From IRRC Director Dr. Deborah K. Reed
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Iowa Reading Research Center
Monthly Email Update


The end of the academic year is only weeks away. Like the way many of you feel about winding down the year and saying “goodbye” to your students, this time of year is often bittersweet at the IRRC. We have to bid farewell to many of our undergraduate student staff as they graduate and embark on the next phase of their lives, and we are so proud of them for reaching this milestone. But this year is a particularly challenging one for me because I, too, will be saying “goodbye,” departing the University of Iowa and moving on to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as the senior literacy scholar and director of its new reading research center.

Building Iowa’s Home for Literacy Research and Translation Into Practice

In 2015, I was honored to have been named the director of the IRRC by then UI College of Education Dean Nick Colangelo. He shared the vision that former Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise and former Deputy Director David Tilly had to create a hub for literacy research focused on improving outcomes for all children in Iowa. Many of you will recall that one of the first charges I was given was to study intensive summer reading programs for third-grade students who were not reading proficiently. That study was a monumental effort that involved 43 school districts, one community partner, all nine Area Education Agencies (AEAs), and over a thousand students. I learned the geography of Iowa very quickly as I visited programs in places like Starmont, Indianola, Mason City, and Shenandoah. More importantly, I made connections with schools and educators who continued working with us for years.
For example, we have conducted research on summer reading programs with the Council Bluffs Community School District seven times. We began this work with former Superintendent Dr. Martha Bruckner, and continued with Chief Academic Officer Dr. Corey Vorthmann, Director of Assessment and Data Management Dr. Marty Shudak, and Assistant Director of Teacher and Learner Supports Carly Gates. Collaboratively, we have gathered evidence that suggests “summer learning loss” is a myth on average, and we have learned how to use summer programs as an extension of schoolyear interventions and an opportunity to gather information on how teachers might be better supported. Our findings have influenced state policy and informed a broader audience. Did you know that we presented results from our work with Council Bluffs to an international group of researchers at a conference held in Greece?
We also have worked with the Sioux City Community School District for many years. Associate Superintendent Dr. Kim Buryanek served on the IRRC Advisory Council and boldly reached out for help in redesigning the district’s elementary literacy block. The effort was not easy for anyone, and it took 2 years before students made significant improvements. However, all of the district’s elementary schools made it out of the state’s improvement process by improving the number of their students who were reading proficiently. Not surprisingly, the district became a model that schools across Iowa and schools from other states visited so they, too, could learn how increase the number of students reading proficiently. The work we did with Sioux City schools was the basis for the Small-Group, Skills-Based Instruction module that is one of our most popular professional eLearning offerings. Did you know that module has been viewed by over one thousand educators and served as one of the cornerstones for the literacy efforts of the Metropolitan Omaha Education Consortium?
I am humbled by the many courageous school leaders who have asked for help, bared their vulnerabilities, and withstood criticism at times because they were so deeply committed to doing the right thing for their students. Although there are too many to name, the following are examples of those who have had deep and lasting collaborations with the IRRC:  Did you know that through our collaborations with many districts across this state that over 35,198 students have participated in our research projects between 2015 and 2021?
There also have been many literacy leaders at the AEAs who helped us make connections with stakeholders and championed our efforts even when the work challenged the status quo. To name just a few:
  • Lynn Hockenberry (now retired) and Lesley Ehlers (currently Clarinda Community School District principal), Green Hills AEA
  • Kris Donnelly (now retired), Regional Administrator Shannon Kehoe, and Curriculum Consultant Chris Klosterman, Grant Wood AEA
  • Director of Educational Services Shane Williams and Lead District Support Administrator Diane Campbell, Mississippi Bend AEA
  • Executive Director of Educational Services, Media, and Technology Katy Evenson, Northwest AEA
  • Chief Administrator Jon Sheldahl and Director of Instructional Services Wendy Robinson, Heartland AEA
Did you know that, in the past few years, every AEA has placed an emphasis on aligning literacy instruction with evidence-based practices and scientifically based research?
Not all literacy leaders are in typical educational settings—some are from the community and are passionate about making children’s literacy experiences positive and productive in the face of any difficulties. Chuck Peters, former chair of the Board of Advisors for the UI College of Education, was part of my original interview process and has been advocating for improving literacy instruction through his outreach nationally and internationally. Decoding Dyslexia Iowa and, in particular, its Executive Director Katie Greving connected with me right after I arrived in Iowa and have been steadfast partners in bringing about changes to benefit students with dyslexia. It is no small feat to get legislation passed in general, but to do so on a specific learning disability in a state that does not recognize the 13 federally identified disability categories is even more remarkable. To that point, I think it is important to acknowledge the tremendous support that the Iowa Legislature has provided the IRRC on a variety of initiatives. This includes members of both chambers and on both sides of the aisle:
  • Senators (alphabetically) Chris Cournoyer, Eric Giddens, Tim Kraayenbrink, Herman Quirmbach, and Amy Sinclair
  • Representatives (alphabetically) Cecil Dolechek, Dustin Hite, Mary Mascher, Sandy Salmon, Art Staed, Sharon Sue Steckman, and Cindy Winckler
Did you know that, since I arrived in Iowa, three separate laws have been passed aimed at growing educator knowledge and supporting students with reading disabilities—the most comprehensive of which was passed in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when only the highest priority bills survived?
Finally, if you are a regular reader of my email updates, you know that they often include introductions of the many staff members who contribute to the IRRC. They do not get enough recognition for all they do, and I could write pages about their talents and the joy bring to this work. I want to recognize one in particular. Sean Thompson is the longest serving staff member of the IRRC, having joined our team the year after I arrived. As our communications Specialist, Sean has improved every resource the IRRC has developed and even initiated new offerings such as #FridayReads Recommendations. So, if you have read or viewed something we have posted or distributed, you have experienced his work. Sean is someone who always thinks of others before he thinks of himself, and you will not find anyone more committed to the mission of the IRRC. Did you know that he supervises and coordinates the schedules of as many as 24 undergraduate student staff members each semester and has built a mentoring system for them?
It is amazing how much change has occurred in my 7 years here and how many people were involved in that positive trajectory. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the children, families, and educators of this state and know that so many reading this update will continue in those efforts. I hope to do the same in my new location.
Thank you for reading!
Deborah K. Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Iowa Reading Research Center

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