A Big Mistake in Reading Improvement Initiatives – Don’t Make This One

  • leadership coaching principals
  • 09 September, 2023

Teacher question: I know you led a successful reading initiative in Chicago. You’ve written much about the keys to your success. Did you make any mistakes? Would you change that experience in any way if you were to do it again?

Shanahan responds:

Ah, for the chance to live life’s unfortunate moments again…

I’m suspicious of those who say they have no regrets and would change nothing if they could go back. For real for real?

A major error in my Chicago Reading Initiative experience was not pulling the principals in early enough or thoroughly enough. My attentions were laser focused on hiring coaches and readying them for their important role.  

I eventually turned my thoughts to the principals, not just to try to smooth the way for the coaches, but to try to help them to have a bigger and more positive impact on their school’s reading achievement.

No doubt about it, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, today I would reverse that equation: bring the principals on board first and then bring coaches in to support and extend what the principals have started.

These days many states and districts are planting their flags. They are going to improve reading achievement (huzza, huzza) and are hiring reading coaches (more huzzas). Rarely do I see much acknowledgement of the need to incorporate the principals into these efforts in any substantial or meaningful ways.

What does research have to say about this?

My take has been that much of the research on principals and school achievement is a bit misleading, though it has repeatedly underlined principals’ potential for positive impacts on learning to read (Karadag, Bektas¸ Cogaltay, & Yalcin, 2015).

The misleading part? Principal research tends to emphasize leadership styles. Different leadership styles (in terms of characteristics like authoritarianism or willingness to distribute leadership) supposedly mediate academic outcomes. Such studies conceptualize principals as leaders with coherent philosophies – usually in terms of qualities only vaguely related to what affects learning.

I question that approach. I can imagine principals with very different styles making similar choices when it comes to consequential reading decisions. Principals who may go about establishing the same literacy policies in very different ways (the style part) could, ultimately, have the same outcomes. [The distributional leadership principal may or may not gain greater buy in from the teachers; I’ve seen charismatic, inspirational principals with very centralized leadership styles who have no trouble getting and keeping teachers on board with their visions.]

When I have been successful as a reading coach, I have always been in supportive, collaborative relationships with the school principals. Some of those principals had very different styles than my own, but together we made things work for the teachers and kids. Without such supportive collaboration, I’ve never been successful.

There are so many ways that principals can undermine efforts to improve reading. Studies, for example, have revealed how principals may reassign their best reading teachers to the grade levels to be tested rather than placing them in the primary grades or matching them to the kids in need of the greatest support, and how that weakens reading achievement over time (Grissom, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2017). I’ve personally dealt with principals who divert coaches from efforts to improve reading achievement, to efforts to make it look like the school is improving by assigning them to tutor kids near the achievement criterion.

Unfortunately, there are few experimental studies into whether principals can be trained to be more effective as reading leaders – leaders capable of instigating higher reading achievement. And the results are not uniformly pretty.

An example of the kind of study that scares me is one that trained principals in how to improve reading instruction. Its results were negative (Corcoran, 2017). Kids did worse when their principals had this training. I don’t know the specifics of what the principals were told in that study, but I’d guess that much of it was baloney (inconsonant with sound research) or correct but irrelevant to the principal’s role.  

Though I’m more interested in principals’ actions than their philosophies or styles, these studies make it clear that school leadership has a significant and moderate sized impact on student learning including reading achievement (Brewer, 1993; Chin, J. M. C., 2007; Hattie, 2009; Heck, Larsen, & Marcoulides, 1990;  Hallinger, Bickman, & Davis, 1996; Karadag, Bektas¸ Cogaltay, & Yalcin, 2015; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Mark & Printy, 2003); Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005;  Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd, 2009; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).

My research quibbles aside, one of the most important things I’ve ever learned about reading improvement I have drawn from this scholarship on principals.

Unlike so many other areas of research on reading achievement, only the leadership studies heavily emphasize the idea of “indirect effects” (Hallinger, Bickman, & Davis, 1996).

I’ve previously posted my “Reading Improvement” model and this notion of indirect impact is central to it. I’ve reposted that model here for the sake of convenience.

In this model, direct impacts on learning are limited to those things that directly touch the students, that define or characterize their experiences – how much reading engagement and reading instruction the students receive, the focus of this work (e.g., phonics; phonemic awareness; text reading fluency; language; comprehension strategies; content knowledge; writing; spelling), and the quality of the instruction.

