WINCHESTER — At school, she panics if she has to read aloud. She’s a conscientious student and keeps her grades up, but it isn’t easy; at times she has such trouble synthesizing the novels she reads in English class, she Googles plot summaries to remind herself of what happened. Even in math, word problems are thickets.
Madison von Mering, a driven 16-year-old who loves field hockey and sailing, is not a strong reader. As a young child, she was never correctly taught how to sound out unfamiliar words.
“Even still, a lot of words, I just guess on how they’re pronounced,” she said.
Madison lives in Winchester, a wealthy Boston suburb known for having some of the best public schools in Massachusetts. Yet almost one in three of its students in grades 3 to 8 last spring did not meet the state’s bar for proficiency in reading, a foundational life skill and crucial marker of academic progress.
It’s about the same across Boston’s toniest suburbs. Parents plunk down $1 million for a modest home because they believe it comes with a spectacular education. The Metco program sends thousands of Black and Latino children from Boston to highly regarded schools in districts including Newton, Lexington, and Lincoln.
Still, a disturbing proportion of children in these elite districts — 35 percent — failed to meet expectations on last spring’s English Language Arts MCAS exam, according to a Globe analysis of test results for grades 3-8 in the 50 wealthiest communities in Massachusetts. Some of those students couldn’t sound out the questions being asked of them on the exam; others struggled to understand provided passages. Although the kids who are lagging come from all backgrounds, they are disproportionately Black or Latino, live in a low-income household, are not native English speakers, or have a disability.
Income differences create a stark divide: The Globe analysis, reviewed with statistical rigor by Clémence Idoux, an education researcher with MIT Blueprint Labs, found that more than half of low-income children in grades 3-8 in the 50 wealthiest communities did not meet that proficiency standard in 2017-19, compared with 26 percent of non-low-income kids. This year, post-pandemic, almost two-thirds of low-income students fell below it.
Race and ethnicity also tell. About 45 percent of Latino children in grades 3-8 and 60 percent of their Black classmates in these vaunted school districts fell short of the state’s proficiency benchmark in 2017-19, the Globe analysis found, compared with 28 percent of white students.
And for those with disabilities, the numbers are simply devastating: More than two of every three children missed the proficiency benchmark.
And that was before the pandemic, which has driven scores down further.
These children make up a relatively small proportion of students in wealthy districts, so school leaders can more easily overlook their lagging performance. That’s why the Globe studied the reading scores of marginalized groups across dozens of wealthy communities: to allow a statistically meaningful measure of how children in different racial and socioeconomic cohorts are faring in districts where they should thrive. Though experts agree the MCAS is far from the perfect measure of students’ reading skills, it’s the best available statewide proxy for assessing literacy.
The achievement gaps in rich school districts are, in some cases, actually wider than in the rest of the state, even though their disadvantaged students do somewhat better than their peers in other districts, the Globe found. That leads to this question: How can a town take pride in its schools when so many of the most vulnerable are left behind? These are, after all, communities where resources abound, where there is no financial excuse for such a failure.
“They are actually in a position to close these gaps better than anybody is, but they don’t do it,” said Darci Burns, executive director of HILL for Literacy, which trains teachers in best practices in reading instruction. “It begs the question: Why isn’t your instruction yielding better results for those students?”
Kids struggle with reading for many reasons that schools can’t prevent — they might have a language-based learning disability like dyslexia, or they might not have had exposure to rich vocabulary or broad general knowledge at home.
But schools can offer the best available reading instruction. And, as measured by the state’s own guidelines, many wealthy districts don’t.
A Globe review of state data and a statewide survey of school districts found that the state’s wealthiest communities are more likely to use reading curriculums that the state Education Department calls “low-quality.” Sixty-two percent of the richest 50 communities, ranked by household income, used these flawed curriculums last year, the Globe found, compared with 46 percent statewide.
Massachusetts, unlike 25 other states, doesn’t require districts to use evidence-based reading instruction, built around decades of brain science about how kids learn to read. Structured literacy, as this approach is often called, teaches kids to consistently use phonics rules to sound out unknown words, and it incorporates lessons that build kids’ general knowledge to help them unlock meaning.
Wealthy districts are more likely to use so-called balanced literacy curriculums, which strive to cultivate love of reading but sometimes fall short on teaching basic literacy skills and on ensuring that struggling readers build their knowledge base.
A wide body of research has found structured literacy methods are most effective at preventing reading failure. In December, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley called on the Legislature to consider requiring districts to adopt them.
Some children learn to read easily, and for them any curriculum would probably work fine. This is especially the case in communities where children tend to have highly educated parents, access to top-notch preschools, and lots of intellectual stimulation at home.
