Maryland educators and families are seeing big changes. Carey Wright, the former Mississippi schools chief who oversaw dramatic gains in student performance during her nine years on the job, has been appointed interim state superintendent of education. She is a former Maryland teacher, principal and school administrator who is known for her ability to build consensus and improve teaching and learning. Under her guidance, Mississippi’s fourth grade reading scores rocketed from 49th to 21st in the nation.
What became known as the “Mississippi miracle” needs to be replicated in this state. While Maryland boasts some of the highest-achieving, diverse public school districts in the country, on the whole, our levels of reading proficiency are woefully low. Maryland fourth graders scored below the national average on the most recent round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, and longstanding gaps between students of color and their white classmates persist. Something has got to change.
The good news is that what happened in Mississippi was not a miracle at all. For nearly a decade, school officials in that state pushed for districts and schools to align literacy instruction to the “science of reading.” That included training teachers statewide, investing in improved phonics curriculum and hiring dozens of literacy coaches to work directly with schools — all of which contributed to steep and steady proficiency growth.
More recently, Mississippi districts have been encouraged to adopt high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum, driving additional gains. Such curricula are designed to build students’ content knowledge and vocabulary alongside decoding skills, creating a sturdy foundation for deep comprehension, fluent reading and future growth. Instead of leveled remedial texts, these curricula feature content-rich books, essays and activities that engage students to read and explore a common topic, while practicing and mastering target skills and vocabulary along the way. These curricula ensure all students work with grade-level texts, with explicit tools to reteach missing skills.
Maryland kids deserve the same opportunity to soar.
We’ve already seen the potential effects here at home. Last month, Baltimore City Public Schools posted reading gains that were the highest in recent years. Under the leadership of CEO Sonja Santelises, the system overhauled instruction, putting its bet on a high-quality curriculum that builds students’ knowledge of the world. Since changing curriculum, the share of fourth graders reading on grade level has more than doubled, from about 10% to one in four, despite pandemic-related interruptions.
Baltimore is not alone. About one-quarter of Maryland school districts have made the same shift in recent years. This fall, Washington County and Wicomico County public schools are implementing new high-quality reading curricula after successful field tests last year. Allegany County, Cecil County and Dorchester County school districts have already made the switch. Others, such as Anne Arundel County, are taking a hard look at how they currently teach, including whether the reading curriculum follows the science and prioritizes the development of content knowledge in the earliest grades.
These efforts by the educators working most closely with students are laudable, and the nascent success stories are reason to cheer. What Maryland needs now is a leader who can marshal state resources to support these efforts and accelerate the pace of change. There are two obvious places to start: curriculum reviews and grants for teacher learning.
Like Tennessee, another state with recent gains to show for its literacy investments, the Maryland education department could review curricula for adherence to the “science of reading” and alignment to state learning standards and provide districts with a vetted list of curricula. And like Massachusetts, our education department could use grants to incentivize districts with a weak curriculum to upgrade to high-quality options. We don’t need legislation to act. In both states, programs emerged from creative education leaders, not state lawmakers.
Grants to support professional learning for teachers are another proven tactic. As anyone who has been on this journey knows, adopting a high-quality curriculum is just the starting point — teacher professional development in the science of reading, which is not typically taught in preparation programs, is key. States such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama, as well as Mississippi under Wright’s leadership, have supported teacher training to positive effect.
Change is rarely easy. But Maryland educators are already clearly motivated by what research and their own experiences show serve students best. They deserve a state department of education that will support them in making the seismic shifts in instruction that this kind of approach to reading instruction requires. With Wright at the helm, we can make real progress in Maryland.
Barbara Davidson is president of StandardsWork and runs the Knowledge Matters Campaign. A longtime Maryland resident and former classroom teacher of students with learning disabilities, she has worked for the past 30 years at the intersection of education policy and practice and led curriculum-development efforts.