All other variables that influence school learning exert their impacts through those direct influence variables.  

That includes leadership.

A principal may set a school policy aimed at raising reading achievement. The impact of that on classroom instruction will vary greatly depending upon individual teachers: how they interpret the requirements, whether they agree with them, their ability to implement them, and so on. Almost all principal efforts will be filtered through other people and other mechanisms. That’s what makes their outcomes indirect.

The major ways that principals raise achievement are in the actions they take that get teachers, parents, and communities to increase the amount of literacy teaching, to focus those efforts on the key things that students need to learn, and that improve the effectiveness or efficiency of the teaching that is provided.

Principals play an important role in increasing, maintaining, or suppressing reading achievement.

They play a major role in creating a school culture focused on higher literacy achievement.

They hire teachers and assign them to grade levels or particular students.

They observe instruction and provide evaluation and feedback to teachers.

They create work environments that help to retain the services of the best teachers.

They promote orderly, safe, and supportive learning environments that minimize distraction from learning.

They sometimes guide and approve the purchase of textbooks and instructional programs.

They shape school day schedules and control external interruptions that will take place in classrooms.

They may play an important role in professional development.

They take the leadership in establishing school improvement plans and other policy efforts. They matter in gaining parent support – and in establishing productive community partnerships.

What am I suggesting?

I don’t think principals require a great deal of general training in reading. Studies claim that they tend to not have adequate knowledge of that type (Davidson & Algozzine, 2002; Franz, Vannest, Parker, Hasbrouck, Dyer, & Davis, 2008; McHatton, Boyer, Shaunesy, Terry, & Farmer, 2010; Pazey & Cole, 2013; Petzko, 2008; Steinbrecher, Fix, Mahal, Serna, & McKeown, 2015).

But, sadly, those who have such training appear to be no more effective at improving reading than those who do not (Bettini, Gurel, Park, Leite, & McLeskey, 2019).

But principals do require more specific kinds of professional development; professional development based heavily on the best reading research. Enough professional development to enable them to understand, appreciate, and facilitate teachers’ efforts – including the efforts of coaches.

What might these specifics look like?

Here are a few examples:

Principals need questions to ask for hiring or assigning teachers to different grade levels.

They need specific guidance in what to watch for in classroom observations and lesson plan reviews for different kinds of literacy lessons.

Principals need support and training in how to evaluate and use assessment results and how to discuss those results with teachers and to use them strategically.

They need guidance in how to maximize parent and community support – in ways that can impact reading achievement.

No one who is trying to raise reading achievement doubts that teachers can do a better job when provided with high quality professional development, sound curriculum materials, and other helpful professional supports. That’s the driving purpose behind hiring coaches.

That principals need similar – but different – specific supports and guidance to do their jobs effectively, shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems to be to many of these well-meaning initiatives.

Let’s, from the start, include the principals and let’s provide them with the tools that will allow them to do their jobs better in terms of improving reading achievement. Let’s make it more possible for them to use their leadership skills to work collaboratively and effectively with these reading coaches.


Bettini, E., Gurel, S., Park, Y., Leite, W., & McLeskey, J. (2019). Principals’ qualifications in special education and students with and at risk for disabilities’ reading achievement growth in kindergarten, Exceptionality, 27(1), 18-31, DOI: 10.1080/09362835.2017.1351367

Brewer, D. J. (1993). Principals and student outcomes: Evidence from U.S. high schools. Economics of Education Review, 12(4), 281–292.

Chin, J. M. C. (2007). Meta-analysis of transformational school leadership effects on school outcomes in Taiwan and the USA. Asia Pacific Education Review, 8(2), 166–177

Corcoran, R. P. (2017). Preparing principals to improve student achievement. Child Youth Care Forum, 46, 769-781.

Davidson, D. N., & Algozzine, B. (2002). Administrators’ perceptions of special education law. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 15, 43–48.

Franz, D. P., Vannest, K. J., Parker, R. I., Hasbrouck, J. E., Dyer, N., & Davis, J. L. (2008). Time use by special educators and how it is valued. Journal of School Leadership, 18, 551–576.

Grissom, J. A., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2017). Strategic staffing? How performance pressures affect the distribution of teachers within school and resulting student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 54(6), 1079-1116.

