How We Close the Nation’s Literacy Gap

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Literacy advocates are asking us all to face an uncomfortable reality: For decades, we’ve done a poor job of teaching children how to read in this country, and the widening gap in literacy is most apparent among our Black, Latino and Native American young people.

The good news is that we now know many the sources of our problems with literacy instruction, and advocates have both the policy solutions and new curricula to tackle the issue head on. Gloria speaks with panelists Jamila Newman of TNTP (formery The New Teacher Project, and Rebecca Kockler, Executive Director of Reading Reimagined, about the pitfalls associated with the widely utilized “whole language” model and how we can boost reading skills by teaching things like systematic phonics and deep vocabulary.

Thank you to Reading Reimagined and TNTP for making today’s conversation possible.

Presented by Neighborhood Villages. Neighborhood Villages is a Massachusetts-based systems change non-profit. It envisions a transformed, equitable early childhood education system that lifts up educators and sets every child and family up to thrive. In pursuit of this vision, Neighborhood Villages designs, evaluates, and scales innovative solutions to the biggest challenges faced by early childhood education providers and the children and families who rely on them, and drives policy reform through advocacy, education, and research.

This season was made possible with generous support from Imaginable Futures, a global philanthropic investment firm working with partners to build more healthy and equitable systems, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and realize the future they imagine. Learn more at

Check out these resources from today’s episode: 

Visit EdReports to read free, independent analysis of the instructional materials being used at your child’s school.

Visit TNTP to learn how education advocates are working to ensure that all students get equal access to effective teachers.

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Rebecca Kockler, Jamila Newman, Gloria Riviera

Gloria Riviera

WK Kellogg Foundation is proud to support No One Is Coming To Save Us. The WK Kellogg Foundation is guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive. Learn more at The Conrad N Hilton Foundation’s early childhood development initiative in the United States supports the wellbeing of caregivers and their young children prenatal to age three. The Hilton Foundation does this through investing in caregiver and parent education and wellbeing supporting local organizations and strengthening the early childhood field. Learn more at

Gloria Riviera  01:01

Welcome, everyone to another episode of No One Is Coming To Save Us. I’m your host, Gloria Rivera. Thank you so much. As always, for listening. We’re doing something a little different. In this episode. Today we’re expanding the lens we’ve used to discuss early childhood education, and we’re going to focus it on the issue of literacy amongst our youngest learners. Maybe you already know this, I didn’t. But not only has there been a steady decline in test scores for reading in the last decade among 13-year-olds. But only half, half of US adults can read past the 7th or 8th grade level. Those are astonishing figures that stopped me in my tracks. They also illustrate the widening literacy gap in our country. And it may not be surprising that the literacy gap is most apparent among our black, Latino and Native American students. The good news is that we know more today about why the current teaching models aren’t working about how we got here, and how we can fix this spoiler alert, there’s no magic bullet, and implementing any viable solutions will require both accountability and cooperation in our communities. My guest today are Jamila Newman of the New Teacher Project, and Rebecca Kockler, founder of Illuminate literacy. Jamila and Rebecca have dedicated both their lives to improving teaching tools and learning conditions in classrooms so that children can develop robust reading and comprehension skills. In our conversation today, we talk about the issues that emerge when schools utilize the very popular whole language model, and how that impacts student’s learning. We also discussed how we can boost reading skills by instead teaching things like systematic phonics and deep vocabulary. You will also hear Jamila and Rebecca talk about the struggles they and their loved ones faced with literacy early in life, and how those experiences motivated both of them to create solutions for all students. It really is a great conversation. And I know that parents especially will emerge with some tools that will help them find out which literacy model their child’s school is using, and how we can put pressure on education systems, so that our children have the best chance to close that literacy gap. I want to say a big thank you to reading, reimagined and the new teacher project for making today’s conversation possible. Here now is my conversation with Jamila and Rebecca, enjoy.

Gloria Riviera  03:40

Rebecca and Jamila, welcome to No One Is Coming To Save Us. You are both here with us today to talk about the work of improving literacy among young people. And I have to tell you, I heard a story recently about a mother who assumed everything was fine. Her child was reading. She didn’t stop to really take in things like comprehension, the ability to contextualize even at a young age, and it stopped me in my tracks. Because, you know, that’s sort of me, I haven’t stopped to really give that the deep thought it clearly deserves. So, Rebecca, for those of us like myself, who are not involved in literacy, education, where are we? What does it look like right now in this country?

Rebecca Kockler  04:31

Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here and so great to be on with Jamila as well. So, it’s, great to be on with you all. And so glad you’re talking about this. The state of things is not great. We are bad as a country and teaching kids to read. Across our country, about 30% of American students can read on grade level, which is pretty shocking when you think about it. And actually, many parents are like you and like the mom that you were talking about, when we look at the research around parents, perceptions of how their kids are doing, the majority of parents say their kids are doing just fine and reading. And again, 30% of our kids are actually reading on grade level. And when you disaggregate that data, with groups of kids, we are most under serving our black, Latino and Native American students, who on average, about, you know, somewhere between 1 and 10, and 3 and 10 are reading on grade level, by the time they hit middle school. So, we are really feeling I would say, as a country at serving kids in meaningful ways, and we are especially failing at serving our Black, Latino and Native American students.

