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

  • Early Reading: Teacher Preparation

    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.

    New findings from 50 years of international research in such diverse feels as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, and education have helped illuminate the process by which children learn to read. This research indicates that, although some children learn to read with relative ease, others will never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. And, although a large number of students come to school unprepared to achieve in reading, the reading difficulties of most at risk and struggling students could be prevented or ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of research-based components and practices, unfortunately very few teachers of reading have been taught how to deliver such instruction.

    Where We Are

    Ask almost any elementary school teacher what he or she knew about the teaching of reading before entering the classroom, and the answer will be: “Not nearly enough.”

  • The Story On State Literacy Initiatives

    According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million people) are illiterate or functionally illiterate. Nearly two-thirds of fourth grade students read below grade level, and that percentage persists all the way through high school graduation (Rea, 2021).

    While these statistics are alarming, federal and state leaders have been focused on literacy rates for many years. The United States Department of Education (DOE) most recently addressed literacy through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, which “outlines a direct and sustained approach to improving literacy achievement” (Alliance for Excellence Education, 2017). Specifically, ESSA focuses on two components to support literacy: funding and professional development. For funding, Title II of ESSA includes the “Literacy Education for All, Results for a Nation” (LEARN) Act, which provides competitive grants to states to help local school districts develop comprehensive birth-through-grade-twelve literacy plans.

    Additionally, the LEARN Act states that local education agencies must use any grant funds they receive to support high-quality professional development for teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel. However, ESSA also gives states new flexibility in choosing which indicators they use to measure student performance on state assessments in English Language Arts and Math, as well as how much emphasis to place on each of these measures (The Education Trust, 2017). As a result, literacy policies, laws, and initiatives vary greatly from state to state, given the flexibility permitted by ESSA.

  • Constructing And Animating The Infrastructure For Reading Instruction

    The Albert Shanker Institute is talking with educators and school leaders daily. Our conversations range from attention-grabbing issues of the moment to long-range plans to strengthen and improve teaching and learning. Throughout the pandemic we have featured the voices of practitioners and earlier this fall we also renewed the Albert Shanker Institute’s commitment to strengthening reading instruction and literacy. We recognize our schools are currently being asked to accomplish the enormous task of keeping schools and communities safe and healthy from COVID—including improving air circulation and revamping physical plants without disrupting classroom instruction, fill perennial hard-to-staff positions, provide nutritional and community support to students and families, and address interrupted learning. Everything must be read in consideration of a productive path forward as we work collectively to meet the needs of students. 

    Today’s guest blog post from Sarah L. Woulfin (The University of Texas at Austin) and Rachael Gabriel (University of Connecticut) is no different. The deep ideas of structural change (and the infrastructure that must be addressed) offer a path forward that is collaborative, effective and research-based. The authors provide certainty and confidence in a time when we could use both. Rather than bounce from quick, one-time fixes, we need to pause to redesign teaching and learning going forward. Our students deserve our most thoughtful work.

    From Why Johnny Can’t Read, to the Reading Wars and Reading First, to the Science of Reading, multiple constituents—from policymakers and journalists to district leaders and parents—have spelled out problems in teachers’ reading instruction and students’ reading achievement. Concerns about reading instruction, with attempts to convert schools towards evidence-based practice, are not new. Proponents of the “Science of Reading” (SOR) now concentrate on the necessity of teachers covering particular strands of reading instruction and using particular instructional methods (e.g., phonics, explicit instruction, and systematic teaching of foundational skills) (Barnes, 2016; Brady, 2011; Hanford, 2018). They apply assumptions that specific content is not being taught in preferred ways because of deficits in teacher knowledge or the absence of appropriate instructional materials (Korbey, 2020; Lyon & Chhabra, 2004). Therefore, much of the SOR discourse hones in on individuals over systems and structures.

  • Pausing To Reflect On A Stressful School Year

    The Albert Shanker Institute has long prioritized research on improving conditions for teaching and learning. We committed to compile and share the ideas and actions of accomplished educators and education leaders while seeing the impact of the pandemic on our schools. Knowing that research also points to the importance of principal leadership in our school communities, we were troubled to read the concerning results of the survey the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) released earlier this month. We knew we needed to share the results. We are very fortunate that, amidst the whirlwind of her school and leadership duties, NASSP Principal of the Year, Beth Houf shared her reflections on her experiences, the NASSP survey results, and suggestions for a path forward with the Shanker blog. Please take some time to read and reflect on Beth’s experience and commit to advocating in 2022 for the insightful and productive ideas she offers. Thank you. - Mary Cathryn Ricker

    Winter break has officially started for our school, and I finally have time to reflect on the first half of the school year. It has truly been a whirlwind.

    Being a principal has never been an easy job. But there have been more days this year that have delivered impossible situations and that have left me overwhelmed, overstressed, and completely empty. Everything is urgent. We all know that when everything is important, nothing can be important. My school is understaffed daily. Everyone is doing their own job and then the job of others. Those who need to take a day off carry the guilt of their absence. Student behaviors are over the top. Fuses are short and tempers flare. Social media has only added fuel to the fire. All I can do is react. There’s simply no time to be the proactive leader that I strive to be. It shouldn’t be this way.

  • Allied Around Student Success

    I see multiple stories published daily about the fragile state of the teaching profession and educators themselves. There is also concerning anecdotal evidence suggesting that the work of other school-related professionals, such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers, is also suffering due to stress from the pandemic, which may also be contributing to turnover and educator shortages. What can be most productive at this point would be to refocus on and rebuild the trust between families and educators to help promote student learning.

    One thing the adults (and the students) in our schools don’t need right now is an opportunistic wedge being driven between the most natural allies in the cause of student success: families and educators. Rather than focus on problem-solving and communication, there are many stories that are focused on pitting educators and families against each other over teaching practices and materials, which is increasing the stress of teaching and learning just about every day.

    I’m not just talking about late-in-the-game advertisements during the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The work to create distrust between these longstanding partners—educators and parents—rather than nurture communication and collaboration, goes back months and has presented itself in state houses across the country. Leading the effort are state laws that create a climate of shoot-first ask-questions-later when it comes to perceived instructional transgressions. Books are being banned rather than discussed in Texas. The Tennessee Department of Education has instituted emergency rules for financially penalizing districts, and  disciplining or reporting teachers violating  a law  of 14 concepts deemed too contentious by the legislature. Similarly, the New Hampshire Department of Education has created an online form to collect complaints about teachers from parents and students. A growing number of states have introduced or passed laws similar to these in 2021, while other states have plans to introduce similar measures in future legislative sessions.

  • 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.