S4-E14: What it takes to be a literacy education changemaker: Kareem Weaver
Susan: Today I talk with Kareem Weaver, an award- winning teacher and administrator and founder of FULCRUM. He has been passionate about helping all students learn to read for years, and his passion places him in the center of some very interesting and important work. This episode is filled with wisdom and exhortation all wrapped in the warmth of Kareem's personality. Just a caution, it's a bit longer than our typical episodes. And once you start listening, you won't want to stop. I'm going to have this one on repeat, and I think you will too. Enjoy. Well, hello, Kareem. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Kareem Weaver: My pleasure, my pleasure. Glad to be here.
Susan: We're really excited to dig in a little bit. And as you know, before we start digging into your passion work, we would love if you would tell our listeners just a little bit about how you ended up doing this work? How you became passionate about this science of reading space?
Kareem Weaver: Well, that seems like a very simple question, but it's not for me. So I've always wanted to be an educator. I wanted to be a teacher from an early age. And one of my heroes was a woman named Marva Collins. She's one of the greatest educators this country's ever known. She did great work in some of the cities in the Northeast for years, in Philadelphia and Chicago and places like that. And I studied her, and it wasn't really labeled as science reading. It was just more about how do you get kids to read? How do you get kids to maximize their potential around literacy? And as I became a teacher myself and looked around and realized that the things she was advocating for were really foreign to what was happening in the school building. I said," Oh, wait a second. Wait, let me, let me go back to my frame of reference here and figure out how to apply those lessons to what I'm seeing every day." And it's just a matter of me wanting to get the greatest number of kids reading possible. It's just that simple. I mean, you call it the science of reading, but I've heard lots of different phrases and evidence based practices and this and that, but it's just, how do we get kids reading? And I tend to look at what works and where I taught and led in schools, it was definitely something that was in short supply. We didn't know how to reach the kids. So I just used the frame of reference that I had, which was Marva Collins and the research then back to things that she was doing.
Susan: So do you feel like lots of people talk about, including myself. I went through my undergraduate program and education and I actually really never learned how kids learned how to read. Was that your experience?
Kareem Weaver: I think many people reflect on our years in grad school, getting our teacher certificate and we think, man, I should get a refund. I should get at least a partial rebate. And forget about the science of reading. We learned, I think What's Your Philosophy of Education was the big paper.
Susan: Oh yeah.
Kareem Weaver: I'm a brand new teacher. What do I? I don't have a philosophy of education. You asking me? You're supposed to be. And so the question is, what are they missing out on? And teachers now oftentimes go to graduate school and then have to turn around when they get to the K12 environment and pay for things that they should have gotten in their undergrad. So that was definitely my experience in the graduate school program. That was definitely my experience. And you could forget about phonics and this, I never heard the term dyslexia. I never heard of phonemic awareness. I could tell you a five step lesson plan, and I can give you a philosophy of this and that, but in terms of the nuts and bolts of reading and the mastery of some of these things, it just wasn't there for me. And through my work with the NAACP and FULCRUM, I realized now that I was not alone. And your experience reflects that as well. A lot of educators have gone through their programs and just didn't get what they needed.
Susan: Yeah. That's a whole other topic we could cover for sure.
Kareem Weaver: That's a whole other topic right there.
Susan: For sure. But my experience is the same. And the only reason I knew something about dyslexia is because I went into education because my son was diagnosed with dyslexia and his school couldn't support him or didn't know anything about him. So yes, I mean-
Kareem Weaver: How old was your son when you found out that he had dyslexia?
Susan: I bet you could guess because it's one of the common grades, grade three.
Kareem Weaver: Grade three. So now let me tell you, so this is another thing we could talk about because dyslexia is real.
Kareem Weaver: And it's a neurological processing difference that really has to do with how you process phonology, and how you are hearing things and processing information. But it varies in terms of when it's identified. My daughter was just diagnosed with dyslexia, she's 16.
Kareem Weaver: And you find that most African American children, if they're diagnosed at all, it's later. Because the thinking is, well, just give more time, they'll be all right. And there really isn't a difference between the expectation oftentimes and how they show up academically. So they think the kids are dumb. They just think they're dumb. Or they say fill in the rationale, the rationalization, but it happens all the time. Give them more time. And if you're a girl, it's well, she's so nice. She's a sweetheart. Everybody loves her. She's going to be fine. No, no, actually, my kid... Yes, I think she will be fine if we can get these things lined up. So dyslexia was one of the things that graduate school should be emphasizing, and helping teachers or preparing teachers to identify and then address it in their classroom. Because you got anywhere from 15 to 20% of kids who wrestle with that. And yet our prisons are filled up about 48 to 50% of the people who are incarcerated are dyslexic. 80% are functionally illiterate, but 40 to 50% are dyslexic. And we in education really haven't stepped up to address that. But it starts with the universities, making sure that people have the information and the training they need to address those needs as they arise.
Susan: Oh, I agree 100%. And it breaks my heart because I talk with educators across the country who say," We aren't even allowed to say the word dyslexia in our school building."
Kareem Weaver: Oh, absolutely. That's exactly right. Because if you are, first of all, if you say something about it, then you have to deal with it.
Susan: That's right.
Kareem Weaver: It's better almost to just be quiet because it takes four times as much to teach a kid in special ed than it does in general ed. So there's budgetary considerations as well. And further, if you mention it, what if we don't know what to do? There's just a general lack of understanding about what to do. In California, there's a bill that was passed and approved a few years ago called AB 1369, which mandated phonological processing as part of the evaluation process for special ed. So if you're going to test kids for special ed, you can't just say the behavior or this or that, you got to actually make sure you're screening for this as well. But in terms of implementation, it's rarely done. It takes a lot of courage for school systems to step back and say," We may not know how to deal with this yet, but we recognize it's an issue. And we want to make sure we're identifying kids." It takes an act of courage because of the budget considerations and because their position oftentimes rest upon their perceived level of expertise. And if you don't know what to do, they're afraid it may undermine their credibility. So oftentimes it's just a hands off thing. Well, we just don't talk about that.
