Panelists from Los Angeles, San Juan, Calif., Chicago, and Newark public schools, as well as Mondo Publishing and Bellwether Education discussed the importance of coherent literacy teaching to overall education. (James Arkin/Medill)

WASHINGTON — Education leaders from all corners of the country Tuesday reviewed ways for schools to improve children’s literacy, with the head of Newark, N.J., public schools saying it’s time to acknowledge that advancements will take hard work and new tools.

The discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, included officials from the Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago and San Juan, California, school districts as well as the CEO of Mondo Publishing and the co-founder of Bellwether Education, a nonprofit that advocates for education improvements for low-income students.

“I’m not sure how we cross the divide but I do think teaching reading and writing at really high levels is kind of rocket science,” Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark public schools, said. “I think we need to break it down in a different way, change the conversation, and really create a much more transparent, frank set of tools that acknowledge the frank set of work without making it unattainable.”

Literacy in schools, according to Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education, involves a myriad of problems. Fixing them, however, is fundamental to providing children with a meaningful education, he said. One of the main reasons many students drop out of school, according to Rotherham, is inadequate literacy teaching.

“When you talk to kids who have dropped out, one reason … is that alienation in school,” Rotherham said. “If you get to middle school, get to high school, these are literacy-based places. Across the curriculum, you have to be able to read to engage in what’s going on.”

Creating coherence among state and local programs as well as methods for teaching literacy is a vital step towards improving the big picture, according to Anderson.

“We have a ton of products and a ton of assessments that work on one element of literacy, but there’s very little that comprehensively looks at how you would create a dialogue and a system around literacy that would move all kids forward,” Anderson said.

Though coherence is vital specifically to literacy, accountability is an overall cornerstone of current federal education policy. Glynn Thompson, superintendent of the San Juan, Calif., school district, said a key component of accountability is cooperation between teachers and administrators.

“Accountability means that you’re at the table with me having the conversation that we’ve set the bar together saying this is what all students need to know and be able to do,” Thompson said. “First of all we provide the support, and then the non-negotiable is if you’re still not getting results, we have to have the hard conversations.”

Jean-Claude Brizard, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, said schools have a “leadership issue.” “Greater teachers will not stay at a school with a lousy principal,” he said. “…I think there’s been a lot of talk and push and initiatives to improve the teacher quality … we’re forgetting about the principalship.”

Accountability is a major part of the House of Representatives draft legislation released several weeks ago to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. The bill would give significant power to state and local districts to allocate funds, which, according to Thompson, is vital to improving education as a whole.

“What if those funds were allowed to stay with the district and implement our own aligned intervention that can be very targeted,” Thompson said. “Because of the alignment and coherence, we believe student results would come much more quickly and coherently than generalizing it to a bunch of folks that really don’t know our students or our community.”

No Child Left Behind has been awaiting reauthorization since 2007, but partisan disagreements have stalled efforts to  pass a new version.