For kids who have a harder time with reading, though, there’s a divide: Well-off, well-educated parents have a greater capacity to teach their kids themselves, send them to private schools, or hire a reading tutor. Parents with less money, time, and education, meanwhile, can’t so easily give their kids a boost, and their children fall further behind.
Lots of children struggle with reading in Winchester, “but there’s no sense of urgency,” said Meredith Rowe, a Winchester mother and Harvard education professor who studies early literacy. “One of the reasons for the lack of urgency is that parents — including parents like myself — are just hiring tutors, so it isn’t like we have terrible MCAS scores.”
Schools also have to look hard at other factors contributing to achievement gaps, including the toxic effects of racism in the classroom, parents, academics, and advocates said.
But how reading is taught matters.
School boards everywhere “need to be screaming about this,” said Steven Ehrenberg, a Brookline School Committee member. “Literacy instruction that’s not aligned with evidence does such trauma, and hard-to-mitigate damage, to kids.”
Sarah Gannon has regrets.
She was a reading specialist in Winchester eight years ago, when Madison von Mering was in second grade. Gannon worked with her in a small group of struggling readers, reading the same book aloud together multiple times. When a child got stuck on an unfamiliar word, she followed her training, prompting the child to look at the picture, the word’s first letter, and think about what made sense to figure it out.
That’s how Gannon’s top-tier teacher preparation program taught her to guide struggling readers. Now, as co-director of Crafting Minds, an organization that trains teachers in evidence-based reading instruction, Gannon knows she should have prompted her students to break the word into parts and pronounce each sound using phonics rules to activate the parts of their brains needed for reading.
“I was inadvertently teaching them what poor readers do,” Gannon said.
Most wealthy school districts incorporate some phonics into their reading lessons. The problem is that teachers, relying on inadequate training and subpar literacy curriculums, sometimes also encourage guessing from picture and context clues, parents and educators said. Guessing is easier at first, so some struggling readers never develop the foundational skills they need to become good readers. This is especially true for kids with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability affecting 5 to 20 percent of people that typically requires high doses of specialized phonics instruction.
“When people say, ‘We’re moving to Winchester,’ I say, ‘Well, I hope your kid’s already reading,’” said one mother who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retaliation from the school district.
In Winchester, and in many wealthy communities, teachers often use a curriculum on the state’s low-quality list that prescribes a “workshop” approach to teaching reading — short lessons interspersed with long periods of kids reading alone, with partners, or in small groups with educators.
Kids who can’t read well, however, benefit more from direct, teacher-led instruction, studies show. They need more practice learning the mechanics of written English, and they’re not able to learn by reading books on their own yet. Classmates who can read leave them in the dust. For kids who struggle, independent reading is not just wasted time, it can be agonizingly discouraging.
Since 2021, a group of Winchester parents has urged the district to adopt an evidence-based reading curriculum to help even the playing field. One parent told the School Committee that reading problems had driven their child to the brink of suicide. A high schooler with dyslexia described feeling “like a failure.”
Jennifer Elineema, an assistant superintendent, said the petitioners represented a small, vocal group.
The district offers multiple materials for teachers to use. What matters most, she said, is fostering a love of reading and responding to kids’ individual needs. Teachers know best which programs their students need, she said — the district shouldn’t dictate.
“I know that would make people feel better to say, ‘This is the program and everybody’s doing this in every classroom,’” Elineema said. “But that wouldn’t actually help the students.”
Of course, she said, achievement gaps between low-income kids and their peers are “appalling.” But family wealth, she said, predicts literacy success everywhere. Her district assigns more staff to schools with the most disadvantaged children, but without longer school days and years, she said, educators cannot overcome the effects of disparities in students’ home lives.
Some teachers in Winchester quietly disagree. Three teachers who asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions, said the district can and should do better. One said she procured structured literacy materials for her students, hoping their success would persuade the district to change.
“You end up with all these kids falling through the cracks that wouldn’t need to be if we covered all the bases,” she said.
Nadine Gaab, a Harvard professor of education who cofounded the widely used EarlyBird Education platform to catch potential reading problems in young children, has dedicated her career to keeping beginning readers from falling through the cracks.
So she was shocked when it nearly happened to her own kids in Cambridge, where her older two children struggled in a balanced literacy classroom. They came home guessing or skipping hard words, saying they learned those techniques in school, she said. Gaab banned those practices and hired a tutor. (Cambridge has since shifted to structured literacy methods.)
She moved her family to Newton just before the pandemic, aware that schools there were also employing balanced literacy techniques. She decided to take no chances with her third child. She signed him up for half-hour tutoring sessions each week at $35 apiece. By first grade, he was reading far above grade-level.
“He wasn’t born an exceptional reader,” Gaab said. “He just got really good reading instruction one-on-one for a whole year.”
There is no way to know how many suburban families hire reading tutors, but more than a dozen tutors in the Greater Boston area said they were slammed with high demand, even at rates of $75 to $120 an hour.
