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‘Out with the old’: Boston Public Schools attempts to raise reading scores through overhauling instruction

Kindergarten teacher Adina Thomas helped her students tap out sounds in words at the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury, part of a reading revolution in Boston Public Schools aimed at bringing instruction in line with the latest brain science.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Adina Thomas perched on a chair before her kindergarten class one morning in May, her students squiggling cross-legged on a colorful carpet.

“Plug!” she said.

The kids lifted their hands together in a prayer position pointing forward. “P-, l-, uh, g-,” they said in unison, chopping their hands downward with each sound, then swinging them like a baseball bat as they blended the sounds together: “Plug!” As they repeated the exercise with more words — “spray,” “slip,” “group” — the students beamed with confidence.

Thomas, a teacher at the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury, is on the front lines of a reading revolution in Boston Public Schools. After years of dismally low reading scores — only 32 percent of third-graders scored proficient on last spring’s English-language arts MCAS test, and about 20 percent of Black and Latino third-graders did — the state’s largest school system is making a dramatic shift toward “structured literacy,” instruction that draws on a body of research, known as “the science of reading,” about how the human brain learns to read.

The district’s “Equitable Literacy” program puts a heavy focus on phonics, to help kids sound out words, and knowledge-building, to help them understand what they read. It also aims to eliminate discredited strategies — like teaching early readers to guess at unfamiliar words using pictures or context clues instead of sounding out — that have permeated American reading instruction for decades.


BPS leaders realized the district needed “a fundamental shift in how we teach reading — because it’s not working,” said Christine Cronin, the district’s executive director of professional learning.

Boston’s overhaul, which comes at an especially critical time as educators try to help kids recover from the pandemic, is part of a movement that many schools across the country are navigating. But in Massachusetts, progress has been slower than in many other states.


Crucially, Boston is making the shift citywide, a massive challenge in a district that has long given each school, and even classroom teachers, broad autonomy to teach as they see fit.

Superintendent Mary Skipper vowed the district will see better results for kids because it has made a commitment to the new approach for the long haul.

“Equitable Literacy is going to be here for a long time,” Skipper said. “We’re not going to do what’s been done in the past, which is announce something, and then the following year, announce something different.”

Sofia Coar held up her writing board to show that she spelled the word "sock" correctly along with her fellow kindergarten classmates at Haynes Early Education Center. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Already the shift is winning applause from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which in an otherwise critical review of the district last year, praised Equitable Literacy as a bright spot in BPS that marked “the first time in recent memory that BPS has adopted a unifying academic initiative.”

The state has even awarded the district a contract to train educators across Massachusetts this year on play-based learning, featuring BPS’s homegrown literacy curriculum, Focus on Early Childhood, which includes activities like reading about construction alongside sand play, or reading about owls, and then dissecting their pellets.

BPS has spent more than $8.25 million on Equitable Literacy since 2022, officials said, and at least $600,000 since 2021 on training early elementary teachers in the science of reading.

It’s early, but BPS reports promising internal results so far: The proportion of kindergartners meeting grade-level benchmarks in phonics and phonological awareness rose last spring to 73 percent and 67 percent, respectively, from 69 percent and 62 percent in spring 2022.


In 2018, the district briefly mulled scrapping Focus for an off-the-shelf curriculum, but instead decided to improve Focus because of research showing it was narrowing racial gaps in vocabulary, and because other curriculums didn’t reflect BPS’s diversity. The district consulted with experts, made sure the lessons covered the state’s English, science, and social studies standards, and created “decodable” books that allowed kids to practice sounding out words featuring diverse characters in Boston and beyond — like “Yousef at the Arboretum.”

The books “center Boston families and Boston kids,” said Brooke Childs, director of early literacy. “Children learn when they’re able to contextualize it in the place where they live.”

As part of a shift toward evidence-based reading instruction, Boston Public Schools enlisted experts and its own educators to produce "decodable" books that help students practice phonics lessons while reading texts that include diverse characters, local and global settings, and real-world topics.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The pandemic offered an opportunity for reinvention. While schools were shuttered in 2020, the district scrapped a reading intervention program in use in some schools that was generally not backed by proponents of science of reading. That August, BPS put schools on notice that they needed to follow the science of reading and ultimately adopt evidence-based instruction.

