By Alan Gottlieb
Andy Johnson began working as an administrator at the Sage International Network of Schools (with a campus in Boise and another in Middleton) in July of 2020, and immediately noticed that too many students weren’t learning how to read fluently.
Something clearly was wrong.
He examined the reading curriculum being used and concluded that was a major part of the problem. Students too often weren’t being taught to sound out words, but rather to infer meaning from pictures or hypothesize what word might work in a sentence. The curriculum employed a common practice called three-cueing used in schools across the country for the past several decades.
“I said we cannot keep using this. It’s B.S. It’s no good. We’re never going to teach kids to read with it,” Johnson said recently. While that might have been considered heresy by many educators just a few years ago, more recently the tide has turned toward Johnson’s way of thinking.
At MOSAICS Public School in Caldwell, which opened in 2020, Principal Anthony Haskett was reaching a similar conclusion. As a fourth-grade teacher before opening MOSAICS, he had loved introducing his students to engaging literature. Other teachers loved the so-called Whole Language approach, guided reading and three-cueing as well.
But as an administrator overseeing an entire school, Haskett saw the flaws in this approach, which deemphasized phonics – teaching students how to sound out letters and groups of letters. He had just bought a phonics curriculum for the school, designed by Lucy Calkins, one of the leading lights of the Whole Language movement.
But it didn’t take long for him to discover he had made a mistake.
“Within a month we realized this was a very poorly constructed program,” Haskett said. So MOSAICS scrapped that curriculum – at considerable expense for a start-up charter school – and started on a different one that quickly showed positive results.
What Johnson and Haskett discovered is what educators across the country have been realizing in ever-increasing numbers. The way many district-run schools and charter schools have been teaching kids to read has been doing serious damage. Not for weeks, months, or years, but for decades.
Emily Hanford, a radio journalist with American Public Media began reporting and producing stories five years ago on the nation’s reading woes. Her work, including an eight-part, 2022 podcast called Sold a Story, has had a profound impact on the debate over how to teach reading, which had raged for decades in academia.
Hanford brought to light the increasingly definitive brain science research that shows that phonemic awareness – learning to associate words and groups of words with particular sounds – is a key component to learning to read. And she also highlighted how resistant schools of education and some education researchers are to embracing these findings.
“What I was so shocked to learn as a reporter that’s so clear when you read the cognitive science research is that not only are kids not being taught how to read, but what they’re being taught in many cases is the habits of struggling readers,” Hanford said. “So kids are actually being taught to read the way the poor readers read.”
Equally vexing, she said, was the fact that at many universities, schools of education have actively resisted the findings of brain science researchers “being discovered across the quad in the department of psychology.” But that, too, has begun to change, at least in some places.
Since 2019, 45 states and Washington D.C. have passed at least one bill related to reforming reading instruction, according to Vox. “The new rules apply to areas like school curriculum, professional development for teachers, screenings for dyslexic students, and requirements for testing. New York City — the largest public school system in the nation — has also ordered change for its 700 elementary schools.” the article says.
But many schools haven’t waited for legislative or other mandates to be handed down to make changes. Sage and MOSAICS are two prime examples of this in Idaho.
The Sage reading saga
Johnson, now the Sage network’s executive director, has long been interested in how kids learn to read, and has studied the research extensively. He also has an at-home advisor on the topic: His wife, Evelyn, was a professor of education at Boise State University for 14-years “and is the smartest person on reading I know.”
When he took over at Sage, Johnson said, “I don’t want to cast stones, but it was pretty clear no one at the school had any idea what they were doing with designing a reading program.”
Early in his tenure, Johnson ordered a complete overhaul of the reading program, despite the fact that the network had recently spent “an ungodly amount of money” (between $60,000 and $80,000) on a reading curriculum designed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, gurus of the now largely discredited guided reading approach.
After doing some research, Johnson purchased a curriculum called Fundations, which advertises itself as “grounded in the science of reading.” Johnson said he felt strongly that “we needed to pull the creativity out of teaching letter sounds and just do it the right way.”
While not perfect, Johnson said, Fundations allowed teachers to reorganize their literacy blocks and install 30 minutes per day of “hard core phonics and phonemic awareness instruction to make sure kids in kindergarten through third grade were actually getting solid instruction in a sequenced way that would result in much better ability to read.”
Johnson and other educators implementing these profound changes are well aware that building strong readers requires more than phonics instruction alone. Kids need to comprehend what they’re reading and to develop a love for reading, which requires books that tell compelling stories.
“You win or lose kids on long-term love of reading, no question,” Johnson said.