Gloria Riviera  05:44

I hear that so often when we cover early child care in education, on our show, it’s always hardest for our communities of color. And 1 in 10 is a staggering statistic. If that is correct. 3 and 10 is a staggering statistic. Jamila, let we know that these scores that go into collecting all this data, they’ve declined and declined and declined steadily in the last decade before COVID. Obviously, after COVID, we are in a terrible situation. How did we get here? How did this happen? It’s that age old question of how is this happening in this country? Right? I’m doing air quotes in this country. How did we get here?

Jamila Newman  06:29

What I think happened was a lot of things. I think, there were the reading wars for a long time of people believing like what two camps of thought that like one people who believe that like teaching explicitly teaching, reading, specifically foundational skills is a requirement and should be done with every student to get kids to read. And then there was another group who thought that like, kids can learn to read in a lot of different ways and forms, if you kind of have kids in experiences where there’s lots of literature around that they can learn to read. So, there were like the two camps, then there were just like some policy decisions, because of the war, the raging war, where we were somewhat lackadaisical and like having, having communities or systems make a hard choice that was rooted in what the data said. And to be honest, there were still some question marks about from a research perspective, like we did not quite know yet. What this meant for kids. And in that vacuum. And in that space, there were lots of organization groups and individuals who filled it sometimes with things that were not research based. And sometimes, things that were, and a lot of things that we’ve come to find are actually not helpful to kids in terms of helping them learn to read are the things that gain the most momentum, because in my opinion, they were like, the most concrete the clearest, as like, what does the classroom look like? What should you be doing everyday with your class? And because there was no one else kind of standing in that gap? It gained this enormous momentum. And this, this enormous following, without ever anyone kind of saying, like, well wait, like, but is this helping kids read? Or is it just helping me like, set up my classroom in fun, exciting and creative ways? And I think this is, you know, now in a space where people are starting to like, rethink what they thought they knew about literacy. And I just want to say like, none of this was like, nefarious intent, like, no one in this story that I’m telling you was like, started at the beginning as the antagonist or was like sitting in a cave being like, I will not teach children to read like, it just was the nature of where we were at the time. And I think what I have profoundly seen that is, in most cases, if you’re presenting educators and leaders and even some policymakers with like, this is the truth of the matter. And if they are open to really hearing that and are able to create experiences, that showcase like what we should be doing and said, I’ve seen people pick it up and be like, I want to do good and right by kids. But now it’s just making sure that they have the tools and mechanisms to really realize that vision.

Gloria Riviera  09:27

What I’m hearing you say is this sort of battle and perhaps not antagonistic, perhaps, well, you say not poorly intended, but it’s happening and you repeated the phrase evidence-based data, and that there are methods that have evidence behind them to back them up that shows certain goalposts are met. And we also have this different set of data which are these steadily declining test scores, right? That is a huge amount of data which we It suggests something needs to be done. Jamila, I know you’ve had your own experience as a child, where you felt you were behind in reading. Can you take us through that place us there? What year was it? How did you know? How did it make you feel? And how did you come out of that?

Jamila Newman  10:19

So glad you’re forcing me to age myself. But interestingly.

Gloria Riviera  10:23

Don’t worry, I’m about to be 50. So, bring it on.

Jamila Newman  10:25

Yeah, my, my brother and I are 18 months apart. And we are a household that illustrates the reading wars, my brother had a teacher who taught him foundational skills and phonics, I had a teacher who did not. And my brother to this day as an adult, like Rebecca shared the data about American students of 30%, that then matriculates to only half of US adults can read past the seventh or eighth grade level. So, the problem does not stop. And like there is a reason that the New York Times is written at the reading level that it is it’s not written at a collegiate level, the Atlantic is not written at a collegiate level, it’s about the 7th or 8th grade level, because of where most American adults are not just kids in pre-K through 12. But in terms of like my own experience, my brother learned phonics and foundational skills. And as an adult, he, you know, was able to spell really accurately and easily he, you know, understood what he was reading because he could translate into words and I was a student who kind of was taught by sight base, and kind of in ways that we’ve come to describe as balanced literacy. So, like, the texts were kind of put in front of me, I was, you know, told the word, I wasn’t given the skills to sound it out and decode it for myself to decode and then encode the words, to sound it out, break it apart, and then blend it back together. To make a word, I was given lots of things like look at the picture, to figure out what the word is, when sometimes the picture does not always align with what the text is saying. So, I was given kind of a lot of the things that we’ve come to use as best practice, it just was not. And I was okay, because I had a very literacy rich school until I wasn’t, I was okay until like, all of a sudden, I got to third grade, I moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Ohio. And that is the point where you’re, you’re not just kind of learning to read, you began really rigorously with greater independence, making sense of what you’re reading. And it was at that point where I was like, I have no idea what is happening here. And again, by a confluence of things, that was the time when there was a lot around IEP, Individual Education Plans, were really picking up in an attempt to be highly supportive. There were conversations with my mother and father about like, should she be in special education, etc. And my parents because of who they are, came down and advocated that, like, no, she can take the […] like, retest or she’s fine. She just doesn’t talk as much. I was just like, a selective need. And I’m anyway in many ways. And so, I retested and my test scores were fine. But I was still struggling with comprehension. And I was still struggling with reading to be, but like, then my parents, I happened to have an African-American teacher at that time, Miss King Harper, who was like, here’s what we’re going to do at home, here’s what we’re going to do at the school. And I got back on track, but and the way I got back on track was not through an explicit systematic reading instruction, it was again through the like, let’s practice more, let’s read more to her. Let’s like that, let’s have her encounter more words and have someone correcting her and telling her the right way to say it. And it wasn’t literally it was literally when I started teaching myself and learning phonics as a teacher of second graders where I was like, these are letter sounds, this is how you do. And I was like, that’s the sound the X makes, because it was not my experience. And my brother was like, yeah, these are these are letter sounds, what have you been doing this entire time? I was like, no idea how I have been reading. But this is not the way I would have been reading this entire time. Or thought this is not what I thought reading was.

