Do You Comprehend?

ReadWorks Executive Director David Ciulla schools edtech companies on building effective literacy products. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

David Ciulla of ReadWorksA research-based reading comprehension curriculum, ReadWorks is delivered directly to K-6 teachers and principals, online, for free, to be shared broadly. Technology is extremely important to their strategy, though they don’t consider themselves to be an ‘edtech’ company. “Our non-profit mission is best served by leveraging the products of other edtech entrepreneurs,” says David Ciulla, Executive Director of this nonprofit organization with more than 340,000 teachers and 50,000 school users founded in 2010. David, a Stanford grad, comes from a background in business, education and entrepreneurship. “We want to make sure that those edtech companies that provide the highest quality, research-based content will be the ones with the greatest commercial success, so the entire market really moves in the right direction,” he says. The legacy of ReadWorks dates back to an innovative public school in Harlem, in the ‘90s. “Those experiences revealed that teachers had been left to sink or swim when it came to teaching reading comprehension,” David says. “Through no fault of their own, teachers hadn’t been trained in research-based instruction in their schools of education, and the curriculum they were expected to use was ineffective,” he explains. “Unfortunately, that still remains the case in most of our country.” After some initial failures, the school focused on the cognitive science around reading, and discovered that an excellent, but lesser-known, research base existed. The teachers embraced it and realized impressive gains in student achievement. Recognizing the need to share what they had learned, and to bring attention to research-based practices, the non-profit that originally supported the school eventually evolved into ReadWorks, in the fall of 2010. Here, David discusses the reading comprehension crisis and what can be done about it. 

Victor: What is the “reading comprehension crisis”? How big of a problem is it? What are the consequences of it?

ReadWorks intro videoDavid: The reading comprehension crisis is the national education crisis. Only 17% of low-income 4th graders in the U.S., and only 33% of all U.S. 4th graders, regardless of income, are proficient in reading. And the bar for proficiency is low. Success in any academic subject is essentially out of reach if a student can’t comprehend. And the consequences are severe. Children who can’t read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out before completing high school. Nearly 85% of kids in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

There are also implications for the edtech community. Building effective products for literacy is generally harder than it is for math. What makes it even more challenging is that the dominant instructional approaches and curricula for reading comprehension are often part of the problem. As a result, standard credentials and market indicators of quality are often misleading. 

Victor: What is ReadWorks’ solution to the reading comprehension crisis?

David: Curriculum that has embedded, research-based guidance in the design, and the teacher training that can flow from it, provide the greatest leverage for impact. The solution has to be at the moment of instruction, when a teacher is engaging with a student over an idea or piece of content. That’s when learning is or isn’t happening. So we address an immediate pain point for teachers by providing them with quality, useful content and texts that work for teachers and students within the practical realities of classrooms. That begins to establish a consistent pedagogical approach in the classroom. We can then engage teachers over time, with more content and guidance, to help them fundamentally and permanently improve their practice and the success of their students.

Victor: How can ReadWorks be free? What is your business model?

David: We decided it was our non-profit obligation to ensure that every educator in the U.S. would have direct, free access to research-based curriculum and guidance. So far we’ve relied on our efficiency and loyal donors to make that a reality. The online model obviously provides operational and cost efficiency, at scale. Second, we are ruthless on the cost side of everything we do. This is never an inspiring answer, but the impact is large. It also reinforces a habit of mind among our team for finding efficient, practical solutions. Teachers do not need or want flashy solutions from us. And by insisting on cost discipline it seems to help prevent ornate solutions from sneaking into our thinking and products. Third, there is growing recognition among funders that focusing on the reading comprehension crisis can provide the greatest return for improving student outcomes in this country. We have fortunately earned the support of an expanding group of national funders, our board of directors, and other individual donors. Finally, we are exploring partnerships with a variety of companies to share what we know and accelerate additional investment in, and the broad sharing of, our content.

Victor: Who developed ReadWorks? Is there a research foundation?

David: ReadWorks is squarely based on the highest quality research, beginning with the seminal findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and RAND Reading Study Group, and continuing with highly regarded recent research. Interestingly, much of the best research, and applicable lessons for all teachers, students, and product/service providers, has come from the research related to English Language Learning and reading disabilities, including dyslexia.

Complementing the written research, we’ve developed ReadWorks by working with some of the best, and insufficiently well-known, researchers and practitioners in the country. Teachers and principals in schools and classrooms, in New York City and around the country, have also had a major hand in creating and improving ReadWorks. 

Victor: Tell me what your role is as the executive director of ReadWorks. Why were you interested in leading the organization?

David: It’s a classic early-stage leadership role for an organization experiencing rapid growth. As Executive Director, I hopefully am pushing us to be aggressive and opportunistic, without straying from our narrow strategic focus. I was eager to lead ReadWorks for three reasons. First, I was a teacher and coach for five years, so there is a part of this that is very personal. Most teachers would much rather be successful and see their students succeed than be unsuccessful. I know firsthand what a difference curriculum can actually have on student outcomes, and on making teachers much better. ReadWorks has the potential to make things dramatically better for teachers, the teaching profession, and students. Second, I’ve spent the majority of my career as an entrepreneur and businessperson. I think ReadWorks is focused on the right problem with the right solution, and has a legitimate shot at becoming an incredibly impactful organization for improving reading comprehension instruction and learning throughout the country. Finally, I’m a major proponent of edtech, but think organizations like ReadWorks, that focus on things like content and pedagogy, have to play a big role in the sector. Otherwise, like past technology waves, there won’t be much of a real impact on teaching and learning.