Susan: Oh, well, I... Yeah. I have other things to say, but maybe we'll move on from there.
Kareem Weaver: Okay. All right.
Susan: But that's such a frustrating process for sure. I mean, you mentioned it. When you were trying to figure out what does it take to get kids to read? And people call it science of reading or evidence- based practices, lots of different things. But specifically this term science of reading, it's really become a buzzword. Some people, Maria Murray, The Reading League. We've talked with people that are really concerned that this is going to become so ubiquitous. People are slapping science of reading on all the products and services they're trying to offer.
Kareem Weaver: Absolutely.
Susan: It's going to lose its meaning. So if I said this, and our podcast is named Science of Reading, so I'm just going to highlight that, right. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. But if we say science of reading, what does that term really mean to you?
Kareem Weaver: It means going step by step, being explicit, systematic, and direct in how we teach reading, and making sure we don't skip things. It means that we're putting in the components that we need to have to make sure the kids' brains are processing the information in a way that we recognize. And if they're processing it a different way, that we're able to support them with their needs as well. The science just says there's some things you have to do, and you have to do them consistently. And according to their research consensus, about a third of the kids may not even need that. You know how people say," Well, there's no one way to teach reading." They're right. There are lots of different ways to teach reading, but that's not the issue. The issue is how do we get that 60% to 66% of students who have to have things that are done step by step, explicitly, systematically, and directly, across all those, what we call the pillars of early reading? But specifically around the science of reading, we're talking about oral language development. We're talking about writing, we're talking about phonemic awareness, phonics fluency, comprehension, vocabulary. And we're talking about doing in them in a systematic and explicit and direct way. Now there are some cultural implications to that. There are curricular implications to that. There are economic implications. There's time issues. There's preparation issues. There's a lot that goes with it. But if you have the materials you need, the training you need. The formative assessment in the training on how to analyze the results so that you can inform your practice. And that you have the collegial atmosphere on your faculty and the leadership that you need, it can be done. So when I think of science of reading, to un- complicate it, we should just say," Look, there's some things that kids need. That all kids will benefit from, but some have to have. Have to have." I mean, you can look at those MRI studies where they took kindergartners and did MRIs, a scan of their brain and found that there's certain parts of the brain that are actually receiving more oxygen. You actually see the MRI, they kind of light up when certain things happen. When kids are able to attach sounds to symbols and they can begin to crack the code, their brain literally lights up in certain areas. So when we talk about the science of reading, we're saying," Look, we need to push kids into the fray. We need their brains fully activated. We need them to get all the different components and to get them consistently, not just opportunistically." So that's what I mean when I refer to the science of reading. And frankly, if I'm talking with a group of parents or even a group of educators, I just say," Look, let's do what gets the most number of kids to read. That's it." You can call it whatever you want to, but how can we get the greatest number of kids reading possible?
Susan: Yeah. I love that because I was just reviewing with some folks in New Mexico. Let's look at the NAEP data, the fourth grade NAEP data. It's like an elephant in the room now. Everybody knows how horrible it is and we've seen it over and over. I can't tell you, probably every presentation I've seen on early literacy, we pop up the NAEP data, either for the entire country or state specific and just exactly what you said. It shows that two thirds of our kids are below proficiency in fourth grade. And so does that mean what we're doing is working in schools? I kind of think that means what we're doing in schools is not working. So we should be adjusting our practices in line with what the evidence shows works and taking the adult responsibility.
Kareem Weaver: Yeah. Well, that's true. I agree with you. And in our country, we politicize everything. Everything, every law, every initiative, everything is politicized. It's either red or it's blue. It's this. Or it's right or it's left, or whatever. That is death to education. The politics behind reading instruction cannot get thrown into that mix like everything else. We have to be stronger than that. And we can argue about everything else, fine, but on reading and the fact that we want the greatest number of kids to read as possible, and we'll do what it takes to make that. That should be bipartisan or what bi- direction, whatever you want to say. That can't be the blocker. Unfortunately old habits die hard and it's a lot easier to argue than it is to solve problems. It's a lot easier, especially when it's a little bit embarrassing. It doesn't feel good. This whole thing doesn't feel good. And so it's a lot easier to get caught up in what a former superintendent once told me. He called it the weapons of mass distraction. And I agree with him on that. That we can distract ourselves with any, we can argue about any and everything, and this machine will keep on going, but it's going to churn our kids out. But here's the reality. It's not a black/ white issue. We can't, ghetto- fy the science of reading and make it something for those kids. We can't make this a class issue to say," Oh, these the poor kids." I got news for you. This affects everybody. You go to Palo Alto, which is one of the richest, wealthiest per capita districts in the country. With Palo Alto in Beverly Hills, they screened for dyslexia and found that they had 25% of their kids that promised for dyslexia. 25%. And as I talked to a board member out there, he's like," Yeah, well, there's also an army of soccer moms who are paying top dollar for tutors in the area to get the basics of literacy instruction." And so the data hides that.
Kareem Weaver: So what we're doing works for about a third of kids, but that other two thirds, it's everybody. We're all in the pot together, and we're going to have to fight our tribal instincts and say," This is an all of us issue." And in order to save our kids and to get them competitive in the information age, they have to be able to access information. And so we've got to focus on literacy.
Susan: Very nicely said. We could almost end the episode just right there. It was a very, very passionate plea and 100% agree with you. It sort of feels like, is this the reason for this little organization you have called FULCRUM? Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate. Tell us a little bit about that.
Kareem Weaver: Sure.
Susan: You mentioned it earlier.
Kareem Weaver: Yeah, sure.
Susan: I spent a lot of time on the website. And for our listeners, we'll link you in the show notes to this site. But tell us a little bit about the mission and the work of FULCRUM.