Jamila Newman  10:54

So, was it like understanding a language while literally understanding a language for the first time?

Jamila Newman  14:22

Yeah, it is called I think it’s so smart that it’s called decoding because it felt as if I finally had that decoding spiring and I was like, oh, this This now makes sense. And I learned the rules of the English language, which now I wish more second grade teachers were doing like Wordle and things like that, because I think all second-grade teachers could kick it in Wordle because you know now all the letter combinations that make the most sense because of how our foundational skills language is structured within English. But I did not know that until then. So, I was spelling in weird ways, because I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know how our language worked. And so, it wasn’t just at this like elementary level, you know, kinder through second grade reading, when it got into, like, multisyllabic words, when I was older, like I struggled when I got into even doing foreign languages and understanding how other languages work like that is really dependent on your ability to understand how the English language works, in some ways. And because I had missed all of those foundational skills, it was something that I was just like swimming through. And like, because I had other coping skills, and also parents who had the time and the money, to be clear, to provide me with the supports that I needed, and a school who was able to give me additionally, more work. That was how I was able to catch up. But what we know, really explicitly and truly is that that is not the reality for the vast majority of students in our country. And even with my parents, being college educated professors, they did not have the skills to support me in the ways that I needed to become a proficient reader. They could give me more library books, they could, you know, you know, turn off our cable in the summer, so I could read more, you know, send me to camp and things like that. But they didn’t have the skills to teach me how to read.

Gloria Riviera  16:31

Your experience reflects this confluence events that could have gone off the rails at any point, right? And shut out Miss King Harper, better name, third grade, Ohio, please listen to this, if she’s still with us, like that is incredible. It’s the time and it’s the ability to communicate with your parents. Here’s how we get her where she needs to be. Rebecca, I want to bring it back to you. Because we do have the research some research on how young people is feeling about their learning experiences. What is it telling us right now?

Rebecca Kockler  17:09

Some things we know in research are that how kids feel about themselves as readers, like I believe I can read, I am a good reader, I believe I am a person who reads is one of the most predictive indicators of a student’s likely success in reading. And so, and that is built through a student’s experience being successful reading. And so, when students go long periods of time not being successful, it’s harder becoming harder and harder to get that back. So, like, you know, Jamila, she learned to really read the Foundations of Reading like dominos experience is such a powerful illustration of like the incredible intellect of so many of our kids like they memorize their way out of reading books. That’s what’s happening, a memorization exercise, which is really incredible when you think about that, right? Like how many things Jamila and others are memorizing and to just be able to actually read, that’s not what our kids should be doing that requires so much cognitive effort to succeed in that way. And when we teach kids the code and how the patterns work, that reduces their cognitive load. And going that long, every year, we go with students not believing their readers detract from the likelihood that they will ever believe that they are a reader. So, finding a middle schooler, who says, I am not a reader, I don’t like reading, I’m not good at it, it’s not for me, it’s really hard to get that kid back to a place where they believe that they’re a reader. And it’s one of the most important things we need to do, along with teaching them these patterns and skills to get them there. Because students have to believe they can read and they are readers to be good readers, we know this from lots of effort and research. So, you know, that’s certainly, you know, a part of it. There’s research around components of executive function of specific neurological pathways that are built in the brain that only happen when you read. And they’re only built through the act of reading. And they are critical for the success of reading. And so, the less practice you do on those neurological pathways, the more likely it will be harder again to read as you’re older because you have to rebuild them from scratch as you get older. So, there are these other components, social components, belief components that go into reading that are really, really important. And we know lots of kids do not feel like good readers. And we know that has a profound impact on their ability and their desire to engage in other subjects as well like science and social studies.

Gloria Riviera  19:41

Yeah, I’m thinking of my kids and the way they square their shoulders when they come in through the door after a day at school and I you know, I did this or this is the mark I got or that excitement they feel about school. You know, not everybody has a miss King Harper to come in and say oh, okay, what’s needed here? So, we talked a little bit we touched on literacy as a critical factor in outcomes later in life. Jamila, what are we talking about when we touch on that? What impact does attaining literacy at that age, that window age that 1st, 2nd, 3rd grade age? Do we know what kind of impact that has later in life?

