Texas Tipping Point: How Literacy is Changing

Literacy changemakers Laura Stewart and Dr. Tracy White Weeden recently had a conversation about the tipping point for change in Texas and how the state can be a model of progress. Read on as they also offer five key takeaways for effective action!

Recently 95 Percent Group hosted a webinar with Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer, 95 Percent Group, and special guest, Dr. Tracy White Weeden, President and CEO, Neuhaus Education Center. In their conversation about creating a culture of literacy change, Stewart and Weeden explore what is happening in Texas schools, both to shine a light on challenges and best practices in the state and to offer an example for national progress. Together they discussed several topics: 

  • Effective change management 

  • Anticipating and acknowledging pain points

  • Supporting essential upstream opportunities, and practices for long-term sustainability of evidence-based initiatives and practices 

  • “Doing the right work”—the overarching theme of the webinar

Here are a few highlights from this engaging conversation. If you missed it in person, we encourage you to view the replay to hear all the richness of this important conversation. 

Forward Movement Around Evidence-based Practices

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) is an international study of cognitive and workplace skills in adults ages 16–74. According to Dr. M. Ray Perryman, in 2022, “60% of Texas adults lack the basic capacity to be part of the state’s skilled workforce.” Perryman computes the economic cost of this lack of basic capacity as the loss of 186,000 jobs and $16.4 billion in annual gross product for Texas. 

In response to Stewart’s invitation to elaborate on why Texas is at a tipping point, Tracy cited three powerful pieces the state has put in place to reverse this trend: a revised dyslexia handbook, House Bill 3 which focuses on prevention and early identification in screening children for dyslexia, and especially, the Texas Reading Academies’ work. 

Weeden serves on the Texas Reading Advisory board as an advocate for teachers and leaders impacted by these new initiatives. In particular, she emphasized how important the work of the Reading Academy initiative is today in Texas in supporting educators tasked with doing the work.

She elaborates on what’s required to sustain forward movement at this critical tipping point: 

“One of the things we need to embrace as a state is Learning Forward…because whenever you do something big and bold like that, there are going to be things that work well and there are going to be opportunities for learning…that’s called Failing Forward. But the important thing is that there is forward movement around evidence-based practices. I think state department leaders can model the necessary vulnerability and openness by saying, ”Ok, we got some things right, but … how can we get better? This should be the throughline that creates the space for district leaders, principals, and classroom teachers to embrace this idea of learning forward, failing forward, and that being ok, just not staying stuck in a misstep, right? Making a midcourse adjustment and being nimble because of the high stakes for children.”

Vulnerability and Curiosity Lead Us to Knowledge

Drawing on a recent topic of exploration in 95 Percent Group team conversations, Stewart invited Weeden to talk about the role of vulnerability and curiosity for leaders.

Weeden responded:

“It’s incredibly important and I think it’s really counter to the way educators have thought they’re expected to show up with all the answers and put on this bravado that ‘I’ve got this, I know this,’ when they don’t know this, or they’re not sure. That should start upstream with universities creating spaces where we don't exist in an ivory tower—we’re lifelong learners. If I am a lifelong learner I never have it all figured out and all of the answers. I stay curious and I ask myself powerful questions. I ask other people powerful questions and I realize that as an instructional leader, if I am not asking myself those tough questions, am I really creating an ecosystem where people can thrive and grow and transform?”

Transformational leadership versus instructional leadership

Referencing the work of John Hattie, Stewart and Weeden spoke about the difference in impact between transformative leadership and instructional leadership in change management. To illustrate the difference and clarify what’s important to understand about these two leadership styles, Tracy gives this example: 

“When a new superintendent comes into a district, they may feel like they have to do something exciting and shiny and bold versus really evaluating what is working in the system. I have seen leaders, when it is about them, who will strategically abandon things that are actually working in the system, in lieu of building upon things that are evidence-based and progressive and working, and then taking it to the next level and the next level. And what happens to our poor leaders and teachers in those systems is they go back to the bottom of the mountain and they have to try to claw their way up again versus moving to the mountain top. It’s so important for leaders to take that time to really analyze what is the return on the investment of the previous administration, what do we hold on to, and what do we strategically release that was given enough time but didn’t work well for children.”

Stewart summed up the two leadership styles this way:

“It's the difference between coming in and making your mark versus coming in and listening, learning, and building on those successes, and identifying those successes by listening to the feedback from teachers, students, and families.”

