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Shanker Blog: Massachusetts: A Systems Approach To Improving Reading (Guest Post by Heather Peske)

Guest author Heather Peske, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Senior Associate Commissioner for Instructional Support and the incoming President of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), discusses Massachusetts’ new systems approach to improving reading outcomes for students across the state.

In Massachusetts today, despite our status as the highest performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about half (45%) of our fourth grade students demonstrated proficiency on the 2019 NAEP reading assessment. Disparities persist in achievement among racial groups, with only about a quarter of Black (24%) and Latino (25%) fourth graders reaching proficient levels on NAEP Reading, compared to 54% of white fourth graders. These gaps represent opportunity gaps where we as a system have failed to provide students with access to the instruction and support they need to learn to read. And the data could lead to excruciating consequences, both for our students and for us as a democratic society that depends on engaged and informed citizens to thrive.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has embarked on a systems approach to change reading instruction across our state and to change outcomes for students. It is our responsibility and privilege to serve more than 900,000 students and to partner with 75,000 educators and 70 educator preparation programs to impact reading instruction from Boston to the Berkshires, and every city and town in between.[1] Individuals cannot do this alone. We must approach this as a system to create the conditions within districts, schools and higher education so students successfully learn to read.

In the past, the system has acted in incoherent ways that inadequately set up support for strong instruction. For example, we have not previously been clear about our expectations for early literacy instruction in pre- and in-service teaching; we have not aligned our standards for students with our standards for educators; we have previously been silent in signaling quality of curriculum materials; and we have left it to districts to build the knowledge base with in-service teachers. In the past four years, we set out to promote coherence in service of systemic, high-quality reading instruction and positive outcomes for students.

As a state agency, we have many levers for change available to us: standards, incentives, mandates, accountability, capacity-building, the bully pulpit, match-making, data collection and transparency, and sharing stories. [2] In our work at DESE, we seek to use these levers to make systemwide change in early literacy instruction.

Using Policy Levers to Build a System for Evidence-Based Early Literacy

In 2020, we launched Mass Literacy: Empowering Educators and Students in Massachusetts Through Evidence-Based Early Literacy to set a vision for early literacy instruction across the state: Every student in Massachusetts will develop the language comprehension, fluent word reading, and writing skills needed by the end of grade 1 and will continue to increase literacy proficiency through the end of grade 3. Reaching these critical milestones will place all students on track for long-term academic success. In addition, students in grades preK-3 will have affirming and enriching experiences with literacy. This will all be possible as a result of educators’ knowledge of literacy development and their skillful implementation of evidence-based, inclusive, culturally responsive literacy practices.

To bring this vision to fruition, we adopted the following mission: DESE will support pre-service and in-service educators in grades preK-3 to gain deep knowledge of literacy development and to skillfully implement evidence-based, inclusive, culturally responsive practices using high-quality instructional materials and assessments. To approach this as a system, we:

  • aligned standards for students and educators,
  • provided access to curriculum and increased capacity-building through professional learning,
  • collected and published data,
  • built networks and highlighted stories of success and learning, and
  • prioritized our highest-needs students.

Aligned expectations for what students should know and be able to do with expectations for what teachers and administrators should know and be able to do, both in-service and pre-service.
We revised our ELA-Literacy Curriculum Frameworks in 2017. We then revised our content expectations for pre-service teachers to align with both the standards for students and with the rich evidence base on early literacy captured in Mass Literacy. We codified these standards for pre-service teachers in the Subject Matter Knowledge requirements (SMKs). Educator preparation programs in our state use these SMKs to build their programs. Next, we aligned the Foundations of Reading teacher licensure exam—a requirement for all elementary teachers to the SMKs.

We are now working with stakeholders from preK-12 and educator preparation programs to build educator preparation program review criteria in early literacy for our pre-service teacher licensure programs in Early Childhood, Elementary, and Moderate Disabilities. We will offer an opt-in opportunity for educator preparation programs to participate in a formative feedback review of their program and the new standards.

Provided Access to High-Quality Curriculum.
Massachusetts has had strong standards and assessments since the Ed Reform Act of 1993. We were clear about the standards to teach and what we assessed, but we left to local schools and districts the materials and methods to use. The result is that many teachers felt “lost at sea.”[3]  The research base is clear about the critical importance of curriculum. The Department now provides districts with stronger signals of curriculum quality through our Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE) reports; access to the materials and aligned professional learning; and support for adoption and skillful, culturally-responsive implementation. We have invested federal ESSER funds in providing districts across the state with access to high-quality curriculum through the Accelerating Literacy program.