Jamila Newman  22:10

Well, the most accurate predictor of the number of prison beds we need is the number of kids who pass the third-grade reading test.

Gloria Riviera  22:18

Wait, where does that come? That is? That is another stunning statistic, you got to say that, again, the number of prison beds we need, how is it related to literacy?

Jamila Newman  22:28

Yes, that is how people predict our prison rates and our prison size is how many kids are able to read in 3rd grade, we’re going to have an entire workforce, who are unable to read, unable to read in complex ways unable to comprehend and increasingly complex ways unable to kind of make sense of their world through reading, that they’re only able going to be potentially able to be consumers, they’re not going to be able to be producers because of their stunted reading. And so, I think that’s something that we have to think about is that like, if we felt like COVID created this anxiety, because we had these individuals who were very dependent upon us now as parents, as you know, and we were also trying to carry our own workload and now do things at home. That is going to be what it’s going to feel like financially for us from an economic burden perspective of like, I am now trying to carry people that are grossly under educated in very specific places, because we have failed them in education. And we can do the thing that we’ve often done in our society as blame the individual and say, well, you know, they didn’t pull their bootstraps up enough. They didn’t do the hard work enough, or we can admit that we have been creating an economic and an educational system that has been grossly underserved populations. And we are now getting that it’s now bearing fruit and the fruit that we’re bearing are, you know, individuals and adults who are grossly under skilled, and as I said, has all of these other economic and social mobility implications from prison rates to high school graduation rates from ability to make above a certain dollar amount that is a living and survivable wage? It is not just a, where are you going to college? And are you getting a four year or two-year degree? It has really life changing ramifications, when you don’t know how to read and huge economic implications for our society, when we have huge groups of individuals who do not know how to read from the Civic perspective from an environmental perspective and from an economic perspective. And sometimes we’re simply blaming the education system and saying it’s all your fault or this is only a problem that you have to attend to. Or were believing that I as a parent can spend my way out and save my kid. It tutoring programs and after school and ACT and SAT prep. And there’s going to come a point where no parent can do the job because I think what we’re finding in recent data is it actually doesn’t matter how learned your parent is, if we’re talking about 70% of kids cannot read in our society, there’s a whole lot of kids like me college professors, kids, doctors, lawyers, kids who are also not reading it is not just the, quote, essential worker, workers child who does not know how to read. And so that seems like a failing system, and not a result of the community, not a result of a parent, not a result of a zip code.

Gloria Riviera  25:43

So much of what you say resonates. After the time I’ve spent looking at child care, right, we have the data of what happens in the absence of good early education and childcare. And yes, it’s high school graduation rates. And yes, it’s the ability to earn a decent, livable wage, and on and on and on. They’re so interconnected, this idea of literacy and the idea of a broken system, right? We have a broken system running on empty right now, how do we fix it? Rebecca, there’s a dominant model out there for teaching reading called whole language. And when I got into this research, my head was spinning, because there’s so much out there on how to teach children to read whole language is very widely used. What’s wrong with it?

Rebecca Kockler  26:29

To me what gave a great example of like the difference between her own experience and her brother’s experience, and that is essentially the difference of a language. So, we know in research that we have to teach the brain how to read, we are born learning how to speak we are programmed, pre-programmed to learn how to speak, we are not preprogrammed to learn how to read. And so, when you’re not preprogrammed to do something, you have to teach it, the patterns and the rules by which you do it just like we do in mathematics, because our brains are not preprogrammed just to do algebra. And so, we teach it the rules, and we teach it the patterns. And we practice those rules and patterns, the same thing is true for reading, our brain is not preprogrammed just to do it. And so whole language has this belief that just the access to more reading, your brain learns how to read. And that’s where you get all of these things where I hear people even like very good friends of mine who say like, well, that kid can’t read because their parents didn’t read to them enough when they were growing up. Or, you know, if you just like read to your kids every night before bed, like that’s how kids aren’t […] definitively though, like the research is very clear. Parents do not feel badly, like you did not read to enough to your kids, if your kids are struggling to read, it is not your fault. Like, you have to teach the patterns and the code to your kids to be able to read. And some kids do, their brains do just naturally go there faster. And so, some kids aren’t taught the code, and they still are fine, insufficient readers when they’re older. That’s just luck. That’s not common, which is why 30% of kids can do fine without much. But 70% of kids don’t do fine without much. Because we actually need just like learning mathematics, the patterns and the codes to do it. So whole language is sort of a belief that it’s about exposure to text. It has a set of teaching experiences that are more about envisioning and like looking at the pictures and sort of making sense of like, what do you imagine the words would say, if you look at the pictures, those sorts of things. Another side of it is the teaching of the actual code, teaching the decoding skills, teaching how letters make sense, what specific sounds they make, when they blend together? What sounds do they make practicing those patterns specifically, and you actually have to teach your brain those patterns in order to be able to read and hold language does not do that active teaching. And so that’s really the difference. And again, I think to Jamila’s point, it feels really great to read a book to a kid and just assume it’s, it’s simpler to assume that if you just read a lot to a kid, a kid’s gonna learn how to read, if you just expose them to a bunch of books, a kid will learn how to read. And it feels sort of concrete, this idea of what we’d call leveling tax, giving a kid a book on their sort of, quote, unquote, grade level. And, you know, it feels specific, we get lots of validation, like, oh, a student moved from one level to the next level. And like, we all feel really great about that. That’s not how learning to read works. And it’s not how our brain acquires language, and the patterns around language. And so, some of the instructional tools and patterns that came from it, again, stimulus point feels really good for people, including kids sometimes to feel like they’re making progress, but it’s not actually rooted in the research of how our brain acquires language, and that’s the major pullback with it.

