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Healey administration lays out the logic behind its 5-year push to reinvent literacy learning

Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll talk with a group of elementary school students at Girls Inc. of Lynn. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll talk with a group of elementary school students at Girls Inc. of Lynn. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey is aiming to redouble the state’s efforts to teach reading to children between ages 3 and 8.
In Wednesday's State of the Commonwealth address, Healey announced “Literacy Launch,” a five-year program that she hopes will make Massachusetts “first in literacy” nationwide.
“Every child in this state needs to be able to read and read well – and we’re going to give them the tools to do just that,” she said in her remarks.
The program will kick off with a $30 million investment in the upcoming budget for the 2025 fiscal year and expand on promising programs run by the state’s K-12 education department.
Healey’s announcement comes at a moment of alarm about how Massachusetts students are learning to read, sparked in large part by the critical reappraisal of an approach to reading instruction that was once nearly ubiquitous nationwide.
In short, “balanced literacy” emphasizes using contextual information, like images, over phonics while helping people learn to read. Over decades, cognitive scientists have cast doubt on balanced literacy’s effectiveness, and education officials in Massachusetts have deemed curricula that use it to be low-quality.
“With unanimity, research identifies a phonics approach as the most effective,” Patrick Tutwiler, the state’s education secretary, said in an interview Thursday. “The problem is that a multitude of literacy curricula out there still use the debunked approach.”
Recent reporting in the Boston Globe found that low-quality reading curricula were in use in nearly half of Massachusetts school districts last year.
The problem is exacerbated at the state’s colleges of education, Tutwiler said, some of which “have not been training early-elementary teachers in evidence-based strategies.”
As a result, Tutwiler argued, roughly half of students don’t get a passing score on the English Language Arts section of Massachusetts’ standardized MCAS exam. On balance, Black and Latino students and multilingual learners earned even lower marks.
He also noted that Massachusetts’ scores on a national assessment of reading have stagnated over the same period.
The Healey administration’s new proposal is a multipronged effort to change that, Tutwiler said: by retraining teachers, funding the acquisition of better curricula and — starting in the fall — reworking licensure requirements for future educators and  colleges of education.
If approved by lawmakers, “Literacy Launch” would build on steps taken by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education since it revamped its literacy strategy five years ago.
Starting in 2020, DESE has issued annual grants to districts seeking to implement evidence-based literacy training for teachers and regular literacy screenings for students. Two years ago, the department also launched “Appleseeds,” a free phonics-centered curriculum running from kindergarten to second grade.
In short order, both of those programs have shown considerable promise, according to Tutwiler.
Elementary schools that received one of DESE’s grants saw a 22% decrease in students categorized “at risk of reading difficulty.” Meanwhile, kindergarten classrooms using “Appleseeds” saw 85% of students reach reading benchmarks, compared to 28% before the curriculum was introduced.

Over three-quarters of the support for those programs came out of federal funds. So Healey’s new proposal, with $30 million promised in its first year, would represent a roughly fivefold increase in Massachusetts’ annual spending on the literacy push, including a separate stream of funds for teacher training.
Despite the effectiveness of DESE’s prior interventions, Tutwiler stressed that “change is a process, not an event.”

He said the administration foresees a long-term effort to rework reading education that would start next year and carry through at least until 2029, with the legislature’s approval.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2024 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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