“It was a perfect opportunity to say, ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ ” said Dwayne Nuñez, principal of Ellison-Parks Early Education School and a former literacy coach. “Moves like that actually made me feel like we were serious about the work.”

Dwayne Nuñez, serving as a BPS literacy coach in May, worked with Harrison Ransom, left, and Eliana Hector on a reading exercise during their kindergarten class at the Haynes Early Education Center as part of a shift toward evidence-based reading instruction. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Since then, the district has mandated that teachers in prekindergarten through second grade receive training in the science of reading, with 92 percent receiving such training so far, officials said.


And BPS has added literacy coaches to help teachers translate that training into their classroom practices. Each coach oversees five to 12 schools, Childs said. Though schools should ideally have their own coaches, she said, they’re still making a big difference, especially as teachers work to unlearn habits they were taught in college and have used for years. For example, though the district has long had phonics programs, teachers often didn’t prompt children to sound out every word when they read aloud, she said.

Thomas, the Roxbury kindergarten teacher, said Nuñez’s coaching has been career-changing.

“Honestly, Dwayne has been a godsend,” Thomas said. “This job is not easy.”

Lesley Ryan Miller, BPS' chief of teaching and learning, read with kindergarten students Javonni Alexander, left, and Kamari Combs during a May class at the Haynes Early Education Center. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Some education advocates think BPS should have just gone with an entirely new curriculum with high ratings, instead of revising and supplementing Focus, since Boston’s scores have been so low.

“Kids are not reading,” said Edith Bazile, founder of Black Advocates for Educational Excellence. “How can the district say they’re doing a good job? You cannot overcome the data.”

Tiffany Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab for Mass General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, who studies BPS’s reading instruction, said the district’s approach follows the latest brain science on how best to teach reading, but changing student outcomes can take years. In an urban district like BPS, she said, improvement requires not just instructional changes, which are hard enough, but also tackling thornier issues like teachers’ subconscious racial biases and students’ hunger, housing, and other needs.


Yet she believes BPS is on the right track.

“They’re poised to really make some significant changes and potentially be leaders” nationwide, Hogan said.

Deckary Barth held up his correctly spelled word as he worked in a breakout group of four students with his teacher Adina Thomas during their kindergarten class in May at the Haynes Early Education Center. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A key part of sustaining change in large organizations is building a shared mission and sense of community, Hogan said, something BPS strives for in monthly meetings among principals and academic coaches.

Last spring, Mary Driscoll, a BPS regional superintendent, stood before a room of administrators in a colorful Hurley School classroom adorned with Spanish words. She asked them to say aloud the names of kids who’d made big strides because of Equitable Literacy. The educators, one after another, responded.

“Selma.” “Noah.” “Jasmine.”

A solemn silence fell.

“Thinking of the young readers we brought into the room, we owe it to them to make a good plan and stick to it,” she said.

BPS leaders say Focus keeps lessons fun and relevant to kids’ lives.

It was in that spirit that Jemma Joseph, a kindergarten teacher, sought to connect her students’ home lives to a book one morning last spring at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. After reading aloud “Be a Friend to Trees”, she led a discussion about trees and recycling. Kids used words like “shelter” and “oxygen.”

Jemma Joseph, a kindergarten teacher at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School, in May discussed a book about protecting trees with her students. Administrators say this type of reading instruction has been shown to build students' knowledge about real-world topics so they can understand more texts they encounter. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Next, the kids rotated among several “centers”: “shopping” for fruit and vegetables using recycled bags, drawing seedlings the class was growing, building pint-sized chairs using wood blocks, and making collages with recycled scrap paper.

Trees are “amazing,” said one student, Lia Ramirez, as she cut brown paper. “I’ve read all about them.”

The Trotter principal, Sarita Thomas, said such lessons ensure all kids receive high-quality instruction for the first time in BPS.

“Finally, we’re setting a bar across every school in this district,” said. “It’s really doing the work of getting rid of the haves and the have-nots.”

Staff writer Mandy McLaren contributed reporting.

Kindergarten student Imraan Mohamad, center, raised his hands to discuss a book about saving trees while his classmates Maya Baraka, left, and Tristan Miller, right, sat beside him at the William Monroe Trotter School. The state and experts have praised BPS' efforts to infuse reading instruction with research-based practices. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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