Hallinger, P., Bickman, L., & Davis, K. (1996). School context, principal leadership, and student reading achievement. Elementary School Journal, 96(5), 527–549.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London, UK: Routledge.

Heck, R. H., Larsen, T. J., & Marcoulides, G. A. (1990). Instructional leadership and school achievement: Validation of a causal model. Educational Administration Quarterly, 26(2), 94–125.

Karadag, E., Bektas¸ F., Cogaltay, N., & Yalcin, M. (2015). The effect of educational leadership on students’ achievement: A meta-analysis study. Asia Pacific Education Review, 16, 79-93.

Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008). Collective leadership effects on student achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 529–561.

Mark, H. M., & Printy, S. M. (2003). Principal leadership and school performance: An integration of transformational and instructional leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(3), 370–397.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Aurora, CO: ASCD and McREL.

McHatton, P. A., Boyer, N. R., Shaunesy, E., Terry, P. M., & Farmer, J. L. (2010). Principals’ perceptions of preparation and practice in gifted and special education content: Are we doing enough? Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 5, 1–21.

Pazey, B. L., & Cole, H. (2013). The role of special education training in the development of socially just leaders: Building an equity consciousness in educational leadership programs. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49, 243–271. doi:10.1177/0013161X1

Petzko, V. (2008). The perceptions of new principals regarding the knowledge and skills important to their initial success. NASSP Bulletin, 92, 224–250. doi:10.1177/0192636508322824

Robinson, V. M., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. A. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Ministry of Education.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lorraine Cella Sep 09, 2023 02:16 PM

I totally agree. I was a principal of a small urban high school and took a literacy initiative across disciplines, using real articles once a week. In one year, we became the second most improved school in NJ according to NJ Monthly.

Laura Sep 09, 2023 03:07 PM

What a terrific question, and a thoughtful, honest response!
I do see countless pleas from teachers on educational community platforms reaching out because the principal is not on board with shifts to reading instruction.
Principals have some understanding of the reading process, but it is often incomplete if that have not come from the trenches of K-2 to see how readers gain the ability to decode and read with fluency to be able to think while reading. They may recognize some students engaging in a reading task, but may not have the background experience to determine when the instruction is truly appropriate to the children’s readiness needs. Principals can acquire this understanding along the way with the help of lead teachers and literacy coaches. What an amazing difference they could make!

Dr. Bill Conrad Sep 09, 2023 04:08 PM

Don’t be so hard on yourself, Tim!
Your inclination was correct to focus on the teacher as the teacher is the key to student learning! The K-12 education system forgets this maxim at its peril!

We need to establish rigorous and accountable career ladders where novice teachers work in intern and residency capacities. Certified Master teachers can provide coaching support to novice and apprentice teachers. Master teachers will make 6-figure salaries.

Principals must be drawn from the Master teacher pool for temporary assignments as principals. Their primary role would be in classrooms modeling quality instruction, coaching, and evaluating!

The time of the bureaucratic oriented principal leader is over. The Master teacher should be the coin of the realm.

Read The Fog of Education.

Kristin Blathras Sep 09, 2023 05:54 PM

I was one of the literacy coaches hired through the Chicago Reading Initiative, after earning my master's degree in literacy from UIC. Fifteen years later, I earned my doctorate in urban leadership at UIC to prepare me for my principal role.

Today, my school is reshaping its literacy program, a move rooted in my deep understanding of literacy due to the training I received as a coach. While I may not be as hands-on with literacy as I once was, I've surrounded myself with a team I trust implicitly to lead the PD initiatives at my school.

I'm beyond excited to share my enduring passion for literacy into our community, benefiting parents, staff, and students. It's a proud moment, witnessing the positive impacts firsthand. You never know where your impact leads others. The intense training I received as a coach has prepared me significantly as a principal. Thank you for leading the Chicago Literacy Initiative!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 09, 2023 06:04 PM

What a thrill to hear from you. You guys were the heroes of the district. You really made a big difference in the reading lives of kids.

thanks so much.


Miriam Trehearne Sep 09, 2023 07:13 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

Tim, what an important blog entry you shared today. I too spearheaded a very successful early literacy initiative, but in Canada, involving 56 high-needs schools. Although I also have a few regrets, I am happy to report that principals claimed an important role.
Before the initiative began, principals had to agree to attend ALL on-going district literacy staff development sessions geared to principals as instructional leaders. These sessions occurred every six weeks and made a huge difference to school fidelity to the project. An example of one of these strong principal’s commitment is shared below. Enjoy his voice!

