Facing A Longstanding Racial Achievement Gap, Cambridge Moves to Standardize School Curricula


{shortcode-429a20a43b31c14ee603587b9f7215faac9b0e1d}or G. Caitlin O’Donnell, a first grade teacher at Fletcher Maynard Academy, Cambridge Public Schools’ new, aligned English Language Arts curriculum will be the “biggest shift” in curriculum in her seventeen years teaching in the district.

The new ELA curriculum — titled Amplify CKLA and set to be implemented next fall — will align the ELA curriculum across Cambridge’s 12 elementary schools for the first time ever.

Amplify CKLA is the final piece in the district’s efforts to align curricula across grades one through 12. The district has already aligned the ELA curriculum for students in grades six through eight and the math curriculum for all students beginning in kindergarten.

The attempts at curriculum alignment comes as CPS tries to address longstanding — and widening — racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.


MCAS testing data revealed that only 36 percent of Black students met or exceeded third grade ELA standards in 2023, compared to 79 percent of their white peers. The 43 point difference is stark, but not new; in 2019, the gap amounted to 37 points.

Only 44 percent of high-need third-graders — qualified as low-income, English Language Learners, or students on Individualized Education Plans — met or exceeded proficiency standards on the 2023 ELA MCAS, compared to the 78 percent of their non-low income and 76 percent of their nondisabled peers who met these standards.

As the district takes broad steps toward ensuring students receive equal instruction, Cambridge has found itself in a greater statewide debate about reading standards, mandating curricula, and teacher and school autonomy.

From ‘Archipelago’ to Alignment

Cambridge’s elementary schools boast distinct programs — such as a specialized music program at Haggerty, two-way Spanish immersion at Amigos, and a “looped” classroom model at Cambridgeport — and the district’s “controlled-choice” kindergarten lottery allows families to request their top three choices.

Until this year, the elementary schools lacked a standard, comprehensive ELA curriculum, leaving teachers to seek out course materials themselves. O’Donnell likens the district to an “archipelago.”

This differentiation was intentional, according to former Graham & Parks Elementary School teacher Kathy E. Greeley.

“Recently, it’s been like, ‘Oh, our schools are all over the place. They’re all doing all these different things. And it’s such chaos,’” Greeley said. “No, that was actually the design was for different schools to try different things, to offer different kinds of programs.”

But MCAS results illustrate achievement gaps between the elementary schools, with only 35 percent of third graders at the Fletcher Maynard Academy meeting or exceeding ELA standards, compared to 89 percent of third graders at the King School reaching these standards.


According to Cambridge School Committee member Richard Harding, Jr., the results are a clear sign of failure.

“If you want to perpetuate a system of failure, you keep doing what you’re doing,” Harding said.

“I’ve yet to see where autonomy in instruction has worked for Black and brown kids in a public school setting,” he said.

The district’s effort to reevaluate and shift to an aligned curriculum under ELA Department Director Emily A. Bryan takes a new approach through standardization — while centering educator perspectives.

After two years of planning, last fall Bryan convened a “Literacy Curriculum Review Team” of nearly 40 educators, including representatives from every elementary school, to decide on changes to the curriculum. In January, they chose Amplify CKLA.

O’Donnell, who served on the team, said it garnered some of the highest levels of educator feedback she has seen.

And she said schools naturally shifted towards aligning curricula during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of district- or state-provided curricula that could be adapted to remote learning, teachers from almost every elementary school worked together to fill the gaps, she said.

To concerns that aligning curriculum would strip schools of the individuality they are so lauded for, Bryan said that curricula alignment does not mean classrooms or schools are “exact replica duplicates of one another.”

“It means that every student is exposed to the same critical components,” she said.

‘Better in the Long Run’

When the committee first began to consider Amplify CKLA, O’Donnell said she was “very reluctant to embrace this curriculum initially, because I had a lot of preconceptions about it.”

But when she dove into the new materials, she saw the curriculum’s potential.

Amplify CKLA provides teachers with core materials for two blocks of learning: “knowledge” which targets vocabulary and text analysis, and “skills” which target phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension.