Gloria Riviera  29:47

So, I have so many questions, one for our listeners, many of whom are parents, how do you find out what your school is doing? What method your school is using?

Rebecca Kockler  29:58

I mean, one you should just ask them explicit allows you to use whole language, do you teach systematic phonics to my student? There’s just some very specific questions that you should ask. Sometimes they’ll say we do all of it. And that’s usually a cue that they’re not to systematic phonics. Because it’s really hard to find enough time in the day to do all the things in teaching reading. And that was this compromise really talked about where we didn’t want to kind of put a stake in the ground and say, yes, we have to teach systematic phonics along with you do have to teach reading comprehension, you have to teach deep vocabulary and how to make meaning of you know, the books that you’re reading, comprehension matters a lot. It’s not just systematic phonics, you have to do both things. That’s not the same as whole language. whole language is the belief that you acquire the rules by exposure. And that’s not what happens. And so, you do have to do multiple things. So when I would ask those specific questions to my school, the second thing is that one another curriculum, there are some websites where you can actually go online, and they’ve reviewed the curriculum, to see if they teach the science of reading effectively at reports is one of those websites, you can actually go online and search for the curriculum being taught in your school to see if it actually cuts, you know, the mustard, if it actually is teaching the way that the research tells us we should teach. So those are some of the things I would probably do. The hardest thing though, is what do you do if they’re not, which is honestly currently still a majority of schools in America. And that’s where parents have to look, unfortunately, sometimes to other tools and resources to get the help or put a lot of pressure on their school to make changes. There are some amazing parent advocacy groups, actually, some in Memphis and Tennessee that we work with and others where parents are fighting really hard to advocate for change in our school systems, and demand that curricula are being taught using the science of reading that teachers are trained in it. But there’s a lot of work to do once you realize that your students aren’t being taught with the appropriate instruction and curriculum.

Gloria Riviera  32:04

You know, I’m feeling both that I’m interviewing you to gain information. But I’m also talking to you as a parent. And Jamila, I want to go back to a point you made early on which that none of this was done with ill intent that no one set out to not teach children to read. How are teachers responding if this conversation, which seems so fluent to the two of you, so easy, and I don’t want to use the word obvious, but we know there’s a problem. We have the data, right? We have the data from declining test scores. How are teachers responding? And why? To ask the very obvious question, why if this is a problem, well, what is the response? Is there a conversation? Are people open to conversations? Or is it whole languages, the way we do things? So that’s that.

Jamila Newman  32:56

I think we are seeing a lot of excitement for teachers when we bring the research to them, and specifically when we bring it to them and say, because we haven’t been doing this for the last decade or two, you may have been experiencing this kind of data or characteristic from your student. And it’s those moments where teachers are like, oh, my god, that’s my third-grade class, or that’s my student, Joshua. And, and they have this excitement of like, yes, this is this is the knowledge that I needed of like what it actually takes to teach kids how to read. But a teacher can’t take that baton any further on the track, if they then don’t have to Rebecca’s point, curriculum that helps them teach in the ways that we’ve just described. And so that is not often a teacher decision. That’s a principal decision, or that’s a superintendent decision. And in some cases, that’s a state policymakers’ decision about what curriculum teachers have. And does that curriculum actually align to the evidence-based research. Even in instances where we have a groundswell of support around the evidence base and a groundswell of support around the curriculum, we still have these impediments, and assessments or impediments in standards or impediments in like evaluation systems that preclude people from going the full distance as a teacher, because they’re like, but wait a second, my teacher evaluation tells me that I have to like, state the objective at the beginning of my lesson, and I have to like teach in a skills based way as opposed to with a complex text, you know, and those are all things that go against what evidence says. And so, it’s not just a teacher, it’s not just the teacher issue. And it’s not just predicated on the teacher having this knowledge of the research if they don’t have the resources to make it happen if they don’t have the ongoing supports to make it happen. I think the other thing is, we also know that we’ve got lots of generations of kids who are now behind. And so, this is not just going to be catching kids up in through their core instruction, it’s going to require a lot of wraparound supports as well, to catch kids up. So, it’s going to be like, potentially tutoring, it’s going to be additional, like, we have lots of states who are cutting back library funding and closing like, all of these things that we know, will matter if you are trying to catch kids up and give them access to literature and give them access to opportunities to improve their reading. And so, we can no longer have policies that are misaligned, where we say, in the same states that are closing libraries that we also equally want to improve literacy test scores. So those two things cannot live in the same ecosystem. But currently they do and that’s not a teacher problem.

