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Brookline schools plan major change to how students are taught to read

A hallway at the Pierce School. Photo by Clare Ong
July 8, 2024

Erica Sullivan, who teaches first and second grade at the Driscoll School, began to rethink the way she teaches reading when she came across the phrase “science of reading” about four years ago on social media.

Sullivan, who is now part of the Public Schools of Brookline’s District Literacy Leadership Team, previously followed a curriculum that suggested using context clues and guessing strategies when new readers came across words they didn’t know. After reading about the science of reading, Sullivan said, she realized she and other teachers had been doing it wrong.

The old curriculum told students, “‘When you see a word you don’t know, you can look at the picture,’” Sullivan said, “or use all these strategies that I now realize encouraged a lot of guessing that’s not really reading. Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading on my own and pulled all of my colleagues at my school along with me.”

In her research, Sullivan learned the importance of a strong foundation in phonics, syllables, and knowledge-based instruction — skills that children use to become better readers, not just better guessers. Sullivan and other teachers have explored the science of learning, finding ways to supplement the Lucy Calkins Units of Study curriculum currently used by PSB, she said.

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The Lucy Calkins curriculum is at the center of a nationwide literacy curriculum overhaul, where classrooms are swapping an outdated “balanced literacy” curriculum for the newer, more effective “science of reading,” which Sullivan and her peers have already begun to explore.

By the 2026-27 school year, PSB plans to replace that curriculum, which does not meet the quality expectations set by EdReports, an independent curriculum assessor used by the state’s Department of Education to grade English, math, and science curricula.

PSB educators will vote in November to use one of three new knowledge-based curricula — Arc Core, EL Education, and Fishtank Learning — according to Michelle Herman, the district’s senior director of teaching and learning. All three meet the quality expectations set by EdReports.

PSB’s current curriculum is not backed by research, and it’s unclear whether it results in positive outcomes for all students, Herman said. In contrast, the new curriculum options have been studied and proven to have positive impacts.

“We know more about literacy instruction now,” Herman said. “There’s a ton of really good research out there to show why using a knowledge-based approach is good for students.”

New curriculum and rollout

A small group of kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers will implement the new curriculum in their classes starting in January 2025, and all kindergarten through second grade teachers will adopt it by the 2025-26 school year. A similar rollout for grades three through five will begin that same year, and the implementation schedule for grades six through eight is still in process, Herman said.

The new knowledge-based literacy curriculum will rely on skills like phonics and offer relevant and meaningful reading material to students. Decodable texts, which require students to read by sounding out words instead of guessing based on context clues or pictures, are another part of the curriculum. When combined, these components encourage broader interest, comprehension, and success among young readers, Herman said.

“We want to make sure we’re building both the foundational skills and the comprehension piece,” she said.

When learning to read with a knowledge-based curriculum, Herman said, students will engage with material that’s relevant to what they learn about other subjects. For example, a third-grade class may read books about planets, which will relate to future lessons in science and astronomy.

Along with the rollout in classrooms, educators will receive professional development training explaining not only how to teach students to read, but why the knowledge-based approach is effective and important, Herman added.

Professional development a possible gap

While Sullivan said she was “mostly hopeful” about the new curriculum, she expressed some concern about whether teachers will receive in-depth professional development.

“Having a curriculum that’s too scripted is, I guess, scary,” she said. “I think the worry is that teachers won’t have enough training to feel confident to implement the new program, including the ‘why’ behind it.”

It’s a concern shared by some members of the Brookline Literacy Coalition, a group of parents, educators, and other community members who advocate for science-backed literacy instruction.

Ola Ozernov-Palchik, who researches reading development at MIT and is a member of the coalition, said a new curriculum will not be successful unless it is supplemented with ongoing professional development and expert feedback.

“Even if we choose the perfect curriculum — one that has been rigorously evaluated, and is showing that the students are learning and making amazing gains in literacy skills — if you take that curriculum and throw it into a district with the structural issues that our district is having, it’s still not going to work because teachers are not getting the professional development, the support they need,” Ozernov-Palchik said.

Both Ozernov-Palchik and Miriam Fein, a speech language pathologist and reading specialist who is also part of the Brookline Literacy Coalition, worry that educators will not receive adequate support for administering a new curriculum, particularly after the district announced in March that it plans to eliminate positions for four elementary school literacy coaches as part of broader budget cuts across the district.

Herman said Arc Core, EL Education, and Fishtank Learning each include professional development, and the district is considering the resources offered by each one.

“Although we don’t have coaches in the district, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t be supplying teachers with coaching,” Herman said.

Fein said the challenge of implementing a new curriculum “shouldn’t be underestimated.” One of the most significant challenges, she Fein said, will be correcting old habits while reinstating new ones.

“In addition to implementing there has to be de-implementing. It has to be very specifically, intentionally done,” she said. “There’s leftovers from [past curricula], there’s all kinds of ideas that you have to actively de-implement and stop doing. You can’t just keep adding.”

The scale of the challenge is not lost on educators, said Sullivan, the Driscoll teacher. For the new curriculum to be successful, the entire district must band together.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re getting a new curriculum, it’s going to fix it,’” Sullivan said. “It’s about coming to an understanding about what we as a district need to be doing for all of our students, all of our learners.”

Addressing disparities

In addition to improving how students learn to read, the new literacy curriculum aims to mitigate racial disparities and prevent children with learning disabilities from falling behind, Herman said.

In the 2022-23 school year, 24% of third through eighth graders in PSB only partially met expectations on the English Language Arts MCAS exam, with six percent not meeting expectations at all.

Data from MCAS results show students of color, students with disabilities, and students living in low-income households performed significantly worse on the English Language Arts exam than white students, students without disabilities, and students in average or high-income households.

A Boston Globe article published earlier this year studied the gap in achievement between children in wealthy suburban districts like Brookline, and found that the problem stems from outdated curricula that don’t develop strong foundational literacy skills. Often, parents supplement their children’s education with tutors or extra studying at home — putting students who receive extra help at an advantage.

Sullivan said whichever new curriculum PSB adopts will create more equitable literacy education.

“[The new curriculum] also helps us see where specific deficits are so we’ll be able to help catch some of those learning difficulties a little bit sooner,” she said. “When we’re more systematic about our approach across the board, it closes some of those cracks so it’s harder for kids to slip through.”