Increased Capacity of Educators.
High quality curriculum matters—yet curriculum doesn’t teach students; teachers teach students. And principals set the conditions within their schools for teachers and student to learn. To overcome the gaps in student literacy learning, we depend on our educator workforce. Thus, we must build their knowledge and capacity to teach students to read. Teachers enter the classroom seeking a sense of success with their students.[4] Now that we know much more about how to best teach reading using evidence-based strategies that work (as we have described in Mass Literacy), we support our teachers and administrators to know and skillfully use these strategies and to continuously learn and grow as professionals. For example, we recently launched Open Access Professional Learning (OAPL) to offer a curated selection of professional learning opportunities for teachers and educator preparation faculty focused on early literacy. Massachusetts educators who qualify can enroll in these courses for free and will receive a stipend upon completing the course(s) they choose. Within the first five days of opening up these courses—prioritizing teachers in our highest-needs districts for early enrollment—the courses were oversubscribed. Now districts are turning to us and asking if we can support them to access high-quality courses for teachers in their own districts.

Research tells us sustained, job-embedded coaching over time can have a positive impact on teachers and students.[5] We built this finding into two major investments: Growing Literacy Equity Across Massachusetts (GLEAM) and the Early Grades Literacy grant. Using federal and state funding, we are providing districts and schools with access to job-embedded coaches who work with teachers and administrators over the duration of the grant to support their instructional change and the implementation of high-quality literacy curriculum. The GLEAM literacy consultants also work with district leaders to support sustainable continuous improvement surrounding ELA/literacy multi-tiered system of support structures.

Collect and Publish Data.
A state can collect and marshal data to promote change, and we can encourage districts to use the right tools to attain good data. The Department collects data from early literacy screening assessments to better understand early literacy attainment across the state.  We launched this spring the Curriculum in Use Data Collection, the first statewide mandatory data collection of all districts’ K-8 ELA/literacy, K-12 math, and 6-8 science curricula. We will publish these data on our publicly available district profiles to support transitions to high-quality materials and measure progress.

Build Networks.
The state has a matchmaker, networking function. We regularly bring districts together through our networks: role-alike, dilemma-alike, content-alike networks that provide space for districts to problem-solve and learn together to advance reading instruction. During the pandemic, we saw a significant increase in attendance at these network meetings, as virtual meetings increased accessibility and as teachers and administrators were keen to connect with one another.

Tell stories: Highlight improvements and build a culture of learning and growing.
We have found power in telling stories of districts: Stories about their shifts from low- to high-quality curriculum, stories about their efforts to invest teachers and administrators in selection of materials, stories about why they are undertaking change, stories about what went wrong and what we learned.  We are trying to create space that allows for learning without judgment (e.g., a “no-shame zone”) while also holding ourselves accountable for student results.

Prioritize the highest needs in the system.
Finally, although our work has impact statewide, our grants, technical support, and capacity-building prioritize districts and students who have the highest needs, such as students living in poverty, students with disabilities, and multilingual students.

Systems must be better than the sum of their parts: Systems can promote coherence, and in so doing, they can promote instruction that helps students to thrive. Systems recognize that instructional shifts are not dependent on individuals alone. State systems must use the levers available to us to support students and educators to change the trajectory of students’ lives by ensuring that all students learn to read using the best evidence available to us. In the words of Koichiro Matsuura, former Director General of UNESCO: “Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom. The freedom promised by literacy is both freedom from — from ignorance, oppression, poverty — and freedom to — to do new things, to make choices, to learn.”

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Katherine Tarca, Director of the Office of Literacy and Humanities, and the Department’s literacy specialists for their stellar work in advancing this systemic approach to early literacy in Massachusetts: Donna Goldstein, Susan Kazeroid, Allison Pickens, Tracey Martineau, Woodly Pierre-Louis.

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[1] Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, district profiles: https://profiles.doe.mass.edu/general/generalstate.aspx?topNavID=1&leftNavId=100&orgcode=00000000&orgtypecode=0; workforce profiles: https://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/teacher.aspx?orgcode=00000000&orgtypecode=0&and educator preparation profiles: https://profiles.doe.mass.edu/statereport/epppcandidateenrollment.aspx

[2] “Getting the Job Done: Alternative Policy Instruments” by Lorraine M. McDonnell and Richard F. Elmore, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp. 133-152 (20 pages).

[3] “Lost at Sea: Without a Curriculum, Navigating Instruction Can be Tough—Especially for New Teachers” by David Kauffman, Susan Moore Johnson, Susan M. Kardos, Edward Liu, Heather Peske, 2002. AFT American Educator. Retrieved 3/12/22 from https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2002/lost-sea

[4] "Pursuing a ‘Sense of Success’: New Teachers Explain Their Career Decisions” by Susan Moore Johnson and Sarah E. Birkeland. First Published January 1, 2003 Research Article. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312040003581

[5] "The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence,” by Matthew Kraft, David Blazar, Dylan Hogan. Review of Educational Research. 2018;88 (4) :547-588.

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Heather Peske

Heather Peske is the senior associate commissioner for instructional support at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). There, ...