Kareem Weaver: So FULCRUM. So I left a job that it was a great job. I was making a lot of money. The workload compared to what I had been doing as an educator with central office. And then as a teacher, a principal at central. It was like night and day, but I felt terrible. I felt terrible because I'm commissioned to be in this fight. I've known it since I was a teenager. And at some point in time... My father passed away, that was another thing. My father passed away and I realized time isn't guaranteed. You got to do what you're called here to do, period. You don't know what tomorrow's going to bring. And so I stepped away for a couple of years and thought about what do we need to do? What's the most important thing here? And I came up with two things. One is the transition between high school and college. That is a period that our kids just don't transition very well. And our graduation rates, six year graduation rates show that. But the second thing, and probably the most important thing, was literacy, was reading. And so in my work with the NAACP, both locally in Oakland, and in Statewide with California, we discussed making this a priority. We wrestled with civil rights cases and we helped districts and this and that. And we challenge when we need to challenge. But at the end of the day after we did our root cause analysis, we found that most of the issues were related to reading. And so we had an initiative, we started it, we organized a grassroots campaign, and we did all these things. But I soon came to realize that the NAACP, for all its wonderful attributes, it's an all volunteer organization. And so I said," I better do this on my own." And so someone has to work on this stuff all the time. And so I decided to do just that. And I spent the next couple of years meeting with universities, building coalition, meeting with districts, working with publishers, all this stuff. Interviewing teachers. And when I was down to my last two copies of the Reading Ladder from Nancy Young in a red folder, I went out to breakfast with a friend of mine, Liza Finkelstein, who she worked with me when I was the executive director of New Leaders from the schools in the Western region. And she said," Kareem, what you're doing has to keep going. And you don't realize this, but this is actually the thing that you should be doing full time instead of doing it as an aside thing."" And so I'm going to help you. And we're going to actually turn this into a nonprofit and we're going to do whatever we can to make this our work." I said," Okay." My wife was like," Thank God. Thank God." And so we decided to create a nonprofit and taking the leadership and the direction from the NAACP with their campaign we'll say,"You know what? That's a great campaign and we're going to put feet on it." We're going to make this our 24/7, 365. And we're going to sit and meet with everyone we need to. And so when we founded FULCRUM, we had a five prong strategy. We said," We're going to meet with universities and try to influence them to get them to focus on the science of reading. And getting them to support teachers and getting to master." We're going to work with parents to organize and mobilize parents so that they can advocate for best practices. We're going to work with K12 systems. Their curriculum adoptions, helping them understand and unpack the issues. We're going to work with teachers specifically and make sure that they get the support and training they need. And then we're also going to have a media campaign to get the word out, which is partly what I'm doing right now. Just get the word out to let people know what's going on and why the babies are struggling and what the solutions are? And if we do all that and work hard at it, we're actually going to make a difference. We're going to get our babies reading. And so that's how FULCRUM was born. We still connect with the NAACP. We still listen to them and work with them, what have you, but it's its own thing now. And it's really about putting systems and districts and teachers and parents and grassroots organizations in the best possible position to serve children.
Susan: Tell me a little bit about that acronym, FULCRUM?
Kareem Weaver: Oh, so FULCRUM. Well, it used to be FCLN, which was Full and Complete Literacy Now. That's what I came up with. And I thought that was just the bees knees. I thought that was it. It was like urgent, full and complete literacy now. But my partner, Liza, she was like," Oh no, Uh- huh( affirmative). What is FCLN? You can't pronounce that." She said,"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no." She said," We're going to call this thing FULCRUM. And it means Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate." And you said with that, the symbolism that comes behind that, people will begin to understand that literacy is the thing that our society is teetering on. This is the information age, and this is what it rests on. The balance of we have to get this right to be in balance as a society. And FULCRUM is the leverage point. She said," Trust me, Kareem. Just trust me. This is better. I appreciate the FCLN attempt, but no good. Let's move on." So that's what FULCRUM stands for. In other words, literacy first. It's a universal mandate. We got to have. This is not something that... There's a lot of things we can compromise on, literacy isn't one of them. I often tell people if we were in the stone age, we'd be advocating all kids have access to stone. But this is the information age. They got to be able to read and get the information, or else they're they're outside of society from the very beginning. So that's what FULCRUM stands for and what it's trying to convey.
Susan: Yeah. Well, I'm going to give my plus one to changing it to FULCRUM because I think the symbolism for that, I can actually visualize something.
Kareem Weaver: Oh, gosh. She was right. She was right.
Susan: I'm glad you trusted her.
Kareem Weaver: Well the other thing is, is that when we think about literacy, we often think about, well, reading is important. Reading and reading comprehension is, but there's more to it than that.
Kareem Weaver: Writing matters.
Kareem Weaver: There are other, oral language development matters, building knowledge matters. And I'm going to bring in a friend of mine. So I also do work in the prison system and we engage with people who are incarcerated and it's amazing. That's one of the most enjoyable things I get to do. It's heartbreaking, but it's also enjoyable. There's a young brother I know, his name is Curtis Carroll. He's in California, he's in Pelican Bay right now. And Curtis teaches financial literacy in prison. And I will lift up his work and say he would say that literacy also has to do with our ability to handle our finances, and to navigate the economics of life as well. And the ability to set up a business, the ability to create jobs and do these things. That's also part of literacy. But Curtis went to prison, he was completely illiterate. He went to jail for robbery murder at 17 years old. He's been locked up ever since. He's like 47 or 48 right now. Smart as he wants to be. He regrets it obviously. But he recognizes now, man, I couldn't read or write when I came in here. Just like a lot of the other people.
Kareem Weaver: And so sometimes in education, we get in our ivory towers and we forget the real impact. Now, as I'm quick to tell him, and he's quick to tell others, it doesn't mean that just because you can't read, you start knocking people upside their head. I'm not saying that. And I'm not justifying it in any way, shape, or form. But what I am saying is when you plant seeds of illiteracy, you have no idea what's going to grow from that. The pain, the uncertainty, the self doubt, the trauma. The folks over at University of California, San Francisco, UCSF, they have a dyslexia center. And I went to visit it, took some teachers and some principals. And they said by third grade, when they get people referred to them, young people by third grade, they really can't even deal with dyslexia. They have to first help the young people navigate the PTSD, the posttraumatic stress disorder. Because when you can't read, and when you question your very intelligence, which is what happens when you have these undiagnosed things, the psychological trauma that occurs is staggering. Staggering. And so we talk about wanting to have trauma informed practices and how to support students socioeconomic health. Not realizing that our ability to teach them how to crack the code, and become fluent in how they're reading, and to begin to understand and comprehend what they're reading. That our ability to do that is the greatest asset they can have in terms of overcoming whatever traumas life throws at them. So that's something that we've been able to do. And we're glad to be able to do it, to work with people who are incarcerated. In fact, I'll just say one last thing on that, there's a group. I haven't really talked much about this. So this is the first time I'm talking about this. There are a group of individuals who are incarcerated in California who have indicated we'll help however you need us to help. And we've been in conversation for quite a while and their thing is, do we need to form a class, in a class action, to lift up our cases, our situations? Do we need to file a suit? Curtis was a student in the Oakland Unified School District.
