What Is the Future of Literacy Education?

Daniel Hamburger and Todd Brekhus discuss how technology can help teachers foster not just competency but a love of reading in their students

According to National Center for Education figures, about 30 million adult Americans are functionally illiterate (https://nces.ed.gov/naal/). Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to literacy education, and for educators tasked with teaching America’s K–12 students to read, technology can be a powerful tool to bridge the gap between yesterday’s methods and today’s students.

In this interview, Daniel Hamburger, CEO of Renaissance, and Todd Brekhus, president of myON at Renaissance, draw on their combined 45 years of education experience to share insights about technology’s role in teaching literacy. They delve into how technology can truly help personalize learning, inspire students to choose their own reading materials, and provide teachers and parents with data that shows where students are and where they need to go.

Language Magazine: What is your personal connection to literacy, and why is reading a particular passion for you?

Daniel Hamburger: I came from a family that was really focused on reading and on books. I remember my grandfather taping up old books just to preserve them. My mother was a teacher, so she made sure we all learned to read at an early age. My wife and I carried on that tradition: I remember our youngest spelled out the alphabet with refrigerator magnets before he was two. That passion for reading has always been part of our family.

Todd Brekhus: Like Daniel, I came from a reading family. My grandfather was a library science professor at the University of Minnesota, so books were really important in our family. I was a middle school English teacher for eight years and then got into the entrepreneurial side of EdTech that supports literacy. I’ve had a fun connection to literacy throughout my whole career and my whole life.

LM: Student agency is a hot topic right now. How can technology help teachers encourage students to make their own choices about what to read?

Hamburger: When students get to choose reading that grabs their attention and captures their imagination, they’re going to be more motivated to read. The more they practice, the better they’re going to be at reading, and the better they’re going to be as students in general. The challenge is how, working within agency and choice, we manage students’ reading. We’ve often told educators, “Manage students’ reading, but not too rigidly.” Some leaders in the personalized learning movement have acknowledged that student agency cannot simply be about allowing students to do what they want to do. It’s about allowing appropriate choice within what’s best for students. There’s a delicate balance here.

LM: What role does technology play in maintaining that balance?

Hamburger: We can offer recommendations that are similar to what you might get from Netflix. Our platform can suggest a set of books to students based on their past interests, based on their history, but also based on their assessments.

Brekhus: We’re really trying to help students explore their choices and interests so they don’t get caught in the rut of what they’re used to. Kids want to discover, they want to explore. The goal is having teachers create choice within their lesson plans, so the dynamic is based on both needs and interests. Sometimes personal choice gets even clearer when you have your peers helping you, too. We want students to ask themselves, “How do my choices impact my own learning outcomes, and what do my choices mean to my friends, my teacher, and how we work together?”

LM: How do you walk the line between providing teachers and students the data they need and overwhelming them with information?

Brekhus: Data is not worth it if it doesn’t tell the student what progress they’ve made and what they need to do to improve. Take our state tests as an example. It’s very difficult for a student to read a state test and understand if they’re doing okay and where they need to improve. Data for students has to tell a story: an improvement story, a growth story, a congratulations story. Parents also need to be able to read and understand reports. That’s a really important point. Sometimes the data-reporting mechanisms out there are not very student centered or parent centered. When it comes to teachers, the power of data should inspire them to ask, “What does the data show me about the different students in my classroom who have to improve or have to get some extra help, or have to soar a little higher?” Teachers don’t have time to review a large-scale report. It’s got to be simplified. We’ve called it a two-minute drill for data. It’s got to be simple, it’s got to be easy to understand, it’s got to be actionable.

LM: Speaking of actionable data, let’s talk about personalized learning. How can you make personalized literacy learning easier for teachers to manage in the future?

Hamburger: Our vision of personalized learning bridges assessment and instruction by providing centralized data on what students have mastered across all the educational resources that they’re using. It starts by assessing students and then placing them into the right level of any instructional curriculum. It then takes the outcomes of what students accomplish and ingests that back into the assessment. It’s a continuous flow of learning and assessment.

This empowers educators to answer the question: “Of all the myriad different assignments that I could choose from, which ones are the best?” Technology is a powerful tool here, because it helps teachers manage the complexity of planning personalized literacy at scale.

Brekhus: At the same time, I think it’s really important for the student to remain at the center of the move toward personalized learning. Some EdTech that calls itself personalized learning tends to move a student, without a teacher’s involvement, down an automated path where the algorithm is driving everything. Truly personalized literacy requires the educator. It blends data and content to help teachers and students make decisions together on their own teaching and learning.

