June 22, 2024

Healey announces $30 million Massachusetts literacy investment

“Every child in this state needs to be able to read and read well — and we’re going to work together to give them the tools to do just that.”

Healey’s announcement follows a four-part investigation by the Globe’s Great Divide education team — a series that revealed the negative impact of poor teacher training, shoddy curriculum, and limited state intervention on children’s reading levels across the state.

Despite the state’s reputation for academic excellence, Massachusetts’ scores on a national fourth grade reading test were on the decline even before the pandemic interrupted student learning, and fewer than half of third-graders met expectations in English Language Arts on last year’s MCAS exam. Data released late last year showed nearly 30 percent of K-3 students were at high risk of reading failure.

In her speech, Healey said such data “reflects social inequities.”

“It also reflects the fact that many districts are using out-of-date, disproven methods to teach reading,” she said. “Children are paying the price. Some are struggling, for years, to catch up — if they even can. So we’re changing that.”

As the Globe reported, Massachusetts has been investing just $5.3 million annually in state funding for early literacy initiatives, relying largely on federal funding, including a $20 million investment since 2020, to support programs to boost reading scores. With a potential $150 million investment, Massachusetts’ funding commitment would be on similar footing with states such as North Carolina, while outpacing peers with lesser investments, including New York’s recent $10 million pledge.

Healey didn’t commit to any dollar amount in future years, though, and making a real difference will likely cost far more than her initial proposed $30 million for 2025. Reading Public Schools alone spent some $2 million on a recent literacy upgrade, officials said, and tiny Mohawk spent about $500,000.

Still, literacy advocates were excited about Healey’s proposal. Keri Rodrigues, founder of the advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United, which has pushed for literacy reforms, called the announcement “a relief.”

“Frankly, this is the leadership we really need to see on this issue in Massachusetts,” she said. “We can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand.”

This is not the first time Massachusetts has attempted to tackle struggles among young readers. State lawmakers in 2012 passed a law targeting third grade reading proficiency, but little came of it. That legislation had no funding or curriculum requirements attached to it.

The state’s renewed focus on early readers follows a swell of attention to the “Science of Reading,” a compendium of research on how the brain learns to read. That research shows most kids need explicit instruction in phonics and vocabulary to become proficient readers. Too often, however, Massachusetts students have been deprived of that instruction, the Globe investigation found.

“We’ve got some of the biggest gaps in achievement in the country,” said Michael Moriarty, a Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member and literacy advocate. “The willingness of the Healey administration to make one of the biggest investments in the country is surely going to help and may change the futures of thousands and thousands of children for years to come.”

The administration plans to pay for the new investment with revenue from the so-called millionaires tax, passed by voters in 2022. It placed an additional 4 percent surtax on annual net income over $1 million. The state has already used some of the new revenue — estimated to total $1.5 billion in fiscal 2024 — to fund other education initiatives, including free school lunch.

Clinton Elementary School Principal Meghan Silvio said state support for literacy can be “life changing.” Her school has used state funding to implement a new foundational reading skills curriculum, including teacher training and coaching. Teachers have felt “really supported . . . to have someone reassuring them,” Silvio said.

Healey also called for universal prekindergarten in Massachusetts, and proposed $38.7 million to guarantee low- or no-cost preschool for all 4-year-olds in all 26 Gateway cities by 2026, a move that could help narrow reading achievement gaps between low-income kids and their affluent peers.

Healey’s proposed five-year early literacy plan, dubbed “Literacy Launch,” would be executed by the Executive Office of Education and would target children “age 3 through grade three,” according to a state spokeswoman. Funding would be split, in the first year of implementation, among three policy priorities: getting high-quality curriculum into more schools; training more teachers in science-backed reading instruction; and quickening the rate of change at the state’s teacher preparation programs, which have largely failed to prepare new educators to effectively teach children to read.

What the plan would not do is resolve the central issue critics blame for stymieing the state’s ability to improve reading instruction: local control.

Because Massachusetts leaves curriculum decisions up to local districts, the state department of education has relied on guidance and incentives — not mandates — to encourage the use of high-quality materials. Those efforts, though, haven’t swayed a number of districts that are holding fast to curriculums with faulty instructional practices, such as teaching students to guess at unfamiliar words, rather than sounding them out. Under the new plan, the state is effectively expanding the reach of its incentives.

One proposed fix is legislation. Where states also pass reading reform laws, student achievement improves, Michigan State University researchers found last year. Bills currently filed in the House and Senate would require districts to use state-approved reading curriculums.

Those bills, though, are facing stiff opposition from critics, including the state’s largest teachers union. Massachusetts Teachers Association president Max Page previously called the legislation “a flawed, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex task.”

Mandy McLaren can be reached at mandy.mclaren@globe.com. Follow her @mandy_mclaren. Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.

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