Gloria Riviera  35:51

Right? And hearing you say, you know, it’s, it’s not the teacher, it’s not only the teacher, it can’t be just the teacher, it makes me think of stories I’ve heard of parents wondering, well, is something wrong with my child? Does my child is it the child’s fault is the Child you know, behind, either the way I think I can go so far as to say, you know, as a society, by and large, we have multiple, multiple, multiple examples of, you know, pointing the finger of blame. But this is, as you said, at the beginning, I’ll repeat it again, this was not done with ill intent by any one entity. But here we are. Now to turn it in a very Lemonada Media style, you know we are focused on the solutions and there are ideas. And Rebecca I know both of you. But Rebecca, this question goes to you first, let’s turn it on its head what is the solution look like in a classroom? And how does the student experience that?

Jamila Newman  38:31

Can I just say before Rebecca goes in, I think I think it’s right to say at a certain point, people were not doing this with ill intent. But now we know better. And so, we have to do better. So there does become a point, when as an opening to what Rebecca is going to share here that we know enough now that we should not be continuing the same behaviors that we’ve been doing for the last two or three decades. Now that we know we should be at a place where we are doing better. And so, we then do have to question Is it ill-intentioned because you are not making the change? When you see a vast body of research that is telling you need to do something different?

Gloria Riviera  39:15

Right. And as you say that the picture in my mind is someone standing up to speak to whether it’s administrator, teacher or principal, just with this mountain of data behind that person. Like we have the data This isn’t working. So, what might it look like if it was working? Rebecca?

Rebecca Kockler  39:33

Yeah, a couple of things I would say one is, I think one of the reasons why we find ourselves in this position is because I taught reading, I taught middle school reading and history and it is to this day, the absolute hardest job I’ve ever had and I’ve worked more hours a week as a teacher than I have any other job I’ve ever had. And I felt more pressure in that job than any other job I’ve ever had. And I did some things right, and some thing’s very wrong when I taught reading, right. And I was trying to learn all the time and try to improve myself and, and all that. And part of the reason why this is hard is because when you’re a teacher you have, you know, 25 kids in front of you, you have I had, I taught middle school, so I had, you know, 125 kids that I taught, and when you have 25 kids in front of you, for just one-year, certain things can seem to be working quite well, and like kids are responding pretty well. And maybe it feels like growth is happening. And when you’re in teaching, especially kindergarten, first and second grade, when we first start teaching so many of these skills, we don’t have state assessments to know, definitively this is not working for these sets of kids. And so, it becomes hard. And so all of a sudden, you see four years later, but the fourth-grade class is only, you know, achieving 30% or reading on grade level. And then it starts to aggregate itself. And it’s not an individual kid or an individual moment in a classroom. And so, it can be hard to figure out, it’s like sand a little bit what is happening here, like, in the moment with those 25 kids, it felt like things were going fine. And here we are four years later, and only 30% read on grade level. Part of what I want the system to do is care about that multiyear look. And we do too much in education. First of all, just looking at an exact moment, or looking at an exact year. And we don’t actually look at if something is happening. If third and fourth graders can’t read it comes from kindergarten 1st and 2nd grade, if 8th graders can’t read it comes from the foreign five grade levels behind, we have to see reading as a long game. And we have to stop looking at just short-term wins because kids can show short term success in reading. And it can fool us into thinking that a student can actually transfer that year over a year into more complex reading as they grow. And so, one I think if I was running in a school system today, I would be looking at multiyear improvements following cohorts of kids over time, the system has to take responsibility for that. And the teachers have to be up for the things that they do day to day are going to influence four years later. And so, while it might feel like it’s working today, it’s actually not working for that student for years, and we have to be up for solutions that transfer over multiple years. So, I think one yes, we would have policymakers and we are starting to see this wave states are embracing new legislation requiring foundational skill instruction as a part of it. I think now we’re up to 28 states that have passed some form of legislation requiring kindergarten first and second grade, teach foundational literacy skills explicitly, versus a whole language approach. So that’s, you know, that’s positive. I think the other things we would see is teacher preparation programs. That skill, I think I just read a statistic, about 30% of teacher preparation programs teach foundational literacy science of reading based approaches in their teacher preparation. That means 70% of teachers are not even getting trained on this during their preparation programs. So, we would see teacher preparation programs, changing their curricula, ensuring that teachers are taught this way with this research and the science. I think then we would see to female’s point, curriculum choices are made that are aligned, there are good curricula in the market that do this very well. We would see those purchased in school systems, teachers are trained on how to use them, teachers have the tools. And I think parents have enough information to advocate and get their questions answered. So, parents get good information about how their kids are doing accurate information about their kids, abilities based off of these set of skills. Parents don’t know how to advocate for their students because they don’t get good information. And parents should not have to pay for external tutors and research and you know, all these other things just to get an answer of whether or not their students can read.

