The Magic of Literacy Instruction in Salem, MA

Is quality instruction an art, science, or magic? In the best-case scenario, it’s all three: curriculum supported by a scientific evidence base allows teachers to creatively practice the true art of their craft — the magic that happens in engaging with children. But when I was teaching high school English many years ago, there wasn’t much science at my disposal. I had content to teach, but no core instructional materials, let alone any scientific understanding of how to help students master skills and information.

That’s why I’m so encouraged to see the science of reading making headlines lately, including news that sheds light on the downfalls of two literacy programs widely used across the U.S. (Units of Study and Fountas & Pinnell Classroom), which have just received the lowest ratings in new EdReports reviews. This means many more schools and educators will have clear information on how effective their programs may or may not be, adding momentum to a growing effort to shift to a more evidence-based approach to teaching kids to read.

I recently got a first-hand look at the magic in this shift when I had the privilege of joining curriculum expert Barbara Davidson on her Knowledge Matters school tour in Massachusetts. Barbara and her team seek out districts and schools implementing quality curriculum and elevate educator voices explaining how the work is done and what it means for kids. Last week, this led us to Salem Public Schools, where a team of passionate and devoted educators is working to transform instruction and student learning through quality literacy materials and comprehensive, aligned professional learning – including support from the state. 

Here’s how they’re doing it:

  • A Strong Foundation: Salem shifted to a standards-based report card in 2016, so teachers know the academic standards and are conversant in that language. The district’s data-driven culture also matters; educators explained that a major factor in the decision to adopt a new literacy curriculum derived from a hard look at student outcomes. Deputy Superintendent Kate Carbone shared, “Our data was showing incremental, nominal improvement but not the breakthrough improvement we wanted to see. We needed high-quality instructional materials to get those breakthroughs.”
  • Authentic Stakeholder Engagement: To inform the shift to new curriculum, the district relied on a team of educators, instructional coaches, and district leaders who engaged with a variety of options — each presented with a sampling of its material and EdReports ratings, a quality score that Salem educators say has changed the landscape of curriculum selection. Leaders also engaged the School Committee throughout the process and credit the board with supporting the transition and providing schools with the necessary resources. The district website includes public-facing curriculum maps that transparently show the skills, concepts, and content students master at each stage so families can engage in the process.
  • Leveraging COVID Relief Funding and Newly Opened Minds: While Salem was planning to shift to a new curriculum before COVID-19, the influx of federal funding has allowed for additional urgency. The district is leveraging regular funding streams, local ESSER COVID relief funds, and a federally funded GLEAM (Growing Literacy Equity Across Massachusetts) grant run through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). This includes providing two groups of teachers with access to a science of reading course where teachers earn three graduate credits and are compensated for their time. The district is also leveraging the impact of COVID to open and expand new mindsets about what’s possible in education. They figure, with everything upended, why not try new things?
  • State Support: The MA DESE has been instrumental in providing teaching and learning support to districts, particularly by developing the Mass Literacy Guide, signaling curriculum quality through the state’s Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE) initiative, and facilitating networks and opportunities where district leaders can learn from one another and from other experts. Funding opportunities such as GLEAM and a Literacy Acceleration grant expand investments in quality materials and training and defray district costs. DESE is now looking to expand state-funded course offerings in evidence-based early literacy to reach more educators. State efforts like these allow more districts to adopt and implement quality materials and comprehensive, aligned professional learning, especially where funding is needed to supplement local monies.

Shawna Erps, a Salem Early Learning Coach, said it best: “A program is only as good as the teachers whose hands you put it in and the support you provide them for implementation.” 

And this is the magic. While Salem may traditionally be known for enchantment of another time, supported by potions and spells, today I see magical teaching supported by increased teacher knowledge of evidence-based early literacy, strong curriculum and professional learning, and collaboration. I can’t wait to see their progress.

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.