Hank Fien grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a working-class South Jersey town, where he witnessed the stark divide in life experiences between his peers who were taught how to read and those who were not. “Those who were taught to read could make choices for themselves and at least have a chance of changing their circumstances for the positive. Those who were not lacked the same opportunities,” he says. “That has stuck in the back of my mind in all of my current work.”

Today, Fien, a professor of teaching and learning, is committed to addressing the nation’s reading gap as director of the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), which he began running in 2015 at the University of Oregon. Created as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act and funded by the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, NCIL brings together literacy experts, researchers, and educators to support students with literacy-related disabilities, such as dyslexia.

A 2017 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 32 percent of students in the fourth grade could not read at even a basic level. In his own hometown, Fien observed a connection between a lack of reading proficiency and negative life experiences, including incarceration, and the nonprofit The Literacy Project reports three out of five incarcerated Americans can’t read. Fien says that because of this relationship, NCIL is also dedicated to conducting literacy work with incarcerated youth.

In 2021, Fien and three of his NCIL colleagues—his wife, Nancy J. Nelson, an assistant professor of special education, and research professors Lana Edwards Santoro and Scott Baker—joined the BU Wheelock faculty. Fien won another five-year federal funding contract to bring NCIL to BU. He spoke with BU Wheelock about the work he is doing with the first-of-its-kind center and some systemic issues and challenges impacting literacy in the US.

BU Wheelock: What are your main goals with NCIL?

Hank Fien: The overarching mission has been to scale up evidence-based programs and practices for kids in schools or for families in their homes, and to increase the access to and use of evidence-based approaches to screen, identify, and teach students with literacy-related disabilities, including dyslexia. This includes developing free or low-cost, evidence-based assessment tools for identifying students with or at risk of literary-related disabilities as well as creating targeted and intensive technical assistance. That’s where we send reading experts and coaches to state departments or districts, usually by request, to train their teachers on the science of reading, for example. Usually, we collect data to see if we’re improving student outcomes and if teachers are changing their behaviors to use more evidence-based practices. 

You heavily emphasize the phrase “evidence-based.”

One of my main goals is to maintain the rigor and the quality of everything we put out, and to make sure it’s absolutely based in science and not just based on my opinion or a fad. 

It’s also important to us that what we put out is relevant to what parents want, what families want, and what schools are asking us for. We have a national crisis where we have had unacceptable, glaring achievement gaps in reading if you’re a student living in poverty, a student of color, a student with a disability—this was even before the pandemic—and the data is simply damning.

We really have our work cut out for us in trying to demand that equity and access are principles for all, and that the science of reading is available to students and teachers in their classrooms, which, to be candid, has been an uphill battle.

Originally, there weren’t a whole lot of evidence-based programs because there wasn’t a lot of rigorous research being conducted for reading programs. Now, there’s no issue with supply. Now it’s an issue of demand. It’s a question of how do we incentivize teachers, principals, districts, and state decision makers to use evidence and not opinion to make decisions about what our children are experiencing in the classroom?

I think that the default has been that whatever publishers are putting out there or whatever teachers are finding online—not necessarily what is evidence-based—influences what happens in US classrooms. We’re really working hard to counter that by providing free resources and supports for families and teachers as a shift to try something new—something based on the best available science. 

What are some of the primary issues or concerns when it comes to improving literacy?

I would say we don’t do a good enough job of training teachers on the science of reading, and that’s another systemic issue. A lot of our work with newly minted teachers is fixing and addressing what they didn’t get in their teacher prep programs. 

Another issue is local control. There are many positive aspects of local control. But when you’re trying to come up with a district-level plan, and every school can do whatever they want to do, and every teacher within the school can do whatever they want to do, it’s really hard to incorporate an evidence-based plan to move the dial in improving outcomes for kids. Having some amount of centralized decisions with some autonomy to vary what that looks like from school to school, depending on the population that they’re serving potentially, makes sense. 

What kinds of resources can be found on the NCIL website?

We have free assessments parents can use to determine their children’s risks for literacy-related disabilities. We have developed a lot of free online literacy games that they can play with their kids. We’ve also developed a comic book series where the main character is a student with dyslexia who has superpowers, so it is meant to take away the stigma. We’re developing new dyslexia screeners to put into classrooms. We have developmental checklists that we’ve created for pediatric hospitals and social workers, so we can expand the pool of professionals who are able to work with parents and children within the school setting and outside of school. 

Beyond that, we have a lot of policy tools for state leaders and policymakers. For example, we have a State of Dyslexia map that shows state by state what legislation is in place, and we also share some strong examples of screening legislation or intervention legislation for students with disabilities, including dyslexia. 

A lot of our resources are focused on teachers or district reading coaches who work with teachers, such as showcasing ways to do a professional learning community on a topic. We focus heavily on implementation, not just learning about a topic.

You’ve seen firsthand the importance of improving literacy outcomes.

I think I grew up in the poorest zip code in New Jersey. But it was pretty clear to me early on that it wasn’t a student’s race or how poor they were that determined their schooling trajectory—what mattered was whether they were taught to learn how to read by their teachers. It’s one of the most powerful tools you can provide a child in poverty to change their life outcomes for the better, to learn how to read.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.