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

  • 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.

  • Why Teach The Constitution?

    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 Zeph Capo, a public school science teacher, president of the Texas AFT, and member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    Collective bargaining is the cornerstone on which we built the middle-class. As a labor leader, it is the best tool used by workers to earn a seat at the table as equals with their employer. It is also how we develop a contract outlining one another’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the workplace. As an educator, I ask: How do we expect workers to understand the process and power of collective bargaining if they don’t understand the power and process of governance as outlined in our Constitution?

    I believe teaching the Constitution is vital, because it is the premier collectively-bargained contract present in our lives. The rights, responsibilities, and regulations set forth in the Constitution serve as the bedrock on which we develop all other aspects of the agreements governing the many facets of our society.

  • Teaching Students The Textualist Interpretation Of Law

    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 David Said, a social studies teacher at Athens High School in Troy, Michigan. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    In a fairly recent court case, Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that sex discrimination does cover gay and transgender individuals under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. One of the more surprising aspects of this case was that the majority opinion was delivered by associate justice Neil Gorsuch. Appointed by President Trump to replace the late Antonin Scalia, most assumed he would tow the line of conservative jurisprudence. In joining with Chief Justice John Roberts and all three of the courts liberal leaning justices, Gorsuchs majority decision showcased a level of judicial independence that is important for the maintaining the integrity of this important institution. 

    A key part of Gorsuchs judicial philosophy is grounded in a concept called textualism.” Simply put, textualism is an interpretation of law in which the words of the legal text are analyzed through the lens of their normal meaning. It is quite common for Justices to include authors’ intent, historical examples, and most importantly precedence as factors when deciding a case that comes before the Supreme Court. Textualism appears to simplify this process altogether by requiring one to truly dig deep into the meaning of words and phrase. In the Bostock case, the word that Gorsuch zeroed in on was sex” within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Discriminating against an individual or group because of their sex could reasonably be interpreted to include gender as well as sexual orientation. The six Justices in the majority agreed with that preceding sentence. Conversely, the Justices in the minority were quick to point out that members of the legislative branch were likely not thinking of anything beyond men or women in the year 1964.

  • Understanding The Complexities Of History

    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 first guest author is Stephen Lazar, is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, who is typically teaching students Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC, which he helped to start. This year, he is on sabbatical and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center and is one of the Shanker Institute Civics Fellows. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    This is my first Constitution Day in some time where I will not be teaching high school students, since I am on sabbatical as I work towards a Ph.D. in history. When I am teaching history, there are two things I want students to understand more than anything else. First, history is complicated; things are rarely simply good or bad. Second, I want students to understand that that history is not merely a list of sequential facts. Instead, history is made up of competing interpretations. I regularly tell my students that historians, far more knowledgeable than we are, look at all the available evidence and come to different conclusions from each other. When I return to the classroom next fall, I plan to engage my students in one such disagreement in looking at the impact of the Constitution on people who were enslaved.

    Increasingly over the past few years, my students have come with strong opinions on the Constitution’s relationship to the institution of slavery. This happens for a variety of reasons: engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, watching Thirteenth on Netflix, and exposure to the growing public discourse that examines the history of racism in the United States. Whereas a decade ago, most of my students knew very little about the Constitution or had a relatively positive view of it, now a critical mass of my students strongly believe that the Constitution laid the foundation for a racist society because it was proslavery.

  • Returning To School During The Pandemic: An Opportunity To Integrate Social-Emotional AND Academic Learning

    Our guest authors today are Bill Wilmot and Bryan Mascio. Bill is a UDL Implementation Specialist at CAST and adjunct faculty at Lasell University, supporting educators to create more inclusive curriculum, classrooms and systems. Bryan is a Teaching Faculty at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where he helps prepare new teachers and works with schools to become more equitable and inclusive.

    As we return to school in an ongoing pandemic, how do we support all learners to heal from what has been an overwhelming emotional toll accompanied by social isolation? How do we support students from what, for some, felt like insurmountable barriers to academic learning? How do we create a pedagogical approach and a means of responding to student behavioral needs that simultaneously and synergistically prioritizes compassion and knowledge building?

    Policymakers, researchers and practitioners planning for a return from the last year and a half of pandemic schooling overwhelmingly recommend two consistent focal points of our energies. In the ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 2, the US Department of Education guides us to focus on “meeting the social, emotional and mental health needs of students... and addressing lost instructional time.” The Annenberg Institute summarizes research saying that “Unaddressed trauma diminishes students’ abilities to benefit from rigorous instruction.” And, “whole-school strategies for addressing trauma tend to be more effective than strategies that focus on identifying individual students for secondary intervention” by shaping the very culture of the classroom. During the pandemic, practitioners across the country embraced the need to check in on the social and emotional well-being of learners not just during morning circle and advisory, but during math and social studies instruction as well. This push toward an empathy orientation and creating the space for emotional processing was so important and continues to be essential as we return from the pandemic.