Gloria Riviera  43:49

Rebecca, it’s so clear to me that you have a passion about this. And I know that you have a personal story about a family member who really didn’t learn to read until high school is right. Yeah, you’re sort of nodding your head. So, I have that right. Can you share how that’s influenced? The way you approach this work? Is that something you carry with you?

Rebecca Kockler  44:08

Yeah, for sure. It’s a huge part of why I do this work. It’s a huge part of why I started teaching to begin with. My brother learned to read as a freshman in high school and my brother and I sort of similarly represent this challenge. My brother struggled I remember very much like when is my brother’s room, him and my mom did homework together. Every night. There were so many tears so many nights, not just from adults, and from my mom. They struggled so much my grandma would literally like save money to help find different tutors or experiences. And we did not go you know; we were not routed for great schools. My mom decided to put herself through college when we were little to get a job teaching at a fancy private school in our area. So, we could go to this fancy private school for free because she like literally did not know what else to do to help my brother figure this out. But the schools were not solving her problems. So, she did, we went to a fancy private school, because she got a job teaching there by the time, we hit high school. And we had an incredible set of opportunities that no one else in my family had with the same way. And my brother learned to read. And he remembers the time as a freshman in high school, learning the sounds that letters make for the very first time learning how blends work for the very first time, and he will talk about to this day, the moment where he was like, wow, I might actually be able to read like, he had kind of accepted that he would go through life not being able to read, he went on to become a special education teacher and a principal and you know, all those things. But, you know, he got lucky in a lot of ways. And I think for me, my passion definitely comes from the belief that parents should just not have to work so hard, like my mom should not have had to put herself through school, get a job, school become a teacher. So, we could go there for free. So, my brother could learn to read, every kid should be able to access learning how to read. And every parent should feel confident that when they send their kids to public school in America, we at the very least teach their children how to read, and we are not doing that currently. So that definitely is a huge part of why I do this work and a huge part of where my passion comes from. And it also is, you know, just reinforces for me the belief that no matter your age, no matter where you’re at, you can always learn to read, and we can teach any kid to read if we’re positioned for it. And if we have the right tools and supports for that student.

Gloria Riviera  46:26

That is an amazing image to end on this sort of moment of realization for your brother. Hey, I think I got this, I think I understand this. And that’s what we want for all of our students. I’m going to end on one last question, and I’ll take it to you, Jamila. We started out by acknowledging our communities of color and after the pandemic, you know, we are in a dire place in many areas. What do you think we need to do to aid and abet recovery? How do we support the students that need it the most right now? I mean, now we’re looking at 2020, March, you know, so many kindergarteners, so many first graders, so many second graders are now moving along, and very likely did not get the right kind of reading instruction, they need it. How do we address that?

Jamila Newman  47:21

This isn’t going to be one thing, this isn’t going to be like, oh, you should do high dosage tutoring. That’s all you know, this is all this is going to require, oh, you should just get a new, you know, textbook. And so, I think if we’re not really understanding the severity of the problem, the size and scope of the problem, we then just kind of are throwing dimes into a fountain you know what I’m saying? Like it needs to be at the same level. I think that’s the first thing. I think the second thing that we need to do to support is really understanding how are we defining students who are at risk. And sometimes we’ve done that like, well, of course, it’s kids of color, or of course, it’s you know, students who are experiencing economic hardship, or of course, is multilingual learners, or first generation, like, we go to the old hat. But I think what we’re trying to point out here is, we may need to look at our data more closely, even in our more affluent schools, even in our Blue-Ribbon schools that we kind of like have placards on the wall or in the front of the building. Because I imagine if you really look at your data, you’re going to find out that there are a lot of kids who actually need support in the ways that we’re talking about who aren’t meeting the threshold or the bar for where they need to be in reading. And we can’t use the measures of old of like assuming that property tax and a fluence is meaning that kids don’t need the level of reading recovery support that we’re talking about here. So, I think that’s the second piece of like, knowing the data well, and not making assumptions about the data and using kind of our historic approach to thinking about what kids we’re trying to serve here, then I think the other thing is really being thoughtful of like, what level of skill is needed for the types of supports that kids need. And like, there are some instances where we have strategies, but we’re not incentivizing them at a high enough rate to attract the kinds of skilled expertise that we need in that space. And so, if you are particularly targeting students who are furthest behind in this proficiency race, then you’ve got to do something to incentivize those positions and roles that have the most proximity to those students. And we can’t keep martyring teachers and saying like, well, if you really love kids, you would just come and do this, like they are trying to survive, you know, like they have to, you know, feed their families and make sure their household is running and so we need to compensate them as such to like really, to really appreciate the expertise that they come with. And then in terms of a bright spot. Like, while we are not seeing it, like we still like, as Rebecca alluded to, we still see a lot of systems that are not teaching in the ways that we are calling out here, we are seeing momentum building, and in places that are really starting to tackle this, like, I live in the state of Tennessee, Tennessee had a huge Literacy Initiative. They took it upon themselves to train all of their teachers on the science of reading and really smart uplift, like application ready ways that our organization partnered with them on. They saw their strongest literacy results in years because of the work that they’re doing. And they still are acknowledging that the training that initial training is not enough. They’re backing it with like curriculum supports and instructional coaches and kind of like doing the whole hog. And I think it’s important for us to really realize that this is not as Rebecca said, it’s not going to be a sprint, it’s not going to be, well, you know, COVID was about three years. So this is going to take us about two years to get better, or in some cases, we assume like we can recover in a year, it’s gonna be a long haul, like we’ve got to commit, not just in terms of recovery, but long standing, what should reading instruction be in America, and therefore, we are going to ensure that all schools have these structures in place, because we’ve also seen instances where we have the like, the Federal priority or initiative, and then after five years, it goes away all of those supports or after, when we have a new administration, all of those things go away and what we because of this multi-year strategy that Rebecca is really speaking to, and because that is not just tied to like what Rebecca, like that is the reality of how we have to approach reading instruction. We cannot have these like staccato priorities and strategies that are really kind of at the whim of whoever is in the leadership seat, we have to have some greater consistency, and build our policies and infrastructures, and budgets in a way that actually allow us to sustain the best practices that we know, not only just matter during this administration, but will matter. As we move forward in terms of sustainability and scale.