Victor: Does ReadWorks completely replace current reading programs in classrooms, or can it be integrated with what teachers already have?

David: Currently, ReadWorks is supplementary. We focus exclusively on reading comprehension, not on phonics or fluency instruction. So at the early grades especially, ReadWorks will be integrated with what teachers have. 

Victor: Do teachers need any special training on how to use ReadWorks?

David: Teachers don’t need any special training. The instructional design provides support and modeling for the teacher within the lessons themselves. Expanding upon the curricular content, we are also building out a great deal of teacher guidance – not on how to use the curriculum, but on how to fundamentally improve instructional practices, as modeled in the curriculum. We will also help teachers understand why students can have such difficulty comprehending, and why these instructional approaches are effective.

Victor: How many teachers or schools have adopted the ReadWorks curriculum? What kinds of results are they seeing?

David: Since the November 2010 launch of ReadWorks.org, over 340,000 teachers, in more than 55,000 schools across the country, have registered to use ReadWorks, for elementary and middle school reading. In New York City, 44% (22,000) of elementary and middle school teachers have joined ReadWorks. There is at least an initial ReadWorks presence in 90% of all NYC Department of Education elementary and middle schools. Almost 30% of those schools already have more than 10 users. The results for both teachers and students have been extremely encouraging, through unsolicited and solicited teacher feedback, observations, and from assessment data shared with us informally.

For an early-stage organization, our user growth, qualitative teacher feedback, and the promotion of ReadWorks by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, Read Tennessee, NYLearns, the NEA, TFA, and others, are meaningful indicators that we are beginning to make a difference. But the focus has to be on establishing a correlation between the effective use of an expanding ReadWorks product and measureable improvement in teacher effectiveness and student achievement. So that is becoming a major focus since we will have the requisite grade-team and school-wide usage, at scale, to assess our impact in a meaningful way.

Victor: How is the ReadWorks curriculum more effective than the way teachers have previously taught reading?

David: ReadWorks is effective because of our fidelity to the research and our ability, so far, to integrate that research into useful products that work in regular classrooms. Fidelity to the research includes an approach that is based on explicit instruction, the gradual release of responsibility, in-depth teacher modeling, a central role for lesson-based read-aloud, foundational and remedial skill and strategy instruction as scaffolding for close reading of a complex text, etc. These elements are often absent from curricula and instruction, or have not been faithfully represented.

Victor: How does ReadWorks align with Common Core State Standards?

David: Foremost, ReadWorks is aligned to the research and proven classroom practice. These will always be our primary points of reference. From a product perspective, by focusing on the research, everything we provide is aligned to the Common Core. The CCSS have moved expectations much closer toward the research-based side of literacy instruction. 

Victor: What grades is ReadWorks available for? Any plans to expand the curriculum?

David: ReadWorks now has content for grades K-8, though we remain mainly focused on K-5. We will create more content for middle school over time, and are looking at pre-K as well.

Victor: What from your perspective is the biggest challenge in education today?

David: The biggest challenge really is getting all children to be able to read and comprehend at a proficient level – using a high bar for measuring proficiency. At the classroom level, millions of teachers have simply been left to sink or swim. Almost none of them have been taught the science of reading instruction in schools of education or in ongoing professional development. That’s a challenge. The teacher effectiveness challenge is then heightened because they don’t have the quality content and curricula they need. Finally, looking specifically at edtech, and with the pressures and constraints on entrepreneurs, it will remain a serious challenge to ensure that the most effective curricular and instructional content becomes core to edtech products used for literacy.

Victor: How can a curriculum like ReadWorks change today’s educational landscape?

David: Within our current system, curriculum is surprisingly the best tool for fundamentally and permanently improving teacher practice and student achievement in reading comprehension. Curriculum can’t make teachers master teachers. But it can do an awful lot toward moving hundreds of thousands of teachers in that direction, quickly, and independent of the unpredictable pace and direction of education reform. And because effective curriculum solves an immediate need for teachers, curriculum like ReadWorks creates very different and appealing opportunities for ongoing teacher engagement and training, within a trusted context.

As a non-profit organization, with our curriculum and the teacher guidance that will come out of it, we have the opportunity to change the landscape in a big way. We can do the R&D and product development that can dramatically reduce the barriers for entrepreneurs, for-profit companies, and educators to create and profit from excellent, research-based curriculum and training. There is a lot of discussion about edtech’s ability to transform curriculum. My sense is that this usually means transforming the way curriculum is structured, delivered, presented, adapted to the individual user, tied into a data loop, etc. These are all very good things. But a more fundamental transformation in reading curricula, and in the selectivity of content, has to happen first if there are really going to be improved student outcomes. Otherwise, edtech innovation will just get us to 33% reading proficiency more quickly, efficiently, and with a cooler feature set.

Victor: Thank you, David!

David: Thank you, Victor!

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