Nearly half of all Massachusetts public school districts last year used a reading curriculum in their elementary schools that the state considers low quality, according to a new investigation by the Globe.
In its grant program aimed at improving reading instruction in the state, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lists these seven different curriculums as the most popular examples of “low quality” curriculums in use in Massachusetts. The department is paying districts up to $200,000 each to dump these materials and replace them with high-quality ones.
The state considers these curriculums low quality because they promote discredited teaching practices and have received poor reviews on the department’s own curriculum quality rubric, called CURATE, or from EdReports, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that evaluates teaching materials.
The Globe obtained data for 263 of the 273 Massachusetts school districts that serve elementary students. (Ten districts did not respond.) Of those, 47 percent used at least one of the seven low quality curriculums last school year. The two most popular reading curriculums in the state, according to state data and a Globe survey, were Fountas & Pinnell Classroom K–5 and Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Phonics K–5, which were used in 88 districts — nearly 3 in 4 districts using low-quality curriculums — last school year.
The Globe reached out to the publishers of the seven curriculums. This is what they had to say:
Fountas & Pinnell Classroom K–5 and Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Phonics K–5
Fountas & Pinnell Classroom K–5 and Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Phonics K–5 are titles owned by New Hampshire-based publisher Heinemann. EdReports rated each curriculum as “does not meet expectations.” Fountas & Pinnell received poor marks for not including evidence-based phonics and for not providing complex texts. Units of Study was poorly rated, in part, because materials taught “cueing.” An example of cueing is looking at a picture to guess an unfamiliar word. Heinemann within the last year has released revised versions of both Fountas & Pinnell and Units of Study; each update includes an increased emphasis on phonics.
In a statement, Heinemann president Matthew Mugo Fields said, in part: “It’s been incorrectly suggested that Fountas & Pinnell Classroom and Units of Study lack a focus on phonics and, based on that incorrect assumption, must be the reason reading scores have declined. While it may be tempting to point a finger at a particular reading program, it’s simply not correct or productive to place blame and assume if these particular supplemental reading programs are replaced, reading scores will improve. I think we all wish it was that easy.
“Both Fountas & Pinnell Classroom and Units of Study are available modularly and incorporate strong phonics and decoding instruction and practice. That said, neither program is meant to be a standalone core curriculum — a fact which has frequently been overlooked in reporting and assessments of the materials. This allows schools to select all the essential elements of comprehensive literacy or individual components of either program to strengthen the core curriculum already in use in their classrooms. . . .
“It has been incorrectly stated that Heinemann and its authors teach children to guess. The use of visuals can help foster reading comprehension but should not replace the practice of decoding. Guessing at words in lieu of decoding is not the instructional intent of our authors’ programs. Heinemann’s resources do not teach kids to use visuals in place of decoding and we certainly are not teaching children to guess. It’s important to put ‘cueing’ or ‘MSV’ in this proper context.
“At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reading and it is far easier to inaccurately scapegoat than it is to develop and implement the multi-dimensional solutions required to create positive change at scale in the real world. Heinemann and our authors are committed to giving teachers the tools they need to be responsive to individual student strengths and needs. Our focus at Heinemann is to provide support to teachers with increased training and professional development to ensure successful implementation of our literacy resources — with the end goal of equipping every child with the full set of tools they need to read, write and learn about the world around them.”
Journeys and Holt McDougal Literature
Journeys and Holt McDougal Literature are titles owned by Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). EdReports rated both curriculums as “does not meet expectations.” Both received poor marks for not adequately building student knowledge.
In a statement, executive vice president and general manager for core curriculum at HMH Jim O’Neill said: “HMH shares the DESE’s goal of ensuring the highest quality literacy curricula is implemented in Massachusetts schools. Both Journeys and Holt McDougal Literature are older programs that are no longer part of HMH’s current offerings. Our new programs, Into Reading and Into Literature, were developed using the latest research and evidence base. They are highly rated by both EdReports and CURATE and therefore are supported by the DESE for purchase.”
Wonders (2017) is a title owned by New York-based publisher McGraw Hill. EdReports rated the 2017 edition of the Wonders reading curriculum as “partially meeting expectations.” The curriculum received poor marks for not adequately building student knowledge. Massachusetts CURATE rated the curriculum as “does not meet expectations.”
In a statement, McGraw Hill senior director for communications Tyler Reed said: “Wonders is a grades K-6 comprehensive literacy program and set of connected resources that’s designed to foster a love of reading in all children. It is continually updated to reflect the latest learning science on effective reading instruction. There have been several new editions made to Wonders since the 2017 edition, which was developed nearly a decade ago. The 2020 edition was rated as ‘Meets Expectations’ across all areas in the CURATE report. It received an all-green rating in EdReports as well. A further enhanced edition of Wonders was released for 2023, which has not yet been reviewed.
“The 2017 edition is not widely used in Massachusetts with most schools using the more recent editions.”
Reading Street Common Core K-6
Reading Street Common Core K-6 is a title owned by New Jersey-based publisher Savvas Learning Company. EdReports rated Reading Street as “does not meet expectations.” The curriculum received poor marks for not providing rigorous enough texts for students to read.
In a statement, Savvas Learning Company said: “At Savvas Learning Company, it is our mission to produce rigorous, high-quality, evidence-based, standards-aligned curricula that increase engagement and advance learning for all students. We believe strongly in the need for high-quality instructional materials in every classroom. To that end, our flagship myView Literacy K-5 program has earned EdReports’ highest rating of ‘all green,’ or ‘meets expectations,’ in each of its three ‘Gateways’ categories. Additionally, myView 2020 was reviewed by the Massachusetts CURATE project and was determined to ‘meet expectations’ for high-quality instructional materials and alignment to Massachusetts learning standards.
“Reading Street was first introduced to the educational market in 2006 and was last updated with a 2013 copyright with content specifically designed to align with Common Core State Standards. These editions of Reading Street were released well before EdReports began reviewing K-12 instructional materials.
“Since EdReports launched in 2015, we have shared in its vision that all students and teachers deserve access to the highest-quality instructional materials to help improve student learning outcomes. While we value the important work that EdReports does to evaluate curriculum and assess whether it meets Common Core State Standards, it’s important to note that there were high-quality, effective programs available before EdReports came into existence.
“In fact, independent researchers conducting a randomized control trial from 2009-2011 determined Reading Street to be an effective curriculum at increasing student achievement. Their study found that Reading Street showed a statistically significant and positive effect on student outcomes, with the results showing that first-graders and second-graders grew by 4 and 2 more percentiles, respectively, than the average comparison students.
“However, definitions of quality have evolved in the years since Reading Street’s initial release and subsequent updates — and EdReports and other curriculum review organizations have played a part in that evolution by continuing to establish and redefine the measurements of what is considered ‘high-quality.’
“Savvas ‘retired’ Reading Street in 2020, and since then the program has no longer been available for sale to new customers. Meanwhile, many of our customers have adopted and continue to adopt our newer myView Literacy K-5 program, which is firmly grounded in the Science of Reading.
“While we continue to innovate and enhance our products to meet evolving educator and student needs, we stand behind the quality of our research-based Reading Street program, which, during its time, was considered to be highly effective.”
Reach for Reading K-6
Reach for Reading K-6 is a title owned by Boston-based publisher Cengage. EdReports rated the curriculum as “partially meets expectations.” The curriculum received poor marks for not adequately building student knowledge.
Cengage did not return a request for comment.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the name of Jim O’Neill.