Kareem Weaver: He couldn't read or write, ends up in prison. And there are lots of people in prisons all throughout California and all throughout the country who have the exact same scenario. And they're thinking, you know what, you're right. We can't read. Why weren't we taught to read? What were our teachers doing? What were our principals doing? What was the school system doing? Didn't we have the right to learn how to read? Now there's some states like California that actually have education as part of their constitution. It gets deep, real fast, but just know-
Susan: Yes, it does.
Kareem Weaver: Those conversations are happening too. As people are in jail, incarcerated in the federal penitentiary or the state penitentiary system, looking at each other saying," Wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. Hold on a minute. How can they go on about their merry lives and leave us here to handle the aftermath?" Yeah, it's my fault that I stole something or I did this, or that. Yeah, I acknowledge that, but what were my economic opportunities? And why were my opportunities so different than the person next to me whose school system or school district made sure they got certain foundational skills in literacy? That's not right. Were my civil rights violated? And so that's the question that they're asking and that we at the NAACP are engaging them on. And there's a wave coming. The best thing we could do, because they just want to help right now. They just want to help. The best thing we could do is commit that this will never happen again. We'll learn what we have to learn. We'll be vulnerable, we'll take risks, and step outside of our comfort zones. School systems will pay teachers to go get the training that they should have gotten at the graduate programs. They will honor their time. We'll only adopt curricula that we can do within the bounds of our teachers contract. And that it's all inclusive in terms of what they need. And so we don't have 20 different components that we have to navigate and all that. So we'll do that piece and we'll have our assessments in place. That we'll train our leaders a certain way. There's some things that we can do so that we say as a society," Never again." We shouldn't be sending our young people to prison just because we set them on that course. I heard a person, it's actually a gentleman who's running for governor in Arkansas. He said last night, he said he used to run track. And he said," The most important part of running track is when you are in the blocks, when you start off." He said that," when you first take off, those who know, understand that how you start will determine your course. Now it doesn't mean you'll win, but you cannot win if you get out the blocks slowly. It just gives you an opportunity to compete later on in the race."
Kareem Weaver: And that's exactly what's going on in education. We've got to make sure our kids get out of the blocks. It's not saying their life's going to be peaches and cream. They got to compete every step of the way, whatever their context is, the situation, all that. But we got to, at least as a society, make sure our kids get out the blocks. Nobody should be heading towards a penitentiary because we never even got them started to read when they were K1, two. It just shouldn't happen in this country. Not when we have the resources we have, and when you have people in our sector who really want to do the right thing. So that's just what I'd offer to your listeners. That we got to make sure our kids got the blocks on time.
Susan: That's a powerful, powerful message, Kareem, and-
Kareem Weaver: Well, that was Dr. Chris Jones. He said that. Brother Chris Jones was my Morehouse brother, a fellow alum. And I know he's running for governor, but I appreciate his education background. It does make a difference to have people in leadership who have education backgrounds.
Kareem Weaver: And not just education backgrounds, special ed backgrounds. People who either have, or have people they know and love who have learning differences. You put those people in leadership in school systems, things change. But part of our biggest challenge is the people running our schools are the people who the system worked for them.
Susan: Right, right.
Kareem Weaver: So why should we change? It's good. There's lots of different ways to learn. Yeah, sure, for you and the other 33% of, but what about the other two thirds? If our superintendents across the country, if our union leads, if our superintendents, if our chief academic officers, were dyslexic and they had to navigate that world, for example, what would happen? What kind of curriculum would we adopt? How would our teacher contracts look? How would we structure our programs? It would be fundamentally different because those folks usually know what it takes to get that large group of folks like themselves, what they need to be.
Susan: Yeah, that's so true. And in your work, you do a lot of actually helping folks make shifts, or start to make changes towards those evidence based practices. And we talked a little bit in the pre- call about this idea of change management. Helping to make a shift in a change like this doesn't happen overnight. It's a commitment. It's a commitment to move in a certain direction. Talk a little bit about your experiences with that change management process.
Kareem Weaver: Sure. I will, but first I'm going to go back, if you don't mind to what I said.
Susan: I don't mind at all.
Kareem Weaver: What I said first. So the politics of this are tricky.
Kareem Weaver: I'm an independent. I was born and raised in an environment that everybody was a Democrat and I'm an independent. And it's not because I... It's just that I'm about education. And whoever is willing to help, I want to be able to work with. I've worked with Republicans. I've worked with Democrats. I've worked with progressives. I've worked with conservatives. I don't care. Our kids can't read. And so I don't care. Red, blue. I could care less. Our kids can't read. And so I mentioned the person running for governor, listen, his opponents. I don't care. I will work with, talk to, engage anybody. Union leaders, people who are anti this and pro that, I don't care. And I think that's the type of dogged focus we need in education because everything can't be politics. I know some people would say," That's naive, Kareem." But I just know that it's something that we all can rally around.
Kareem Weaver: Black, white, Republican, Democrat. This is something that it's our kids. We all want to give kids a start and a chance. And so that's why I kind of take the stance I have. But you mentioned, I want to make sure I get to your question though. Your question is about-
Susan: Change management.
Kareem Weaver: The change management.
Susan: I mean, because the heart of that too, is all about people.
Kareem Weaver: That's right.
Susan: Rallying people for what? A really important purpose, which is kids.