Fortunately for Sage, Johnson discovered that another school that was switching its reading curriculum had boxes full of books they were going to throw out. Rather than buying a companion curriculum to Fundations, “we went over and hauled away an entire curriculum for both schools.”
The staff at both Sage schools has been receptive to the change. “’I’m proud that we’ve got widespread buy-in across the teaching staff at both schools around this science of reading and they’re actually engaged in the project to really learn it,” Johnson said.
Sage is only in the early days of teaching reading by emphasizing phonics as a key part of its approach. Already, though, the schools are seeing promising growth in student reading proficiency at both its Boise and Middleton campuses.
In Middleton, where more than one-third of students are low-income, reading growth scores were in the 67th percentile nationally on NWEA MAP, comparing spring of 2021 to 2023.
In the Boise school, with a similar poverty level, growth percentiles were lower, but the percent reading at grade level in the elementary grades ranged from 57 percent in kindergarten to 79 percent in second grade, exceeding state averages in all but kindergarten.
MOSAICS pivots on reading
As a teacher and early in his career as leader at MOSAICS, Anthony Haskett was a fan of the Lucy Calkins/whole language/guided reading approach. At its best, it put good books in front of kids, which, at least theoretically, helped build a love of reading.
“The promise of Lucy was giving kids real texts, real novels, and getting kids to learn to love reading,” he said. “The other thing that drove me was the teachers I respected really liked it.”
When MOSAICS, a K-8 school, opened in August 2020, about half its K-3 students were reading at grade level. By December, that number had dropped to 35 percent. Something wasn’t working. That’s what convinced Haskett to pivot.
“We were like, oh my gosh. We were dealing with COVID, of course, but we also had a really crappy program that we were using,” Haskett said.
Like Johnson at Sage, he selected the Fundations program to replace the Lucy Calkins curriculum. But in the interest of keeping teachers onboard, and not throwing too much change at them all at once, he made the transition gradually.
Although teachers liked much of the Calkins approach, they could see it wasn’t working for their students, Haskett said. “What our teachers said was that Lucy expects kids to be at a certain level of proficiency that our kids are not at, and she doesn’t have any tools or remedies for how to navigate the gap,” he said.
Even with that more incremental roll-out of a new program, scores bounced back up to 50 percent by the end of the first year. By the end of year two, about 65 percent of MOSAICS K-3 students were reading at or above grade level.
“We did continue using parts of the Lucy Calkins curriculum for an additional two years while we did the research and found out what we wanted to do next,” he said. “Today, all that’s left of Lucy at MOSAICS are her classroom libraries,” which Haskett said are good books that engage students in reading.
Haskett said he worries that state policymakers will get overly intrusive and push through sweeping changes that aren’t helpful. “The thing that is the most concerning is bringing a sledgehammer to a scalpel problem,” he said.
The Idaho legislature passed a bill in 2021 that requires districts to teach reading using “evidence-based reading instruction and interventions focused on developing the foundational reading skills.” The state Department of Education publishes a list of approved instructional materials, but does not require districts or schools to purchase from that list.
Journalist Hanford has similar concerns to Haskett’s. She said that while changes to curriculum are often essential, they are not by themselves sufficient to fix the reading problem, and mandating curriculum changes legislatively isn’t necessarily the smartest approach.
“Policy is a blunt-force instrument. And these things tend to happen in very blunt ways in legislatures,” she said. At the same time, she said, legislation that does more than mandate adding phonics instruction, but also requires the removal of approaches that are proven failures, is a step in the right direction.
But she said she also worries that policymakers are beginning to talk about the science of reading as if it is some kind of tangible program or curriculum, which is not the case. It’s more complex and nuanced than that.
“It’s a body of 50-years of research that has come to some important conclusions and understandings about reading and how it works, that have huge implications for teaching,” she said.
Despite the challenges of overhauling how reading is taught in schools across the country, Hanford said her years of reporting on the issue leave her more hopeful than not.
“There are a lot of people in the system, from parents to teachers to principals to superintendents to legislators, who really care and who want to get this right,” she said.
“There are a lot of forces out there that I think are going to keep the pressure on the system to make necessary changes.”
In partnership with the Idaho State Department of Education and ExcelinEd, Bluum is hosting a conference to explore the changing landscape of the science of reading and literacy in Idaho and across the country. The conference will feature appearances by people interviewed for this article: journalist Emily Hanford and school leaders Andy Johnson and Anthony Haskett. Superintendent Debbie Critchfield and Governor Brad Little will also share remarks.
The event will be held on Thursday, October 12 from 8:30 – 11:00 a.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho State Capitol. The event is free and registration is not required. Seating will be provided on a first-come, first-serve basis.