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Schooling Massachusetts

Before moving into the policy world, I spent four years teaching. In my first year, I taught third grade. Many of my students came in reading below grade level, and much of the year was spent tirelessly trying to get them up to speed. The urgency was warranted, as reading on grade level by the end of third grade is shown to be predictive of future achievement, academically and otherwise. My efforts paid off for many of my students, but there was an achievement gap, and some still left my classroom behind at the end of the year. I wanted to reach students sooner and help them stay on track so that they did not have the chance to fall so far behind.

And so I requested a move to pre-K. As a pre-K teacher, my job was to prepare my students for kindergarten by building upon their existing skills. My principal at the time always impressed upon the staff how important it was to make sure children were mastering skills, especially in the earliest grades. Early ed teachers help students master academic, social, and emotional skills, all of which are essential to children’s future success, and all of which best serve a student if developed at a young age—that is, before third grade.

Teachers who work in states with supportive early and elementary education policies can be better equipped to do just that. Massachusetts, which is beginning to create and implement a strong vision for birth through grade education, is an example of one such state. So what has Massachusetts done right for early ed, and how can it do it even better?

In a soon-to-be released report, “Starting Early: Massachusetts Birth-3rd Grade Policies that Support Children’s Literacy Development,” Laura Bornfreund and I explore how Massachusetts can capitalize on its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses in order to implement policies that support the development and learning of all children. (The Massachusetts paper is the second report to be released analyzing how state policies impact children’s literacy in the early years. Both of these reports complement a larger project covering all 50 states and D.C.)

Massachusetts had the highest percentage in the country of fourth graders reading at or above grade level , according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” This did not just happen. Massachusetts leaders have made an investment in the state’s youngest learners and it has been paying off. Students in Massachusetts are succeeding because the state is building out its birth through third grade policies. It is supporting an increase in the use of developmental screenings, an expansion of access to state pre-K, and a revision of state standards so that each grade builds upon the skills learned in the previous. In Boston, district leaders and other partners have created a nationally-recognized pre-K and kindergarten curriculum that is already showing positive results as students progress to the later grades. They are working on a first-grade version now.

But even though Massachusetts students on the whole are performing better in reading than those in other states, there is still much room for improvement. The Bay State, a long-time leader in education, must tackle what I confronted while I was teaching: a wide achievement gap. Less than one-third of Massachusetts children from low-income families are proficient in reading by fourth grade. These achievement gaps persist based on race and income, as well as among English language learners.

The good news is that Massachusetts leaders have begun to capitalize on the good work happening in Boston’s early grades. In Boston Public Schools, most teachers use a play-based curriculum that develops children academically and in other areas like self-control and problem-solving. The city’s strong curriculum, paired with its educator coaching model, helps teachers instruct young children through the ways that they learn best.

Using Boston as a model for innovative ideas, state leaders from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have begun to expand the key elements of the city’s curriculum statewide. State leaders are helping other districts across the state complete a self-assessment. After districts reflect on their practices, they will pick areas of growth to develop with their teachers over the course of a school year. This is just one example of how the state is building upon good practice for children and making it a universal practice in Massachusetts.

As other states begin to review their approach to birth through third grade learning, they can adapt Massachusetts’ strengths and learn from the state’s weaknesses to meet the needs of their own students. And Massachusetts, for its part, can learn what I did in my four years as a teacher: To help students achieve in the third grade, you need to give them all you can well before that.


Shayna Cook is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project. Cook researches and reports on innovation in family engagement, new technologies, and digital equity issues concerning children from birth through third grade.