Kareem Weaver: So the change management. So people, okay. So I'm so glad you asked that question. So we often think that solutions lie in a rubric somewhere, but if we just get these boxes checked, if we just get the right curriculum in place, if we get the right program, and the contract and this and that. And that's all fine, that's important. I will say that's necessary, but insufficient. At the end of the day, education is about people. And how can you get people to shift anything? That's a leadership move. There's a book of called Change Or Die.
Susan: Yeah. I know that book. That's old. It's old.
Kareem Weaver: That's a classic. It talks about how people, when faced with life situations, they still couldn't change. But one of the things that that book talked about was how there's power in a group and being able to move collectively together. And so change management is the ability to convince people to move when they don't have to. And to be willing to suspend belief, even just out of curiosity, to the furtherance of a goal. So how do you get people to do that? How do you get people to actually be open to trying and do something different? There's a whole course of study. When I was a executive director at New Leaders, we taught change management. And it was more important to me than anything else because I don't care what rules you pass, what policies you approve. When a teacher closes that door, they're going to do what they want to do. I got news for you. I don't care what your board says. Okay. They go. I mean, and you don't want to create an environment where it's like cat and mouse. Where you're trying to chase people down to do it. No. Leaders understand that it's not your title on the doorway that makes you a leader. That doesn't. If that's your rationale for making rules and policies then you already failed. You've got to get people to the point where they're willing to suspend belief and they're willing to try something because they understand it. They connect to it. They see the value of it. And they're willing to make the effort. And that is you've got to give them what they need. Change management is about making sure the people can get where they need to go. So that means for some people you have to make a different case than others. You have to convince them. You have to explain to them why, which means principals, assistant principals, leadership teams, they have to be willing to study themselves. You can't lead something you don't understand yourself.
Susan: That's right.
Kareem Weaver: You were just advocating for balanced literacy two years ago. Now, all of a sudden you come around because there's this new wave, this new trendy thing. And you say," Now we're going to do this." You don't have the credibility to do that. You can either lie and act like you understand it, or you could be vulnerable and say," Wait a second." When you know better, you do better. I advocated for that because that's what I thought was best. But now I've learned and I want to continue to learn. And I invite you to learn with me. I have realized because of whatever the source of the revelation was, that the research consensus actually says this. That the brain science actually says that. That there are some schools in Lane, Oklahoma and Seaford, Delaware, and here and there, and other. I'll study the Ed Trust podcast. And I found out that there are examples where people are closing the achievement gap. Where second language learners are learning just as well as everybody else. Where the black kids are kicking butt. You want to learn with me? Teachers can respect that. But what they can't respect oftentimes is people who come in with more initiatives for the new silver bullet. The same people who just told them to do something else two years ago, asking them to commit more of their time, more of their resource, the town, time, and treasure with very little of the case making, being made. So change management is very important and it really is the heart of leadership. It's not a rubric. It's trying to convince people and support people to getting where they need to go. I'll give you a brief, very brief little anecdote here. I was a-
Kareem Weaver: A principal years ago and I had this math initiative. I had the bright idea that I'm going to get all of our kids in K5, well, grades three through five to memorize their multiplication facts. That was my thing. Because algebra's a dropout class. You got to know pre- algebra to do that. And you got to know fractions to do that. And to know fractions, you need multiplication. So I figured I'm going to, we're going to make sure we do. And so I got a computer program and it was 10 minutes a day and the kids would learn the math facts. I did it on my own kids. It worked. I read the research, it worked, it was good. So I was like, okay. So I went about, and I got computer labs. I got computers in every classroom, rewired them and everything. I got professional development paid for. I put the program on every computer. I made sure people knew what to do. I set it all up. Everything was set up. All they had to do was put the kids on the computer 10 minutes a day. They will learn their math facts. They will memorize them. I just knew it was. And so we had a professional development. I went in there. I said," Okay, everybody, this is what it is. Here's the program. Here's this." We got the professional development and, and yada, yada, yada. I did my principal thing. And I figured this is a no brainer. They're just going to love this. And it's going to make their job a little bit lighter because now they don't have to do some of that stuff. Well, it came time for Christmas, the holidays. And when I looked at the data, only one class had kind of implemented it. Nobody else did. I was furious. And the kids didn't learn, know their math facts. This is an underperforming school. Second language learners, a lot of kids, 98% free and reduced lunch. A lot of teachers had previous issues. This was a turnaround situation. And I loved my staff, but I couldn't understand why it didn't work. Whereas everybody went out for Christmas break. My union rep, my buddy, Tom came up to me, came to my office and sat down. He said," Weaver." And he saw I was distraught. He was a Navy veteran, Vietnam Vet, Navy man, Tom is a straight shooter. He's like," Weaver, you didn't sell it."" What do you mean?" He said," You didn't sell it." I said," Tom, I did the PD. I got the computers. I did this. I did that. I wired the classrooms. What else could you want?" He just looked at me." You didn't sell it." That's all he said," You got to sell it." And that was tough for me because as a black man leading a majority of white staff, I figured I shouldn't have to sell it. These white people, these ornery white people, why are they making me sell it? I was angry and I felt like I'm trying to advocate for these brown babies and why won't they just do the stuff? They don't even have to... Just put them on the computer. I was furious and I was indignant. And what I realized the wisdom in what Tom was saying, it was hard to hold at first, which was, I didn't sell it because my ego got in the way. I didn't feel like I should have to sell it. I felt like you all should be doing this because it's good for kids. And here I am as a person of color, I hate that term. But as a black man telling you this and you still won't do it. How dare you? I became indignant. Well, I had to sit on that for a while and I thought about it, prayed on it. And I realized he was exactly right. And I realized that the factor holding those kids back from getting what they needed, was me. That I had to be humble enough to make the case and give them the respect of making the case. I had to meet them where they were. They have different beliefs about math. Some of them have. There's all different kinds of ways to teach multiplication facts in math. And I was assuming that they would suspend their belief to do what I wanted them to do because I felt it was best. Well, I humbled myself and during the Christmas break, I came up with this PowerPoint presentation. I explained the relationship between dropouts and algebra