Early Literacy Panel Presentation

Good afternoon everyone. I'm pleased to have your close attention for 5 minutes while I share my perspective about early literacy, mostly through the work of the Early Literacy Research Project. My professional career now spans some 30 years. So, if you like you can think of me as representing the Mesozoic Era.

From my vantage point as a principal, now in 5 elementary schools, the Early Literacy Research Project is the vehicle of change that is the most profoundly impacting the daily practice of teachers.

You see I have come to discover that achieving real change in schools is hard work. It is difficult to influence teachers. They often adopt a reticent, nay even resistant, stance. Such stubbornness sometimes works in the favour of children as it keeps classrooms focussed on what is important and prevents bandwagon approaches to learning from taking root. However, this guarded position also makes shifting in one's thinking and changing one's practice more difficult.
And, I would submit, that sustained change in schools over a period of time is rarely achieved.

What is about the ELRP that makes a difference? If you are from one of the 55 or so schools in the project you will have your own ideas. Our school is one of the schools in this project with an enrolment of 700+ students. We have built our school on a foundation of early literacy. Some of you will know that we have even coined our own motto - Success By Seven, Every Child A Reader.

Early literacy, through the work of the project, has given our school a distinct focus. It has given us with a common language. It has provided a filter by which we base our decisions. Our teachers have been in serviced and continue to be trained in bringing balanced literacy to all of our students. We have been able to utilize just right reading materials. The project requires that students be tracked and assessed - this requirement · has provided us with data that demonstrates the effectiveness of offering a balanced literacy program for ourselves and for our parents.

And Reading Recovery has allowed us to catch those few students who slip through the cracks even with good teaching.
I don't think we can even comprehend the full impact that we are having on the lives of children that will follow them through their years of schooling and into adulthood.

As Don Cherry says, you don't have to be a rocket surgeon to see that this early literacy stuff works. And why shouldn't it work? Think about the formula for success - you take good teachers, you give them a common purpose, you provide them with the just right learning materials, you release from regular classroom duties to receive on-going specialized training and you offer them on-site support. Is it any wonder that teachers in project schools embrace the early literacy movement? Is it any wonder that parents who learn about the project results write letters of support? Is it any wonder that schools not in the project ask to be included?

Schools are busy places. Even with metric conversion there are still only 24 hours in a day. Teachers must pick and choose carefully where they will put their energies. The staff at our school have put their stick in the ground around early literacy and we make no apology for that. The results are tangible, the rewards are many and the approach just makes sense.
I am committed to early literacy and the project. That is why I agreed to participate on this panel today.

Tim, I agree with Laura, what a difference principals can (and do) make!!

Debbie Thomas Sep 10, 2023 06:06 PM

I agree with you and Dr. Conrad! I’ve taught third grade reading for 12 years. Different curriculum, different district approaches, and adopting new readers, theories, etc. The battle we as teachers fight is both digital and the family! So many grandparents are now raising their grandchildren. Homes/families are broken and that foundation is crucial to enhancing a child’s ability to be ready for school! Principals have to address their individual community issues and encourage literacy that begins at home! I totally agree with Master teachers! I can and have taught math but the things I have learned through trial and error teaching reading comprehension have taught me so much! If I had to leave reading to teach math, my skill set would not be as honed as it could be! Our principal has done a great job putting master educators as leads in all subjects! We CAN incorporate the digital world into reading instruction! It can be an asset but we need training to know how to do that and principals can help! Great article and probably one of my faves so far!!! Keep it coming!

Teresa Sep 11, 2023 03:45 AM

As an assistant principal for four years and then a principal for 14, I know the power the principal has on what is emphasized in the school. When teachers spend time in professional development, the principal should be there too. When teachers need time to collaborate, it is the principal that can make that happen. When they want to observe in one another's classroom, again, it is the principal who can cover their rooms or arrange subs. Acknowledgement from the principal goes a long way in building morale and encouraging growth. It is the teachers who are the experts in teaching, but the principal enables them to do their best.
Teresa VanDover

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A Big Mistake in Reading Improvement Initiatives – Don’t Make This One


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.