“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” — Simon Sinek
Four years ago, a group of district superintendents in West Michigan gathered for their quarterly regional meeting. As they trudged into the room, they picked up a familiar agenda, one they’d seen in countless prior meetings—facility updates, regional events, and teacher negotiations—really, nothing new. Outside, nearly 5,000 third-graders in public schools across the region … their students in their region … were demonstrating below-proficiency achievement in reading.
After the first few announcements, a bold voice spoke up:
Why don’t we use this time together to do something meaningful? Why don’t we solve a real problem? We are the leaders of the schools. Less than half of the kids in our schools are not learning to read and write like they should. If we are not talking about that every moment of our time together, what are we talking about? What could be more important?
What could have been a snooze-fest instead brought an entire region together around solving a problem. An inside-out approach to improvement began.
In the years that followed, a network of learners, known today as the Reading Now Network, grew up devoted to collective action. Among its accomplishments, the network has written formal commitments among superintendents and resolutions to be adopted by boards of education; undertaken inquiry-based action research field studies within member schools; and provided myriad professional learning opportunities emphasizing early literacy research.
In addition, the network supports literacy coaching opportunities for principals and teachers; a classroom library initiative; and a customized instructional rounds practice providing contextualized assistance, one school at a time.
These actions have led to significant outcomes for schools in West Michigan. In the three years since the network embarked on its initial commitment to focus on reading proficiency among students in poverty (qualifying for free or reduced-price meals), member districts have nearly quadrupled the margin by which they exceed the state average.
Just as inspiring as the outcomes is the process—one that has forced the early literacy conversation across familiar boundaries and connected professional peers in ways that protect dignity, making it safe for teachers, principals, and district leaders to learn together. Each of the actions highlighted above continues to be steered and guided by a core belief that there is much to learn from schools and districts outside of the known. There is a commitment to recruit and sustain members that promote meaningful collaboration, leveraging many points of view from more than 160 school districts to inform solutions toward a common problem.
The Reading Now Network demonstrates a shared understanding about the moral purpose of schooling. As McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin notes in his white paper, The Road Less Traveled: Changing Schools from the Inside Out (2015), entire communities of learning can tap into true engagement when they spark a collaborative dialogue that begins with: Why do our schools exist? The network recognizes that teachers, principals, and superintendents are human. When they feel secure and valued they don’t hide when faced with conflict; they run toward the problem.
The work of the Reading Now Network reveals that meeting a challenge as big and scary as early literacy achievement requires teachers, school leaders, and superintendents to be inspired to be creative, innovative, and engaged in ongoing learning themselves. The network reinforces that this engaged and ongoing learning must come from a genuine thirst for learning: a curiosity.
When a core group of superintendents flipped the script and put true student-centered problem solving at the heart of what they do, they unleashed the power of curiosity as a driver toward improvement.
Dr. Kyle Mayer is the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in Michigan. A member of the Reading Now Network leadership team since the beginning, Kyle has been instrumental in the success of this 160-school district collaborative dedicated to making sure that all kids learn how to read by third grade. Kyle’s professional background includes being a school superintendent, principal, and teacher. He was recently appointed to Michigan’s PreK-12 Literacy Commission.
Ben Cronkright, a former principal and federal programs manager/academic officer for the Hawaii State Charter School Commission, is a Michigan-based McREL consultant who works with schools, districts, and departments of education on increasing teacher effectiveness and students’ college- and career-readiness.
Learn more about how McREL can help districts and coalitions scale up bright spots to become high-reliability and high-performance systems, directing improvement efforts from the inside-out, and delivering effective change, continuous improvement, and innovation that supports student learning.