Walking in their shoes
District assesses phonics program through the end-user experience
March 4, 2024
The following article was written by Kirk Shrum, superintendent of Visalia Unified School District.
When I first arrived at Visalia Unified School District, I embarked on my listening sessions, similar to focus groups, to develop my entry plan. Throughout these sessions, a recurring theme that emerged from families, teachers and/or leaders was a need to improve our literacy program. Our data also demonstrated a need for more students to become readers, as less than 50 percent were scoring proficient on the state English Language Arts test.
Over the past five years, we had invested millions of dollars in early literacy work focused on a balanced literacy approach. The work that our team was doing was neither bad nor wrong, but it was incomplete. We had focused our efforts on essential foundational skills through various reading instructional strategies (e.g., guided reading, interactive read alouds, etc.). We allocated two hours of daily instructional time per day to this model, which was not yielding positive results. It became evident that we needed to delve deeper into classroom and student-level dynamics to understand the root cause.
The power of listening and going to understand are powerful tools in continuous improvement. As we looked through the data, student performance, interviews and walkthroughs, we began to gain a better understanding of what was missing: phonics instruction. We had been so focused on trying to implement a predesigned program that we had lost sight of the program’s true impact.
In the spring of 2023, our Teaching and Learning team brought together a teacher-centered work team to tackle the following problem of practice: How can we address phonics instruction through our existing literacy framework? Our work team looked at data, heard from the field and reviewed potential programs. A recommendation was made for a specific phonics program designed for students in grades K-2.
I wondered, how was the implementation truly progressing?
Over the summer, our K-2 teachers invested significant effort into mastering the new program. We were excited about the prospect of introducing phonics instruction for our students. The year began, and that is where this story begins. We could have left the implementation alone. As our principal supervisors walked classrooms, they would see teachers engaged in the new curriculum — check!
In the back of my mind, I wondered, how was the implementation truly progressing? How did our teachers feel as we began to add a new component to their literacy program? So in the spirit of continuous improvement, I charged our cabinet team with going to see how our implementation was actually affecting our teachers. As we advanced this substantial initiative, it was important to understand end-user experience and the impact on our educators.
Every cabinet member, from instruction to operations, took a crucial step by committing to teaching one phonics lesson. They were charged with learning a lesson, collaborating with the teacher and setting a date to deliver their phonics lesson.
After we had all completed our teaching assignments, we reconvened as a team to share and discuss the powerful insights gained from being in the end-user’s shoes, to see how difficult it was even as the curriculum was scripted. Our non-instructional senior leaders gained a new appreciation for the art of teaching. Our experiences revealed some key lessons, including instances where we went over time and had difficulty fully grasping how the phonics section integrated with other related programs.
When we engaged with the teachers, their experiences mirrored our own, highlighting several areas for growth in the program’s implementation. Their valuable feedback closely aligned with the lessons we learned from our firsthand experiences.
We debriefed as a cabinet team to dig deep and identify key themes and the root causes. What we discovered was that we were clear that phonics was going to be a program implemented in K-2 — what we lacked clarity on was how it would fit within the two-hour literacy block. We did not declare what phonics would replace, leaving teachers feeling overwhelmed. We also discovered that teachers were unclear on how much autonomy they had with the scripted program, resulting in time management issues. Our team quickly developed a tip sheet to provide guidance and empower teachers to adjust the script. We continue to review and refine the process. We recognize that the work is not done, but it is just getting started.
Managing a budget close to $615 million is a big responsibility, and our community expects that we are good stewards with those finances. The additional funding through the pandemic has provided us opportunities to improve our systems. However, we recognize that positive results and change cannot be done through numbers on spreadsheets and visualizations in dashboards alone, but rather, we must see how the end-user is being affected. When we walk in the shoes of our staff, we gain a true perspective of our decisions. This approach will not be a one-time occurrence but rather a guiding principle for the future. How might trustees, superintendents, district and site leaders, teachers, and even parents learn from seeing things from the end-user’s perspective?