LM: How can teachers enlist the wider community to become a part of this collaboration? How can technology help?

Brekhus: I’ve been involved in community-wide reading initiatives in Tampa, Florida; in Mission, Texas; and in Oklahoma City. The key to making it work is offering unlimited access to digital and print books, and still having good data measurement. Data is not just for teachers; seeing how many books they’ve read or how many hours they’ve spent reading compared to their peers can be a powerful motivator to get kids more and more excited to read.

Hamburger: Nationally, if we look at thirdgrade reading pass rates, we do a pretty good job at creating literacy communities in grades K–3. The challenge is fostering a love of reading as students move up through the grades. As students age, the amount of time they spend reading drops and the achievement gaps widen.

LM: What can the education community do to address those gaps?

Hamburger: In his book Focus, Mike Schmoker mentions authentic literacy as one of the three nonnegotiable areas of relentless focus for schools. He calls for students to experience 90–120 minutes of purposeful reading and writing daily. He says that if we focus intently on literacy along with “a curriculum of piercing clarity” and “good, solid teaching,” we could eliminate the achievement gap in five years or less.

Our own data, based on millions of students, suggests that if students are not spending more than 15 minutes a day reading, they simply cannot maintain their position within national norms.

And unfortunately, data we’ve gathered with the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that more than 50% of students read less than 15 minutes daily. So, to answer your question: we need to focus intently on literacy and not focus on much of anything else until a robust program of authentic literacy is solidly in place.

An important step toward that goal is helping to create equity. Technology is a great leveler there, because it can make reading materials available for the whole class, not just a subset of the class, and it’s got reading opportunities for students at every level. It’s not just one size fits all. It can take the same lesson and make it accessible to everyone in the classroom at the same time.

LM: With the population of English language learners (ELLs) growing every year, what do you see as the future of ELL education? What do teachers need to support this population?

Hamburger: I think they need better tools to assess ELL students. For example, there are many ELL students who are in special education today who probably don’t belong there. Their actual mastery of the subject matter at hand, whether reading or math, is actually at grade level, but their ability to express that in fluency in English is not. But how do you tell?

My son is a first-year high school math teacher in a school with a lot of native Spanish speakers. He once said to me, “Dad, something they didn’t teach me in school is that sometimes you can’t tell if the problem is the math or the language.” There are new assessments that can measure a student’s ability to master the subject and then to express it with fluency in English. These tools can really help educators to make sure they know where students are and where they need to go.

Brekhus: We need students being exposed to multiple ways to access vocabulary and fluency, and to connect with books that help them learn English through literacy. That’s a powerful method we are seeing. We’ve just launched a Spanish version of myON, and the next stage is blending these worlds of English and Spanish learning together.

To really personalize learning for Spanish and English learners, we need to offer teaching tools that include lessons on how to blend English books into your English learning curriculum. We want to give bilingual learners or second-language learners opportunities to integrate as much Spanish as they need for support, along with tools to continue to grow in their native language as well as learn English.

LM: Where do you see the state of U.S. literacy education in five years? What do teachers and students need technologically to reach the next level in terms of literacy?

Hamburger: I look forward to seeing everybody around the world, not just in the U.S., taking advantage of solutions that empower teachers and educators. Helping students learn to read helps us all pursue our overall purpose, which is to accelerate learning for all.

Brekhus: I think that the traditional model has not worked to its full potential, and we’ve got to combine content, assessment, data analytics, and good teaching and learning with students’ self-growth. That’s going to be the future. It’s needed in terms of what language learning is, as well as what the successful students of other subjects are going to need. No matter what students aspire to do someday, they’ve got to be good readers. You’ve got to have good language skills. I think it’s really exciting, being a leader in that area.

Daniel Hamburger is CEO of Renaissance. He recently joined the organization with more than 20 years of education experience. He previously served as CEO of Adtalem Global Education (formerly known as DeVry Education Group). Prior to that, he served as chairman and CEO of Indeliq, an SaaS-based education technology company backed by Accenture. Hamburger earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan.

Todd Brekhus, president of myON at Renaissance, is an education technology innovator with more than 25 years of experience. Most recently, he helped create myON, a personalized literacy platform that is part of Renaissance’s literacy portfolio. Previously, Todd served as vice president and chief marketing officer for PLATO Learning, president and COO of Learning Elements, and education program director for MCI WorldCom. Todd also spent eight years as a technology leader in schools. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Lamplighter Visionary Award by the Association of American Publishers and was named the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient by SIIA Company CODiE Awards.

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