Prepping the system for change

Weeden explained their strategy:

“The most important work we did was prepping the system for change. This applies at the state department level, district level and school level. You first have to decide what to stop doing…I call that Strategic Abandonment. What do we stop doing and take off the plate so we have room for the new? When teachers have clarity about that and have been involved in the design process…everyone has voice, buy-in, and skin in the game. The outcome was so much more strategic." 

She continued: “You can’t focus on 50 different initiatives. You have to focus on the high yield, high priority initiatives and the number one for any superintendent in my opinion should be literacy success for their students.” 

Five Key Takeaways You Need for Effective Action

1. Make literacy success our first priority

Stewart asked Weeden to talk about the fall out of not making literacy success our #1 priority. Weeden summed it up with this: “In a knowledge economy and an information age, the lack of literacy success puts boundaries around potential. This is literacy for life, and it has a generational impact. That is a huge moral opportunity and imperative to embrace.”

“For example, …we cannot warehouse children in SPED classes and not apprentice teachers and equip them to succeed at helping these students. We know there is a throughline between functional illiteracy and the school-to-prison pipeline. We know there are a large number of inmates who are dyslexic sitting in prison.”

2. Build a backbone of literacy leadership

But where to begin? Weeden explained: “It’s crucial to build a backbone of literacy leadership. …Those are your literacy coaches. And you want to build capacity in those coaches so they can apprentice and support the teachers in the application of the science where they gain ground.

In a system, you may have those early adopters who are not waiting for permission, that are out there at the forefront…So when you plan the work, you want to differentiate for schools, just like you differentiate for children because some of those schools are your exemplars. Some of them are the ones you take other people to so they have a mental model for what the right work looks like. If you don’t have that in your district, go find one. Call Neuhaus, we’ll take you on a visit so that people can see #1, it is possible, regardless of demographics, regardless of zipcode and #2, they can see what it looks like in real time."

3. Celebrate doing the right work

We also need to celebrate success. Allow those early adopters to be your ambassadors of change. Highlight their successes. That gives people an appetite for pressing on, and not giving up. They want to be the person up there that’s highlighted and recognized for doing the right work.

Both Stewart and Weeden have been inspired by Dr. Arturo Cabazos, superintendent in residence at Holdsworth Center. Stewart quoted Cabazos,: “You can be doing the hard work but not the right work.” 

And Weeden picked up the theme: “The kids don’t have time. They need us to take the time to plan the work wisely and prudently, and then have a responsible roll out. And we cannot leave leaders out of that. Principals are so crucial as champions of literacy on their campuses, calibrating with those coaches around the right work. So it’s not just evaluating, it’s about a cultural shift where evidence-based practices become the norm." 

4. Leverage the Lighthouse Effect to create a compelling “why”

Stewart brought forward the idea of “layers of leadership”—the superintendents, principals who are the instructional leaders, the coaches that support teachers and provide the backbone, and teacher leaders.

Weeden expanded: “Leadership is about disposition, not position. It’s not about a title, it’s about a mindset. And it’s about the actions that we take. That teacher leader can have a powerful influence on a department and on an entire school. I call those the lighthouse classrooms. So a lighthouse effect, whether it’s a classroom, a campus, or a district, tells people, “Warning! Do not go in this direction! Right? That's what a lighthouse does. But it also says: Come here—this is where you can find safety. And so as a lighthouse effect, any one of you can have that effect on your watch.”

“We have to create a compelling why, and we need to involve those stakeholders who believe, those ambassadors of change to help be the messengers. So we prepare the hearts and the minds of the people for the why and we create that fire in their bellies for the right work. We can’t do this to people, we do this with people. That begins with the Upstream opportunity. We have universities today with an appetite for reinventing not just how we’re preparing teachers, but leaders for the right work.”

5. Support teachers grappling with a cycle of grief

Stewart: “What are some of the pain points around evidence-aligned practices that are being promoted through the science of reading academies?”

Weeden: “One pain point frankly is teachers grappling with a cycle of grief over having been given information that was misinformation, and feeling like they’ve been hoodwinked once, can they really believe this is accurate? That’s why it is so important to give people an experience. You can’t take that from someone.”

Call to Action

In closing, Weeden left educators with inspirational words to keep the momentum going.

“When we know better, then we can do better. And we can form this habit of asking powerful questions. Anything that came out of my mouth today, question it, check it out. Does it line up with data?…We need to ask big bold questions and when we see evidence of success, then we follow that trail.”

“Educators, you are the inventors of the future. Not only that, you are nation builders. For this country to be internationally competitive…you are…the builders of our nation and the builders of our future. 

Learn More

Watch the video to go deeper into the conversation and hear Weeden’s success stories.