In interviews, the tutors sounded a common theme: Too many schools are not providing structured literacy instruction. Many clients, they said, are kids with dyslexia, but others, they say, are “curriculum casualties.”
“I’m so booked up — I have a waiting list, it’s insane,” said Elizabeth Hickey, a Boston tutor with clients in Weston and Newton public schools. She said many have been promoted to the next grade over and over without mastering basic skills, and they struggle to keep up.
Often, kids are deflated when they get to her, she said. Sometimes they arrive with a dyslexia diagnosis Hickey believes is inaccurate — they just haven’t been taught how to sound out words. “I blame the system. It’s not their fault.”
Parents, after all, are just trying to do what’s best for their kids. In 2022, Matt Hawkes and his wife were worried about their son, then a fifth grader. Once confident and bubbly, he’d grown down on himself and didn’t want to go to school or read at home. He was already having trouble with reading before the pandemic — but remote learning, the family’s move from Wellesley to Concord, and a dyslexia diagnosis made his needs urgent.
So they hired a tutor who specializes in evidence-based literacy for kids with dyslexia. The tutor also works with their daughter, now a second-grader, who does not have dyslexia but worried her parents last year when she, too, balked at reading at home.
The tutor visits their house weekly to teach each child for an hour. Hawkes, who works in real estate investment, and his wife, who is in management consulting, don’t mind paying $760 a month for her services. Last year, they sometimes paid double that amount because their kids needed twice-a-week tutoring. But to Hawkes, the results have been worth it. His kids are confident in both reading and writing now.
“It would be nice if my kids could get the help they need through the school,” Hawkes said. “But I’m also not sure, depending on how many kids need the extra help, how realistic that would be.”
He knows the school has many struggling kids: A teacher even asked for their tutor’s contact information to share with other families.
But Hawkes’s tutor said in an interview she was incensed the public school wouldn’t just provide that instruction itself.
“I’m doing nothing they shouldn’t already be doing,” said the tutor, who asked not to be named because she also works for a school that bars employees from speaking to the media.
Concord’s superintendent declined requests for comment.
The options look very different to parents like Lady Garcia, a housekeeper from Colombia who lives in Newton and has two daughters, in second and fifth grade, who are still learning English.
Both are far behind in reading. They receive extra help in small groups in school and during the summer, which Garcia appreciates, but she isn’t sure it’s enough.
At their apartment one summer evening, the pajama-clad girls, their hair bath-damp, curled up with Garcia on their couch to read. Sophia, the younger one, went first, glancing at the book’s pictures and making up the story: “The bunny have a hat on his head.”
Her sister, Valentina, now in her third year in the Newton schools, confidently read the English portions of the bilingual board book: “I love my Daddy because...”, breezing through short clauses like “He keeps me safe and warm.”
But books at grade-level are hard for her. On her report card last June, she got a 2 out of 4 in literacy foundational skills — making progress, but not meeting the standard — and a 2 in reading comprehension.
Garcia moved to Newton from Waltham for the schools, and she trusts them to help her daughters.
Garcia is unsure what else to do about her girls’ reading troubles. She sees the families she cooks and launders for — their kids are always reading. But trying to get her daughters to read is “impossible,” Garcia said in Spanish.
Garcia can’t afford the gymnastics lessons her girls’ Newton classmates attend, and she doesn’t have money for a private reading tutor, either. The thought of hiring one hadn’t crossed her mind until a reporter asked about it.
“I will ask [the school] if they can do it,” Garcia said.
But who feels comfortable asking the school for intensive extra help? And who gets what they need?
Heather Konar can see how, by putting a burden on parents to find a patch, weak instruction can lead to disparities in reading.
If Konar, a Lexington mother and communications professional, hadn’t had the confidence and know-how to advocate for her son, Alex could have been another child of color unable to read well in a renowned school district. In Lexington, 70 percent of Black students and about the same share of students with disabilities in grades 3 to 8 did not meet the proficiency benchmark on last spring’s English Language Arts MCAS, compared to 24 percent of all students.
When Konar raised concerns in 2020 about Alex struggling with reading at home and his family history of dyslexia, Konar felt a teacher minimized the dyslexia concern.
The school placed him in Reading Recovery, a literacy intervention program. Konar, who overheard the sessions while working remotely, said the instructor prompted her son when he got stuck to consider things like a word’s beginning and ending, what word could make sense, and the picture.
Konar thought the program helped boost Alex’s confidence, but it also seemed to be teaching him to become a better guesser rather than a better reader. She didn’t realize it then, but researchers have highlighted that Reading Recovery doesn’t adequately employ phonics; a major federally funded study found the program had a negative impact by the time participants hit the third or fourth grade. (Reading Recovery said that study had methodological problems and cited other research showing its program works.)
