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Five things to know about literacy instruction in Massachusetts

At the Barrows School library in Reading, teachers collaborate on preparation for the school year.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

READING — It was supposed to be summer break. But in the Reading Public Schools, the tedious work of switching to a new reading curriculum couldn’t halt with the closing bell. That’s how teacher Colleen DeRosa found herself in an elementary school library one day in late June, a large iced coffee in hand, and a mission on her mind: making sure all kids can read.

The hours of planning DeRosa and her colleagues did that day, using a new evidence-based curriculum, followed years of the 3,800-student district in suburban Boston teaching students to read using discredited materials. Changing their approach wasn’t easy — or cheap. It required training, new materials, ongoing support. And current state funding to make the switch just isn’t enough, said Assistant Superintendent Sarah Hardy.


“It really is a fraction of the cost,” said Hardy, whose district has had to rely on an infusion of $2 million in local taxpayer funding to complete the transformation, an unfathomable expense for more cash-strapped communities.

Massachusetts targeted just $5.3 million in the 2024 budget toward early literacy for the entire state, a fraction of what other states are spending. A $20 million federal grant has helped some districts make the switch, but many more need help. That’s just one of the findings detailed in a new Globe report investigating why tens of thousands of children are not reading proficiently.

Here are five things you need to know:

Vulnerable students are struggling the most

About half of public school third-graders in Massachusetts had adequate reading skills before the pandemic. Post-pandemic, the scores for all third-graders have slipped below the 50 percent mark, and the most vulnerable kids are in real trouble:

  • 75 percent of low-income third-graders could not pass the reading comprehension test on last spring’s MCAS exam.
  • Roughly 70 percent of Black third-graders, 80 percent of Latino students, and 85 percent of students with disabilities couldn’t understand grade-level reading passages well enough to answer questions about them accurately.
  • MCAS scores for third-graders aren’t budging: Across the state, reading scores remain down 12 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels.

More than 100 districts used curriculums the state deems “low quality” last year

Of 263 Massachusetts districts for which the Globe obtained data, 123, or 47 percent, used a curriculum the state classified as low quality last year.


Nearly 100,000 children in grades K-3 attended schools using low-quality curriculums, which do not meet the bar outlined by the state’s own evaluation tool or the tool used by EdReports, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that reviews instructional materials used in classrooms. Some districts told the Globe they planned to change their curriculum this year.

Other states are reforming literacy instruction faster than Massachusetts

Massachusetts students have long outshone their peers in other states in math and reading. But when it comes to reading, that distinction is slipping. Low-income students in Florida and Mississippi have performed better on a national fourth-grade reading exam than their Massachusetts counterparts since 2019.

Mississippi requires evidence-based literacy methods and has invested in training teachers to use them. That state is outperforming the nation in fourth grade reading growth. Students there from low-income households have catapulted from 42nd to second in the nation since 2011, while low-income students in Massachusetts dropped from first to fifth. Florida, another longstanding science of reading state, is tops in the country for low-income kids.

Both Florida and Mississippi retain third-graders who don’t pass state reading exams rather than let them go to the next grade level unprepared.

Aggressive literacy laws may be fueling post-pandemic growth, too. Mississippi is up nearly 5 percentage points in reading from its 2019 scores, while Massachusetts remains down 10 points, according to state exam data.

Massachusetts is trying to improve teacher training programs, but it’s happening slowly

Some of the largest teacher preparation programs in Massachusetts received Ds and Fs for not spending enough time on foundational reading skills, according to a syllabus review conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The council also ranked the state in the bottom half of the nation when it comes to preparing educators to teach reading. A number of institutions that received low marks critiqued the review’s methods.


The state education department is trying to force higher education’s hand, in part through revisions to a licensure test. The state’s roughly 45 teacher preparation programs also must align their coursework with evidence-based reading by fall 2024. Those that fail could lose their authority to endorse teacher licensure. The state, though, may not review some programs for compliance until 2031.

Early literacy screening will help, but not fix, the state’s reading problem

This fall is the first time regular early literacy screening is mandated in Massachusetts; though many districts already had some sort of screening tool in place, many did not use a reliable test or did not test children regularly. Last September, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a policy that requires all Massachusetts school districts to assess a student’s progress in literacy skills using a state-approved test, twice a year in kindergarten through at least third grade, in an attempt to catch learning deficits at earlier ages.

But dyslexia advocates say schools will still need more trained staff. The Massachusetts Legislature has not mandated that teachers be trained in how to provide evidence-based literacy instruction. Nor has it invested in roles like literacy coaches, who help teachers refine their methods on the ground. Experts say these coaches are crucial for sustaining long-term change.


And the early screening regulation does not specify which types of interventions schools can use for students identified as needing extra help, which advocates worry could lead to students being placed in ineffective programs.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to

Adria Watson can be reached at Follow her @adriarwatson. Mandy McLaren can be reached at Follow her @mandy_mclaren.