Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people. 

A Novel Idea is out now. For announcements, trailers, and an email in your inbox each time an episode is released, please subscribe to our email list.

Dr. Kymyona Burk is the senior policy fellow for early literacy at ExcelinEd (The Foundation for Excellence in Education). She supports states in the creation and implementation of evidence-based reading policies for kindergarten–Grade 3. Previously, she was executive director for the Jackson Public Schools Office of Teaching and Learning in Mississippi, state literacy director at the Mississippi Department of Education, and a teacher in both elementary and high school classrooms.

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): Tell Me a Little About Who You Are and What You Do

Kymyona Burk: In my role as senior policy fellow, I wear two hats. Our organization has a policy arm and an advocacy arm. We work with states that are considering passing certain laws around different policy sets. My policy set, of course, is early literacy. I work with our advocacy team, which works directly with legislators. I review bills, provide feedback on the language of those bills, and testify in committees when needed.

I also work with 28 states, plus D.C., in what we call our early literacy network. We work on implementation with states that have passed early literacy laws. The early literacy network can also serve as a professional learning network for those states. We highlight implementation strategies, we troubleshoot, and we also provide resources.

IRRC: How Did You Become So Involved in Early Literacy Education?

Kymyona Burk: Luckily my passions have come together in a very nice way. My undergraduate degree is in political science. I wanted to go to law school but decided to take a year off and substitute teach. During that year, I was in a first-grade classroom. I was a substitute teacher for maybe two days, and I was offered a job at the school. Then, I became certified to teach English for secondary schools. When I became an English teacher in a high school, I was given a class of repeaters, 16- and 17-year-old students who were repeating the ninth grade. For me, that's the year that I grew as an educator. It was very evident to me that those students had not had the foundational skills instruction that they needed. And I wondered how did they get here? How did they get all the way to high school?

So, I went back to school and got a doctorate in early childhood education, because I really wanted to figure out how we can ensure that children do not end up in that position.

IRRC: What Does the Term “Science of Reading” Mean to You? Why Is It So Popular Right Now?

Kymyona Burk: To me the term means that there is actually a body of evidence that shows how children really learn to read, what the brain does when children are learning to read, what types of instruction we need in order to learn how to understand sounds and letters, vocabulary, how to extract meaning, how we do all of those things. There's evidence that shows that. And you know, I always give credit to Emily Hanford for her 2018 piece “Hard Words.” It kind of revived the Reading Wars. That reporting got to dinner tables, so this was no longer a conversation that was just being held with academics and people at the state agency or in the schools. It’s now parents saying, ‘wow, I can tell that my child is really leveraging the picture to figure out words,’ or ‘I can see that they're memorizing words or they're guessing at words.’ That reporting included real people and how being a struggling reader has impacted their quality of life, and I think that just gave a broader audience to the reading problem in the United States.

IRRC: Do You See the Science of Reading as an Issue of Educational Equity and Social Justice?

Kymyona Burk: I always say that a literacy law is an equity law. The truth is, there are some great things happening in schools. Just not everywhere, right? And it has to happen everywhere. We have to ensure that. Supports must be provided for students, educators, and families. That's the floor. That should be the minimum. And those things are just not happening everywhere. I did a presentation the other day where I talked about how a child who is a struggling reader without interventions and supports grows to be an adult who is a struggling reader. You know, we tell parents to read to their child 20 minutes a day. What if the parent can't read? It really does impact at scale. It impacts education, the economy, quality of life, all of those things. So I do agree that this is a social justice issue.

IRRC: How Can We Take the ideas We Have About Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction and Turn Them Into Effective Policy?

Kymyona Burk: I don't know if many people know this, but I left the state agency in 2019 to actually go to a school district. I transitioned from being in this position as state literacy director and giving out all this guidance, and I was recruited to start up a new office of teaching and learning. In this office, I was now responsible for curriculum and instruction, professional development, assessment, and early childhood. It was the experience that I needed before coming into my role at ExcelinEd, because it's really easy to say to districts, “these are the things that you must do.” But when you get into a district and you look at capacity, resources, infrastructure, all of these things, then you know that it’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And I think that was the experience I needed to really be able to understand that.

When I talk to legislators and I provide feedback on bills, I might say, yeah, this is a very lofty goal, but this really can't work in real life. You want to pass a literacy law, but there's not even a person in the state agency who can lead it. So, it's those types of things that you have to marry: the ideal of it all with the implementation of it all. Passing the law is a great first step. I'm an advocate for that. We need that. But we really also have to consider the implementation piece and the supports.

IRRC: Do You Remember Learning How to Read?

Kymyona Burk: I watched Electric Company. I was the PBS kid. I didn't even go to an early childhood program. My mom was a stay-at-home mother, and during the day I, was watching all the things on PBS. So, I remember Sesame Street, I remember all of those shows. Thankfully, reading has not been a struggle for me. And my daughter, she did attend a preschool that really focused on learning the sounds, the letters, and those things, so she was prepared. But we have to do what we can to make these things a reality for all families.