Gloria Riviera  52:23

We need a full body of work. And we need that to be our approach.

Jamila Newman  52:27

Yeah, exactly.

Rebecca Kockler  52:28

Can I just add like one last thing, I do think parents have a lot of power in this place, too. And so that’s the only other thing I would really advocate for is that school districts do listen to parents when they’re upset. And when they make their lives a little bit difficult in school districts. And so, if your school district is not using a science, you know, research-based curriculum, if they’re not, they can’t answer your questions about things, make our lives a little bit difficult and go to the school board meetings, get a bunch of parents together and go to the school board meetings. Schools change as a result of those actions. And those actions really matter for kids. And so, we’ve seen huge power in parent advocacy groups taking on readings, specifically in communities. And I do think it’s a place for parents to have a lot of influence and power over what happens in really practical and meaningful ways. So, I just wanted to note that as well, that school districts really do respond to parents when they advocate when they’re a little bit difficult, and especially when they come together in groups. So that is a powerful place.

Gloria Riviera  53:34

Good. So, you’re telling me I can be a little bit difficult? I’m gonna take that I’m gonna take that.

Rebecca Kockler  53:38

Yes, do it.

Jamila Newman  53:41

Sorry, I just wanted to say one other thing is, the child of a teacher in me just wants to also say like, when it comes to parent advocacy, we talk a lot about like, the vertical spine, there is culpability down the vertical spine in terms of literacy, and reading. And so I think if you are going to that school board meeting or to the state or to the legislator is like, understanding for your particular state or district, like how decisions impacting reading fall along that vertical and like, who is responsible for what and holding each level of the spine responsible for like, what they hold and so like, and being fair then to teachers and saying, like, Well, yeah, but I also heard Rebecca Jamil talk about assessments and that’s not a teacher decision. That’s a state policy, you don’t have to and like, and then hold them to the line when it comes to like, are you using evidence-based research to make that decision? What is that research base? How validated is that research? Who were the students who are researchers because we’ve also found that sometimes demographics have certain things that like people are holding up his research was like five kids in a classroom who all came from the same household and so I think that’s the other thing is like, culpability is spread across but we often people who are in that vertical spine are very acute to like, the folks underneath them what they’re accountable for. But when you ask them like, well, what are you accountable for when it comes to literacy? Like oh, nothing like you actually is you have, like even myself working for an education, nonprofit, I have a responsibility then when I’m working with my clients that I get to the impact and the return on investment that they’ve asked us to. And then I’m working from an accurate body of knowledge, I have some responsibility. And sometimes people pretend as if we don’t.

Gloria Riviera  55:30

I mean, I came into this conversation, you’re very much the I would say, now average parent looks like she’s reading. She seems happy. Marks on her report card are good. It’s all good. And now I’m leaving this with okay, there are people who are accountable along the vertical spine, I just need to find out who they are and what they’re accountable for. There’s no one, you know, evil doer out there. But there have been decisions made along the way that may be hurting our kid’s literacy instead of emboldening it, empowering it, making it what it needs to be to lead a successful life. Thank you so much to both of you. I was thinking earlier. You know, thank you to your parents. Thank you to miss King Harper. Thank you to both of you, you know, you both are in this work. You’re deeply in this work. And you know, it’s because of people like you that that things will change. So, I am looking forward to being along to see that and to look back as we look ahead. Thank you so much.

Jamila Newman  56:36

Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Rebecca Kockler  56:38

Thank you so much for having me.

CREDITS  56:54

No One Is Coming to Save Us is a Lemonada Original produced with Neighborhood Villages. The show is produced by Kyle Shiely and Martin Macias. Our audio engineer is Noah Smith. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our VP of weekly content is Steve Nelson. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer along with me Gloria Riviera. If you like the show and you believe what we are doing is important. Please help others find us by leaving us a reading and writing us a review. And most importantly, by telling your friends. Follow No One Is Coming To Save Us wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back next week. Until then, hang in there. You can do this.

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