informed the public and sounded an alarm on the disconnect between what experts know about reading and the extent to which this knowledge informs instruction across America’s classrooms. Reactions to this in-depth reporting have been positive for the most part, but some critical voices have noted it has helped to reignite the so-called “reading wars” and contributed to a narrow view of the scientific research on reading (see here and here). Specifically, some of these critics have taken issue with what they view as a hyper focus on one of the two main aspects of reading, decoding or word recognition, at the expense of the second, language comprehension, which is just as crucial to becoming a skilled reader (see here). In addition, almost completely absent from the conversation has been any discussion of the system and organizational/school conditions that shape reading instruction and reform (see here). 

    In this post I discuss my own perception of this journalism, what I find remarkable about it, but also what I wish had been more central to it and why. To be clear, I am not an expert on reading, but I am an education researcher (and a parent of a preschooler) who has spent some time reading and reflecting on this topic. Importantly, I am steeped in a context where literacy is central: the Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers have, for over two decades, been translating the science of reading (SoR) for educators (see herehere, herehere, and here) in a consistent, comprehensive, and balanced way. What I have learned from my colleagues over the years has deeply influenced how I’ve contextualized and made sense of the latest SoR reporting.

  • What Literacy Can Do

    "In today’s society, the child who doesn’t learn to read does not make it in life. If children don’t learn to read early enough, if they don’t learn to read with comprehension, if they don’t read fluently enough to read broadly and reflectively across all content areas, if they don’t learn to read effortlessly enough to render reading pleasurable, their chances for a fulfilling life—by whatever measure: academic success, financial stability, the ability to find satisfying work, personal autonomy, self-esteem—are practically nil."

    This is the first paragraph from a 1998 AFT resolution on beginning reading instruction. It was true then, and it’s true now. The quote above is harsh, but it is backed by a host of research evidence from eminent scholars, including Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Research Council), The National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), and Reaping the Rewards of Reading for Understanding (National Academy of Education). It could also explain why the teaching of reading has so much passion around it; reading well is just that important.

  • Renewing Our Commitment To Reading

    “Follow the science” is a familiar refrain. The earliest science-backed advice at the beginning of the pandemic was “wash your hands.” As emerging science pointed to the efficacy of mask-wearing, and now vaccines, “follow the science” has become ubiquitous with every new way to protect ourselves. It is also common in discussions about learning to read. More and more states are discerning what that means for their students, their teachers, and reading programs in general.

    For over 20 years, the Albert Shanker Institute, alongside of the American Federation of Teachers, has been following the science with the goal of bridging research and practice. Our work on reading instruction has been guided by evidence collected in the National Research Council’s Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, including reading program priorities of explicit, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary development, content knowledge, and reading comprehension instruction. We have produced several publications curating this evidence, such as Literacy Ladders, Let’s Talk: Oral Language Development, Let's Talk: Early Literacy Development, Preschool Curriculum: What’s In It for Children and Teachers, and videos such as The Early Language Gap is About More Than Words and Let’s Talk to stimulate public discussion about these issues.

    ASI is renewing our commitment to students, families, educators, schools, and allies in strengthening reading instruction.

  • How To Support Teachers' Well-Being During COVID-19? Prioritize Relationships With Students.

    Our guest authors today are Kristabel Stark, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, and Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education and education policy at Boston University. 

    As schools around the country get ready to reopen this month, we’ve heard a lot of talk about masks, ventilation systems, tablets, and internet access. But in the midst of these logistical conversations, it’s been easy to overlook the thing that matters most for a successful return to school: teachers.  For teachers, factors associated with COVID-19 have challenged core dimensions of their work. As school gets underway this year, and building and district administrators strategize how to go about rebuilding again in the midst of a pandemic, our research suggests that one action is critical: prioritizing relationship building between teachers and students. We find that, of all of teachers’ daily activities, it is their work with students that is most strongly associated with positive emotions. And, this relationship actually intensified in the early months of the pandemic.

    We did not set out to write a COVID paper. In the fall of 2019, we set out to conduct a longitudinal study of teachers’ daily work experiences, including how they budgeted their time across activities and how their emotions varied within and across schooldays. In the study, nearly 250 teachers in two urban school districts completed time diary surveys in which they recorded how long they spent on various activities, who they spent their time with, and how they felt during these activities and interactions.  We wanted to understand how teachers’ emotions were associated with specific professional activities, and how those emotions changed over the course of a school year. But of course, we didn’t foresee that, midway through data collection, a global pandemic would emerge, temporarily transforming the nature of teachers’ work lives and professional experiences.

  • Teaching The Constitution As A Living Compact

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our final guest author in this series is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    At a time when the future of American democracy hangs in the balance, how should we teach the U.S. Constitution?

    The Preamble to the Constitution, where the framers laid out its purposes, provides us with six words that help answer this question. The Constitution was intended, its authors wrote, “to form a more perfect union.” With this phrase, the framers made it clear that they did not conceive of the Constitution or the republic it established as a finished product, perfect and complete for all time, but as a work in progress, in need of continuous renewal and “re-founding.” By the design of the founders, the Constitution is a living compact, changing and evolving with “we the people” who authorize it and give it legitimacy anew with each successive generation of Americans.

  • Federal Policy And Tribal Sovereignty

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Jordann Lankford-Forster. an educator and an IEFA instructional coach for Great Falls Public Schools in Great Falls, Montana. Jordann is A’aniiih and Anishinaabe, and her A’aniiih name is Bright Trail Woman. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    American Indian Federal policy has historically played a significant role in tribal sovereignty. This is always a difficult subject to explain because it is so multifaceted. Prior to colonization, tribal sovereignty was exercised absolutely, with tribes interacting on a government-to-government basis, and under total self-sufficiency. Today, major contributing factors to achieving total sovereignty include location, access to resources, and relationship status with the Federal Government. It is important to remember that tribal sovereignty—or the ability to remain separate and independent—looks different for every tribe. As (the 574) tribes and individual American Indians navigate their future, the Constitution is continually referenced as a means to gain a strong foothold within the country that we now know as the United States of America. 

    I teach in a small district in Great Falls, Montana. Our student population is 16.5 percent American Indian and 44 different tribes are represented within our school system. My district is considered “urban” because it is in a city rather than located on a reservation. In 1972 the Montana Constitution was revised to recognize the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians”  and to be “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” And, as a district, we are continually trying to ensure we honor that. At times, it is difficult for my students because they do not always feel like they have a sense of identity within this country.