and pre- algebra and fractions and multiplication. I talked about how the homicide rate in San Francisco was tied to the literacy rate. This was Oakland, but there had been some data that was released from San Francisco. And I really put myself out there. I was vulnerable and I was embarrassed. I named it. I apologized to them, which was even more embarrassing and humiliating and angering, but the kids needed that from me. They needed that from me. They needed me to put myself in the closet and let a leader come out, and keep me in the closet. Because just me wasn't going to get it done. Some teachers liked me, some teachers didn't. So I couldn't just depend on me. They respected me. They didn't necessarily always like me, but they respected me. So a few months later, I'd say by April, we had 93% of kids who had memorized their multiplication facts. Memorized. I had to make the case. And the realization was that the only thing limiting them, the only reason why it wasn't 100% was because I, as a leader, failed them. And I offered this to your listeners in terms of reading as well, principals, superintendents, chief academic officers. You got to make the case. You got to sell it. You have to give them the respect enough to tell them why. And not just assume, just because it's your position or your title or whatever, that they're going to just flow with you. No. Leadership doesn't work that way. And if you can't make the case, bring in somebody who can that they'll listen to. You have to be honest about that. Make the case to your union partners, make the case to your principal, make the case to your parents and to your teachers and to everyone. Make the case. And if you can't make the case, then you got to question why you're doing it in the first place. And be willing to say," We may have gotten it wrong in the past." So those are some leadership moves when we start talking about change management, that have to be in place. You cannot depend. You cannot expect teachers to throw away everything they've been taught and suspend belief on a lark, on a wild hare. They deserve somebody explaining to them what's going on and giving them the opportunity to learn. Giving them the opportunity to go see other school sites. To go visit other classrooms, to get good feedback, to study and examine the research. They deserve that opportunity. And if you're not willing to give that to them, and you don't have enough standing in your building to just snap your fingers and magically things happen. If that's not you, then maybe you're not the right person for the right role for the right time. Because they deserve that. So that they can full- heartedly move forward and embrace the science of reading and try to get the greatest number of kids reading possible.
Susan: This is hard sustained work that doesn't happen between or over a Christmas break. So you gave one little example of how you had to go back to your staff, but making this shift for what science of reading actually requires, ensuring all of our kids get it. This is a time commitment.
Kareem Weaver: It is. And I would also say on that note, I would say that that story was as a principal. As a teacher, when you don't have the tools you need, you're basically being asked to make bricks without straw. As a teacher in East Oakland, 95, 96, I don't even remember what our curriculum was. It was basically do what you want, when you want, how you want. That's what the curriculum was. And here's a few books you could use whatever. And I had a 35 students who couldn't, I'd say 25 of them couldn't read at all. And so what do you do? Do you avert your eyes? Or do you spend the time necessary to figure it out? At 20 something years old, and having felt like this was my calling, I decided to give the time and it cost me. My ex- wife has told me," You weren't married to me. You were married to those kids." Nobody should have to pay that price. I lost a family behind this. My daughter, she was three years old at the time, she's now Dr. Weaver. And she's a graduate of university and grad school, et cetera. And she's doing great. But she wasn't raised with her father the way she should have been. And that's a cost that the district can never repay, never. They owe. And as a father, it hurts my soul to even talk about that. But that's the reality. So we have to be clear about what we're asking teachers to do. You cannot expect them to be a teacher, a curriculum designer, an assessment creator, and all the rest. That is you. You have no... That's not right. I'm not talking politics. And this is not a pro or anti. I'm just telling you straight up. That's not right. You can't do that to people and expect them to be sustained in their work and their practice. There's a reason why there's a teacher shortage right now. It's not just about money. People know the money is not that great when they take the job. They know there's a contract, a salary contract scale. Now we know that, but what you don't expect, you don't expect to have inadequate tools in preparation. You don't expect for the conditions to be right. You don't expect that the materials they're giving you don't work. And that you can't make the difference that you intended to make. And now you become cynical and these other things and people burn out. So you have to be mindful of people's time. And I would say this to all the publishers, I know Squadcast and Amplify and all that. I would just say this, publishing materials, curriculum, whether it's tier one, tier two, tier three, whatever, ought to say," This is how much time full implementation takes on average. This is how much time." If you're a seven year veteran teacher, this is it. This is how much time for full implementation. Now the district can then look at that and say," Hmm, does that match with our structure? Does that match with our prep time? Does that match with the other curriculum that we have for history and math and whatever else? Is this a good fit for our system? Are our systems aligned to something like this?" And then they can make an informed choice. But what you can't do, in good conscience, is adopt a curriculum that takes five times the amount of prep that you have contracted and expect full implementation consistently. Because you're then turning your school system into the Goodwill or Salvation Army, hoping that people donate their time, talent, and treasure for the benefit, for altruistic reasons, which many teachers do. But again, there's a cost to that. And teachers know that they're probably going to give more than they're contracted for and teachers know that. But they don't want you throw it in their face. Just give me a... Lie to me. Tell me you at least tried to consider my work life balance. Then I can lie to myself in good conscience. Oh goodness.
Susan: It's a really good reminder that our teachers work hard every single day. Nobody can tell me that there's a teacher in the classroom that says," No, I'm here to actually help kids not learn how to read." Right?
Kareem Weaver: Right, right, right.
Susan: They're there helps to help kids. As a former administrator myself, a former district leader myself, I understand that systems that we can put in place to wrap around and support teachers are so important. And we can't just expect our teachers to do the work themselves.
Kareem Weaver: That's right. The most precious resource in schools, outside of people and children, is time.
Kareem Weaver: Is time. And so when people say," I need you to value my time." We have to understand what that's really saying. Do you see me? Do I exist to you? Or am I just a thing on a chess board that you're moving around strategically?
Kareem Weaver: You have to honor people's time because that's really all they have. And when you leave the ivory tower world of philosophy and politics and this and that, the real question is, do people in your employ feel like they are able to do the job they are commissioned to do? And time is a big part of that. Chicago has 300 minutes of preparation time a week. Oakland has 100. So fundamentally, those school systems are in different places in terms of what they can adopt and what they can leverage.
