This is the final in a series of four essays that reflect on a Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of school districts across Massachusetts. Part of a larger set of stories detailing the journey of educators across the country that have embraced a new vision of teaching and learning through implementation of high-quality instructional materials, this piece discusses the state’s reliance over the years on two balanced literacy programs that have recently come under question, and what the move away from them has meant to pioneering districts who are putting their bets on new high-quality instructional materials and aligned support for teachers. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.
Many Massachusetts public schools still use balanced literacy programs that recently received low marks in a review by EdReports, a nonprofit that evaluates K-12 curriculum across English language arts, math and science. Around the same time, I happened to visit pioneering Massachusetts districts that have adopted evidence-based approaches to reading instruction. Educators there have much to teach us about the benefits of adopting strong curricula with professional learning support and why the timing is critical now. I was deeply interested in hearing what educators had to say about why they made the change and how it’s going.
EdReports’s recent reviews of Units of Study and Fountas & Pinnell Classroom faulted them for text quality and for not including enough explicit teaching of phonological awareness. In a recent survey, Units of Study was the second most frequently used elementary English language arts curriculum in Massachusetts, and Fountas & Pinnell Classroom was the fourth.
Not Getting Results Compelled Change
Roughly half of the third-grade students in our state are not reading on grade level — not because of students’ abilities, but because of our pattern of denying them access to evidence-based literacy instruction, high-quality curriculum materials, and culturally responsive environments.
“We had seven years of data, and it had flatlined or only marginally improved for the past six years,” said Emily Whitcomb, director of curriculum and instruction of UP Academy of Holland, a school that previously used balanced literacy. “We were exiting kids, at best, [with] half of them on grade level. Our sense was that if we keep doing the same thing, we are going to get the same result.”
And Alix Lesser, a fourth grade teacher at the same school, said “90 percent of our teacher brainpower” was being spent on reading groups that were not yielding progress.
Kathleen Seifert, director of teaching, learning and talent development at Southbridge Public Schools explained that a look at fifth-grade data, where just nine students were on grade level heading to middle school, compelled the shift in her district.
Countless Hours Finding Background Materials
We also heard about issues that were well beyond the scope of the EdReports reviews. Teachers described the workload associated with the reading workshop model within Units of Study in particular.
“The switching between content and demand on kids’ background knowledge was extraordinary,” said Salem Assistant Supt. Kate Carbone. “One day, fire trucks. The next day, butterflies — this was a real challenge for kids’ literacy and language development.”
Often the texts’ topics were unfamiliar to students who did not yet have background knowledge on topics like firefighting or pollinators. Students who are multilingual learners or students living in poverty benefit the most from curricula that stays with one topic for a longer period of time, systematically building new knowledge and the language that goes with it, and that was missing.
In response, teachers spent weekends and nights creating their own supplemental materials from places like Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers and other sources so that students could have the knowledge the curriculum required. Educators said shifting to a high-quality curriculum that embeds both the knowledge building and literacy development has lifted an enormous burden.
Benefits for Students
Across our visits, we heard stories about increased equity for students, whose instruction no longer depended on teachers using fragmented supplemental materials that varied across schools. We heard in Salem, Southbridge, Pentucket, and UP Academy Holland how student work is stronger now, especially in decoding words and developing deeper knowledge. We heard from students, who described their appreciation for consistent and predictable instructional routines. We heard teachers describe their relief that high student mobility rates would not hamper student growth, since the district was using a unified curriculum; there had previously been so much variation in what was taught; now, moving to a new neighborhood and new school did not threaten access to the content. At UP Academy Holland, administrators shared that there were fewer disciplinary referrals during the ELA block because students were more engaged in the process and content of learning to read. Teachers of students with disabilities and multilingual learners said they and their students are better included.
Benefits for Teachers
One big benefit to the move away from balanced literacy and adoption of high-quality materials that we heard about from educators was how the shift has promoted professional collaboration and uses their time more effectively. Teachers know what colleagues are teaching across a school and district and can work together on how to best teach the materials, rather than spending time on what to teach. Teachers were relieved not to have to spend hours creating materials on their own; this was particularly true for new teachers, but also for veteran teachers who had struggled with how to support new teachers when there was no coherent curriculum. Investing in building teacher and administrator capacity has also been a benefit. “To get to the next level for students, we need highly knowledgeable professional teachers who know the way to close the gap in the moment…[we need] to build knowledge among all of us,” said Southbridge Supt. Jeffrey Villar. All of the districts we visited were providing professional learning on evidence-based reading for teachers and administrators.
Curriculum Matters. Now Is the Time
When we asked educators what advice they would give to others considering a shift away from balanced literacy, the educators we engaged with said that while it is not easy to make these shifts, it has never mattered more. As we help students recover from the pandemic, it is imperative that we give them evidence-based, culturally responsive instruction and high-quality materials and that we support teachers with time and job-embedded professional learning. The districts we visited used federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money to support their efforts — a perfect use of the time-limited funds to build educator knowledge and capacity.
“There’s a quote from Maya Angelou that we always use, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,’” said the principal of a school we visited.
Now that we have the knowledge, we can do better for our students.
Heather G. Peske, Ed.D. is senior associate commissioner for the Center for Instructional Support at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.