Lessons from Innovators: Strategic Literacy Initiative


The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

“Teachers start to see that students can do more than they thought. And it changes the way they teach.”

Ruth Schoenbach has seen thousands of classrooms transformed by the teacher training programs offered by the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at WestEd, a national education R&D lab with headquarters in San Francisco. She and Cynthia Greenleaf co-direct SLI. One of the most ambitious of SLI’s programs is a scale up of the Reading Apprenticeship model known as RAISE (Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education) funded through i3. RAISE seeks to significantly increase the literacy and content knowledge of more than 400,000 high school students and 2,800 teachers in five states, and to build local capacity to continue the work after the grant ends in 2015.

After three rigorous, randomized federally funded studies confirmed that students exposed to Reading Apprenticeship made real gains in literacy and had more positive feelings about themselves as readers and students, Schoenbach and her colleagues knew that their program worked – and so did school districts across the country. The increased demand for Reading Apprenticeship and the support of the i3 grant put RAISE at the front of the work, and SLI in the position of having to vastly scale up their operations.

This is where things got interesting. RAISE training is more than just a new set of routines for teachers to use in the classroom. It’s a transformation of teachers’ beliefs about themselves, their students, and the nature of literacy itself. The work can be messy, intense, and deeply personal – and now SLI had to figure out how to train scores of new facilitators to replicate their work with thousands of new teachers in every kind of community across the country.

“The challenge,” Schoenbach said, “is figuring out how to be true to the principles we know work, while being responsive to the incredible diversity of classrooms, students, and teachers in a school, a city, a state.” The problems of scaling up – holding fidelity to the model while responding nimbly to local needs – are familiar in many industries, and the common response in teacher professional development is to simplify. For RAISE the problem was making the knowledge of SLI’s professional development accessible to new audiences throughout the country, and simplifying was not the answer. Instead, the RAISE project engaged the notion of developing a generative scale up.

Generative Scale Up of RAISE
Innovative training of large numbers of facilitators is not the only aspect of RAISE that requires smart adaptation. “The key to our overall scale up of Reading Apprenticeship,” Ruth said, “is to incorporate the deep experience and knowledge of those at the state and local levels, and, at the same time, to preserve the core tenets of Reading Apprenticeship, without adding elements that are not integral to our instructional model.”

Meaningful local relationships turned out to be one key to flexible expansion. “Sometimes we in the SLI national office can identify problems from afar, either through our staff in the field or through formative evaluation,” Schoenbach says. “But we just don’t have our ears to the ground like our State Coordinators do. They are attuned to those all-important local moments when the context offers up a great opportunity – like a new state superintendent who wants to focus on the Common Core Standards or a possible link between Reading Apprenticeship and a statewide literacy initiative. Our local partners’ deep knowledge of Reading Apprenticeship helps them work with others to build new and robust connections between our framework and the needs, views, and contexts of the many different stakeholders in their states.”

Making the Invisible Visible for Professional Development Facilitators
The quality of our scale up will depend on the quality of our professional development facilitators,” said Schoenbach. “They are the heart of the transformation.” The staff and researchers at SLI have been working for years to make their unique inquiry-based professional development more accessible. They knew that facilitators – most of whom are full time teachers themselves – needed to be comfortable inviting teachers to explore their own disciplinary literacy in depth, and to challenge RAISE participants’ assumptions about students’ capacities and their own teaching approaches. What they did not know is just how much work that would take.

The i3 emphasis on innovation encourages grantees to adapt program plans to emergent project needs. This enabled SLI to respond to what they were learning from new communities and to develop and refine new program elements. One response was the development of a hybrid model for facilitators’ learning, one that included face-to-face as well as wrap around online support. Through innovations like this one, the RAISE project has begun to make the “invisible” elements of strong facilitation of Reading Apprenticeship professional development more visible to a wider and more diverse generation of facilitators.


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