Lexington Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment, but Superintendent Julie Hackett previously told the Globe the district was “committed to providing each student what they need to be successful.” The district has worked in collaboration with families to develop an early literacy and dyslexia website, and it has since May used a new state-approved early literacy screener, officials there said.
Rather than waiting and trusting the program, Konar sought a private evaluation, which turned up a dyslexia diagnosis. The school then offered Orton-Gillingham, a phonics-intensive, research-backed method often used to help kids with dyslexia. Now, Konar said, Alex reads exceptionally well and loves books, often sneaking one under the covers with a flashlight at bedtime.
For parents who lack the confidence, bandwidth, or knowledge to advocate, Konar said, “maybe that’s your kid who they’re just letting it ride, waiting for them to fall behind before they really start to intervene.”
Marika Hamilton sees it this way: Suburban districts ought to put the needs of kids who are falling behind at the center of their teaching, instead of at the margins.
Hamilton is the director of the Metco program in Lincoln, which educates about 85 mostly Black and Latino students from Boston enrolled in the voluntary integration program. In the fall of 2022, 55 percent of Lincoln’s Metco elementary students weren’t meeting benchmark expectations in reading, district data showed.
The School Committee discussed the numbers, but as Hamilton saw it then, nothing much seemed to come of the conversation. She knew some Metco parents were upset. One mother said she had raised concerns about her child’s reading troubles for over a year before her child got adequate help. The mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wonders whether Lincoln was the best choice.
“For me to send my children to this school district and for them not to be getting the education I thought they were — what is the point?” she said. “They’re bused around and they’re tired.”
Hamilton and an elementary school principal decided to hire a tutor to provide evidence-based reading instruction after school to a group of Metco students. The tutor made headway with many kids, but to get to the root of the problem, Hamilton said, the district has to scrutinize what’s happening in classrooms.
Better instruction for Black and Latino students, said Hamilton, a Metco alum, goes far beyond curriculum.
She remembers feeling the sting of isolation in the mostly white Framingham school she attended growing up. Now, her job affords her an insider’s view of school dynamics. To her, some white teachers struggle to build strong bonds with their Black and Latino students, and sometimes when students’ frustrations with reading, or embarrassment about being behind, come out as misbehavior, they get more discipline than extra help.
“Now they’re losing out even more,” Hamilton said, “because they’re outside the classroom wandering or at the principal’s office.”
Lincoln’s new superintendent, Parry Graham, agreed schools need to do “deeper work,” including considering teachers’ expectations for all their students and getting extra help to kids who need it. He said schools also have to consider systemic biases and find ways to build on students’ strengths rather than harping on their potential deficits. Graham is now, at the school committee’s behest, evaluating curriculums based on how well they serve all students.
He said the district would change its curriculums if needed, but that’s just “one piece of a larger puzzle.”
Gaab, the Harvard researcher and Newton parent, had heard that the city was planning to purchase a new literacy curriculum and was eager to learn which one.
When she finally got the news from a district staffer in April 2022, Gaab was floored: A curriculum committee had recommended that Newton buy the latest edition of a balanced literacy curriculum the state had deemed “low-quality.”
“You must be kidding me,” Gaab recalled thinking.
All three of her kids were reading fine by then. But Gaab decided to push back. She worked with a group of parents that met with district leaders to present data on the value of structured literacy, and to tell their children’s stories of struggling with inadequate reading help.
The School Committee, which would have to approve the more than $2 million expenditure, already had reservations.
Paul Levy, a Newton School Committee member and former chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said he was troubled by the parents’ assertions and wanted a more careful selection process. The school system’s vaunted reputation, Levy said, meant the winning publisher could use Newton’s endorsement as marketing.
“We had a real obligation to do a real thorough job,” Levy said.
The district decided to try out the initial choice alongside three other options aligned with reading research. The district’s curriculum committee visited other school districts, including Randolph, which had seen substantial progress among its students after shifting to a structured literacy approach.
After a few months, the district surveyed teachers, students, and parents and, based on those responses, decided to move forward with EL Education, the same curriculum Randolph uses.
Newton teachers liked that the new materials featured lively, fun, and interesting content delving into real-world topics like birds and human rights as well as fiction, school leaders said. EL also gave teachers ways to help all students, no matter their reading level, work with complex, grade-level texts that challenged them.
This year, the district is putting the new curriculum into practice, with high hopes that it will boost their long-stagnant reading scores for vulnerable students. About two-thirds of Newton’s Black students and low-income students in grades 3-8 did not meet expectations on the 2023 English Language Arts MCAS, and more than half of Latino students fell below the bar.
“What we know is that something needs to change,” said Renee McCall, Newton’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “Our kids deserve this now.”
Christopher Huffaker of the Globe staff contributed data reporting.