Susan: Sure. Yeah.
Kareem Weaver: They just, and so that conversation has to be on the table when school systems engage publishers, engage their teachers, their engaged labor. And like I said, some people say," Weaver, you're just a union lackey." Man, please, I've said things that unions hate. I have argued the thing in court. I tell the truth. I don't care what it is. And right is right and wrong is wrong. You can't expect people, because they have families or they have personal lives. Their health matters. And the same thing goes for principals. It's a little bit different. When I was a principal, I knew it was time to transition when I found myself in the emergency room with my family around me and I had health concerns. I knew then maybe it's time to tap.
Kareem Weaver: Maybe I need to pass the baton. Now I didn't do it right away. But I knew, okay, this ain't sustainable. Not the way this thing is structured and set up. And I can't. And in good conscience, I can't rob my teachers of what they need. They need me to be present in their classrooms and in their practices. They need me to give them quality feedback. They need me to do research. They need me to do all these things. And in good conscious, I can't just get a check. I have to be what this moment requires for me to be, to be effective for teachers and students or else, I'm not the right man for the job. And it's the same thing with all educators. We have to wonder what our season is and recognize that people are in different seasons in life. I always say those empty nesters, you know that first five or six years, once the kids are gone, man, no. Man, when you an empty nester, first five, you feel like you sky high. I could climb a mountain. I could go. But that's different. That's different than a person who is 33 years old with a new baby at home.
Susan: Yeah. Right.
Kareem Weaver: And struggling through the early pains of they just got married and they trying to work it out. And here's this new kid and what is it? It's a whole different flow. So understand that it's not just about... Teachers are just like everybody else. We're dynamic beings. And you have to lead people where they are, not where you wish they were. Engage with your educators directly with their life circumstance. I had a teacher who had an ill spouse and it was difficult for that person to really do what we're asking them to do. Because their focus was, I mean, they had other concerns that they really had to prioritize.
Kareem Weaver: And we had that conversation. It was a very tough conversation. What do you need from this school system right now? What does the school system need from you right now? And I, as a principal, you have a class. I looked at that class roster and I was like, oh, that's a tough class, a tough class. Maybe this isn't the year. Maybe this isn't the season for that. Maybe we're going to have to work some other things out and shift some stuff around and provide you with extra support. Maybe you shouldn't be in the classroom this year. Or maybe there's a different role or maybe a different grade level, a different whatever it is. We have to have very honest conversations with each other without the fear that, oh my God, I'm about to get fired. Oh my God, they're going to judge me. Oh my God, I'm going to get blamed. There was no blame. And I'll tell you what, that individual to this day, I have a ton of respect for that individual, and how they handled that sensitive period in their life with their now deceased spouse. But one thing we said was what would they want you to do in this moment? The spouse, what would they want you to do with this moment? And we started our conversation there. And we led with grace and love and it was tough. And when help was needed, help was provided. And when we didn't have money to pay for help, then I went in the classroom. You got to figure out how to meet people where they are, or it's not the right spot and right time for you to be in those positions.
Susan: Yeah. It's so true. It's a great reminder that all the work that needs to be done, it's really people focused. It's-
Kareem Weaver: It has to be.
Susan: For people, for students, and it's through and by people. And that's the adults that are there for the kids. I'd like you to just maybe in closing, talk a little bit about this, going back to the science of reading momentum. Wow. That was hard to say. What-
Kareem Weaver: Thought you were going to say mimosa.
Susan: Maybe we should say mimosa.
Kareem Weaver: inaudible mimosa.
Susan: Maybe it's time for one. What's something that really excites you about this? And what's something that really concerns you? Because we've had a lot of momentum in the science of reading, but it can also be a little scary. Anything you can think of, that's super exciting about it? Or things that concern you?
Kareem Weaver: Yeah. Let's go with the exciting part first.
Susan: That's great.
Kareem Weaver: Exciting part first. What excites me about it is that parents are becoming more involved and more aware. That teachers are beginning to loosen the grip of some cultural icons that have really held sway in the field. They're beginning to challenge assumptions and move away from sacred cows and say," Wait a second, wait a second. I've been using this program for six, seven years and it's not working so well. It's not working the way I want to do work. You mean there's something else out there?" So I guess that's my way of saying people are beginning to get curious. And that's so important. Where there's no curiosity, we settle. But I'm seeing people saying," Well, show me. Well, where does it work? Well, when did that happen? Well, how much did that cost? Well, who did that? Can I do that?" We're starting to have those real conversations because of the curiosity, the intellectual curiosity and professional curiosity. And that is very, very encouraging to me. I also am so grateful that parents, unfortunately COVID claimed a lot of lives and has had a devastating impact on our country. But the flip side of that is people got to see how reading was taught. They got to see kids in the living room. What are they doing over there? What is that? And in many cases, some parents were surprised. And they were surprised not just at what was being taught, but how their children were responding to what was being taught. And it made them curious. It made them question, it made them wonder, and that's a good place to be. And so when you have parents and teachers both curious, then that means that if people are acting with positive intent, that you'll eventually get to where you need to go. You got to keep asking the right questions and you have to seek things out. So that's very, very encouraging to me. It's also encouraging that dyslexia is at the forefront of things. I call it a dyslexic community of the kids who are dyslexic is the canaries in the coal mine. I mean, if they get what they need, everybody's going to get what they need. Those are the kids who they need it in a structured way. Explicit, systematic, direct. They need all the elements of the science of reading and they need some diagnostic support and they may need it again.
Kareem Weaver: But if they're getting that, then guess what? This other kid over here who can learn in any possible way is going to be just fine. In fact, that kid will be advantaged because now their vocabulary will be stronger. They'll be learning Latin and Greek roots. There'll be some things that they get that they likely wouldn't have gotten with the more opportunistic style of teaching. So that's encouraging, in addition to legislation cropping up all around the country for dyslexia screening and support. Professional development that's being offered with some of these onetime COVID relief funds. It really is encouraging. And then there's some films that are coming out about reading. I saw four or five of them. I know I'm in a couple of them, but there are about four or five of them that are coming out. That I think all of that together will create some cultural momentum that can help us move some of the soft skills, and hopefully win hearts and minds the way we need to. So that's on the positive and that's very encouraging.
