Massachusetts ranks among the worst states in the nation for preparing aspiring teachers how to teach children to read in scientifically proven ways, a report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality found.
The report, which comes as reading instruction remains a hotly debated topic nationwide, ranked Massachusetts 35th for teaching new educators how to instruct students on phonics, vocabulary, and other core components of reading. The report reviewed 19 colleges in Massachusetts that included public, private, undergraduate, and graduate programs for future elementary teachers; another 15 programs declined to participate.
Just three colleges in Massachusetts are adequately preparing aspiring teachers to effectively educate kids to read, the report found, while many institutions missed teaching key instruction. Three-quarters of the programs reviewed promoted practices criticized by cognitive scientists as running counter to the science of learning and promoting bad reading habits, said the report by the national council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on improving teacher effectiveness.
“We have a huge problem in Massachusetts when it comes to our children and their reading,” said Heather Peske, the council’s executive director and a former Massachusetts senior associate commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “Teachers are the most important in-school factor when it comes to student learning.”
The report singled out three colleges for earning A’s: Gordon College, Worcester State University, and Bay Path University. The rest of the programs earned D’s and F’s. Boston College, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Framingham State University are among those that earned the failing grade, while Lesley University and Boston University are among those that received D’s, the report found.
In response to the report, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it was working to help schools improve on preparing new educators to teach reading in accordance with the science, through training, support, and a regulation that requires all programs approved by the department to teach new educators evidence-based literacy practices starting in fall 2024.
The department “agrees that it is critical for teachers to learn evidence-based early-literacy practices and has been working with educator preparation programs and school districts to make this happen,” said spokesperson Jackie Reis.
Some universities rebutted the report’s findings and criticized its methodology, pointing to Massachusetts’ position as ranking among the top states on national student reading tests.
“Hundreds of universities refuse to collaborate with NCTQ because they have little credibility within higher education,” said Patrick Proctor, Boston College’s chairman of teaching, curriculum, and society. “It is also important to note that students in Massachusetts consistently outperform the national average on assessments of reading, which underscores the problems with NCTQ’s deeply flawed methodology.”
Massachusetts often surpasses other states on a national standardized assessment, but that doesn’t mean the state is doing well on reading, Peske said. In fact, Peske said, Massachusetts, like many states, has a longstanding reading crisis: More than half of the state’s fourth-graders — and about three-quarters of Black, Latino, and low-income fourth-graders — weren’t considered proficient readers on the fall 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
That’s a key metric, according to the council: Students who can’t read on grade level by the fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, leading to higher chances of unemployment, criminal-justice system involvement, and poverty, according to the report.
The solution, the council says, is to better prepare educators to teach students to read in a manner consistent with decades of research on how the human brain learns to read. Research suggests more than 90 percent of all students could learn to read if they had teachers who used scientifically based reading instruction, the report says.
“We have a long way to go in having teachers ... who know how to teach the science of reading,” Peske said.
Lesley University said it was surprised to be in the council’s report, as it did not participate. It also cited concerns with the research methods.
“Lesley University is one of the largest providers of teachers and counselors in New England,” Lesley said in a statement. “We do not think it is a coincidence that New England has the best literacy rate in the nation.”
UMass Boston, Framingham State University, Elms College, and Fitchburg State University all said they strongly disagreed with the report’s methodology and findings.
Meanwhile, Boston University found the review somewhat helpful, though its D grade did not reflect its full offerings, recent revisions to courses, or the additions of new courses this fall on foundational literacy, said David Chard, dean of BU’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
“We’re all in — which is why the evaluations are disappointing for us, but we hear them and we’re not being defensive,” Chard said. “We’ll take this information. We’ll improve our program.”
Three-quarters of the reviewed Massachusetts programs teach practices that are contrary to the “science of reading,” a body of research that found reading doesn’t happen naturally and most students need explicit, systematic instruction on various literacy skills, including phonics, to become skilled readers, the report said. The practices deemed contrary to the science include “three-cuing,” which can involve a teacher prompting a student who is stuck on an unfamiliar word to look at the picture, look at the first letter of the word, and think about what word makes sense. The practice has been criticized by reading experts as teaching children to look at pictures and guess words instead of looking at the word’s letters to sound them out.
Four Massachusetts programs — including Lesley and UMass Boston — showed evidence of teaching three-cuing, the report said.
“It’s confusing to the teachers at best, and at worst, it’s damaging to kids,” Peske said. “Kids are learning methods that are inefficient and don’t help to make them strong readers.”
The council’s team of reading experts reviewed nearly 700 programs nationwide, including both public and private institutions that annually produce at least 10 elementary school teachers.
The report relied on materials provided by colleges and universities in response to requests by the council, including: syllabi, assignments, tests, practice time, and instructional time for required courses. The council assessed each program’s quality based on their depth of teaching the five key components of literacy instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, as identified by the 2000 National Reading Panel report by literacy experts.
Nationwide, only one-quarter of programs were found to adequately address all five core components of reading instruction, the report said. In Massachusetts, only 16 percent of programs did.
Many institutions took issue with the report’s methodology, saying it sometimes based its rating on a couple of course syllabuses. Peske said the group did the best it could with what colleges provided in response to its requests. For example, UMass Amherst rejected the council’s public-records requests, citing their syllabuses as professors’ intellectual property, Peske said.
Several literacy education professors at UMass Amherst said they felt the report was unhelpful. They expressed concerns that the state education department and the council are pushing teachers toward rote memorization, boring phonics-heavy lessons, and teacher scripts that don’t resonate with diverse students.
“I don’t read that [report] and say, ‘Oh wow, I need to do something different,’ ” said Ysaaca Axelrod, an associate professor in UMass Amherst’s teacher education department. “If we already decide kids are behind because their parents haven’t read to them every night and then they’re getting 45 minutes of phonics a day, what does that tell them about what literacy is or even ... if they want to [read]?”
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