Susan: Yeah. That's great.
Kareem Weaver: On the flip side, on the flip side.
Susan: Oh, there's always flip side.
Kareem Weaver: Yeah, I know. On the flip side, old habits die hard. And education just like seemingly every other sector in society, gets polarized so quickly. And I'm deeply concerned that the science of reading, whatever we want to call it, will become politicized and polarized. And the kids will lose like that. This cannot be a conservative or a liberal thing. This has got to be about our kids. It's really a heart check. One of those things like when you're sick, your parents give you the thermometer to see what the temperature is. This is one of those things where our heart is getting a thermometer. Do we love our kids? Do I see my neighbor's child as valuable? Because unfortunately in the past it hasn't always been so readily apparent. But this is one of those things that like I said, I've had white soccer moms and black folks in the same meeting. And I'm like, you know what? You guys are in the same boat right now. You may not be in a same boat on a lot of stuff. But guess what? For this right here, you're in the same boat. Deal with it. And I've told professors, I've told parents, I've told teachers. I said," This may be one of the first times." I said," Those who are different socioeconomic levels, you're going to feel what it's like to be somebody who's a different color. Or they're a different economic level. Or you equally because your kids are going through the same stuff." Now maybe the repercussions of not being taught to read will be different depending on your station in life. True. But the desperation that you feel as a mom, when your child is, let's say dyslexic. And they can't read and nobody's got answers and your kid's falling further and further behind, and you don't know what to do. And they're shining you on and they're telling you," Give them more time and they're going to be..." That's the exact same feeling that a lot of these African American parents feel when they send their kids to school every day. And so there is a common sense of desperation that actually gives me hope. Because we can relate to each other in a new way with fresh eyes. I didn't know you were going through that. I respect your desperation. I get it. And in many ways we can bond over that. I have a 16 year old daughter who's dyslexic. Just found out the other day. Well, a little while ago, a couple months ago. 16 years old. And I feel so guilty. I feel terrible. And I taught her how to read when she went to school. Before she went to school, she knew how to read. She actually, because of the things she was trying to learn and memorize and internalize from the school system, she actually went backwards. And so I can empathize with somebody else of a different socioeconomic status, or a different class, or different political leaning. I can empathize when they say," You know what? My child is fifth grade and they can't read. Or my son is dyslexic and I'm struggling. Or we're paying for private tutoring or this or that." I get you. Let's work together. Let's push together. Let's pull together. That gives me hope. It gives me hope that we actually can have something where the commonality of man comes to the forefront, that our common cause. Because if we don't get this right, nothing else really matters. You got to get literacy right. That gives me hope. But I'm concerned. We politicize everything. We go in our tribal corners and people want to bash this group or that group or unions. And we don't have time for that. That's just a distraction. You got to get over those old tribal instincts and say," Let's just do what's best for kids." And give teachers the equipment, the materials, the time, et cetera, that they need. So they can actually serve our babies and get the greatest number of kids reading that's possible. I know that was a long winded answer, but those are some of the things that give me hope and give me pause.
Susan: Yeah, I think that's amazing, wise words to use this moment in time to come together, to solve a common problem. Something we can all rally around. We all want our kids to be the most successful that they can be. So I really appreciate your time today. There's so much wisdom in what you just shared with us. It's clear that this work is really your passion and your calling. And we're glad that you landed in this space for the kids of this country.
Kareem Weaver: Thank you, Susan. That means a lot to me. And the last thing I say is this, which is whatever wisdom I may have acquired was hard fought and came at a very high price. And I wish that upon no one. I don't want to develop and cultivate an army of teachers and principals that go out there and compromise their health, and jeopardize their families, and spend all their money on. That's not what I want because that's not sustainable. And in many ways, to me that is, it's pernicious. It's not okay. Especially when there are other options and other alternatives to that, like effective leadership, like quality. You can go on the American Federation of Teacher's website and look up elements of an effective literacy program, a reading program. And they list the five things right there.
Kareem Weaver: My wish is that regular people can do these jobs and fill these roles and our kids will get what they need. Because the system is set up to do that. We don't need Superman or Superwoman. What we need is systems that work for kids and that they work for adults so they can serve the kids. That's what I hope for with all of this. So, sorry. I just wanted to throw that in there because-
Susan: No, I appreciate it. And you're definitely doing that work to help us figure these systems out and get the systems in place. But it's a good reminder for sure. And thank you again, Kareem. For our listeners, we'll link you in the show notes to the things that Kareem has mentioned. And we wish you the best and I'm sure we'll talk to you very soon, Kareem.
Kareem Weaver: I look forward to it. And to your listeners out there, check out Marva Collins. May be worth your time.
Susan: There you go.
Kareem Weaver: Great educator. All right. Thank you, Susan.
Susan: Take care.
Kareem Weaver: Bye-bye.
Susan: Thank you so much for listening and keep your feedback coming. Want to learn more? Be sure to stay connected by subscribing to your favorite podcast app and join our Facebook discussion group Science of Reading, The Community. And visit Amplify.com to check out our brand new resource site, offering all the tools and tips you need to continue on your science of reading journey. Until next time, keep the hope, take the action, and stay in touch. Let's get our kids to love reading.
In this episode, Susan Lambert sits down with Kareem Weaver to discuss change management for educators implementing the Science of Reading. Kareem Weaver is a member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and a leader of the organization Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate (FULCRUM). He was also an award-winning teacher and administrator in Oakland, California, and Columbia, South Carolina. Kareem discusses what the Science of Reading is at the simplest level and why it’s important that educators are undivided in backing the research. He goes on to give an impassioned plea to educators to come together, because this is an issue that impacts all kids. Kareem also highlights the importance of meeting educators where they are and realizing that change cannot happen if teachers aren’t given the tools and support they need first. Lastly, Kareem calls for systemic changes to education so that teachers can do their jobs in a way that is balanced, sustainable, and ultimately benefits the students.