During her presentation at a March 5 School Committee meeting, Bryan described the curriculum’s structure, which plans lessons out in 10-minute blocks and gives educators a “menu of options” for how to support their students — a substantial departure from the free reign teachers previously enjoyed.

“​​As long as we knew how to read a book and ask questions and have good discussion, then it didn’t matter what book I was using,” O’Donnell said. “But I don’t think I served students who were struggling readers as well as I do now.”

“It’s really hard now, honestly, to look back on all my years of teaching and feel so frustrated with myself, or disappointed,” she added.


CPS Chief of Academics and Schools Lendozia H. Edwards said that the standard materials will help teachers save time because now, “they don't have to look for what to teach.”

O’Donnell acknowledged that the transition may be “painful” for educators who are used to having autonomy over their lessons. But she said she hopes her colleagues will see the benefits of an aligned curriculum, which still allows teachers some space to personalize their lessons with “pausing points” that Bryan has built into units.

“The new curriculum will be hard,” O’Donnell said. “I’m sure I personally am going to struggle a lot. But I’m here for it, because I think it's going to be better in the long run. And ultimately, it will certainly be better for students, but I think it will actually make my life easier.”

The ‘What’ and the ‘How’

Although it was years in the making, Cambridge’s move towards an aligned ELA curriculum comes amid a raging, statewide debate in response to troubling literacy rates among third graders across Massachusetts.

According to The Boston Globe, rates of third grade literacy have reached record lows, especially exacerbated by the pandemic and showing a large racial disparity.

The Globe found that nearly half of school districts — including Cambridge — used curriculum considered “low quality” by the education department and national curricula rating systems in the 2022-2023 school year.

The state has not enacted literacy reform acts in response, as 30 other states have, and only some municipalities — Cambridge among them — have taken action this year to adopt a new ELA curriculum.

Calls from state legislators for a mandated statewide curriculum in order to close achievement gaps has encountered objections from teachers’ unions questioning whether it is in the state’s purview to mandate specific reading curricula for districts.

In February, 300 Massachusetts education professionals signed a letter opposing the mandated curricula, calling the bill a “one-size-fits-all approach” and warning that imposing mandated curricula across districts may “permanently damage” a child’s ability and will to learn to read.

Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who previously served as the Massachusetts secretary of education, said that though he generally approaches standardized curricula with “some caution,” chronic underperformance necessitates the change.

“It may well be the role of policymakers to start prescribing the ‘how,’ if educators have not been able to get to the ‘what’ on their own,” he said. “We better get an evidence-based approach, get everybody trained in how to use this approach, and then insist on that approach, in order to get the kind of results that parents and the community expect us to get for the children.”


Tightening control over districts with chronic levels of underachievement, however, is not necessarily the way to go, said Jennifer P. Cheatham, a lecturer on education at HGSE with experience as a superintendent.

“The schools that have done, in my experience, the best job transforming themselves to meet the needs of students positioned furthest from opportunity are schools that have developed a deeply collaborative culture where everyone has agency where we're making decisions together,” she said. “You just can't mandate your way to transformation.”

‘Best for the Kids’

Bryan’s approach has continually solicited both educator and caregiver feedback. This spring, she held parent information sessions over Zoom, visited School Council meetings at elementary schools, and in the fall, she held “open advisory sessions” for any educator to attend.

Kate L. McGovern, whose child attends King-Open, left a parent information session feeling confident in district officials, who seemed “well-informed” about the new curriculum. The choice of Amplify CKLA hit the “jackpot,” for her, as she already had great experiences with the curriculum in her work for an educational non-profit.

Still, not all parents are informed. In email exchanges and conversations at dismissal, many had not heard about the curriculum change or did not feel informed enough to speak on it.

At the March 5 meeting, Bryan acknowledged that communication with families has been hindered because teachers — often the most effective communicators — have not yet been trained in the curriculum.

“I hope that the district is going to continue doing more of that educating of families,” McGovern said. “So that families can really be partners in supporting their kids at home because I think that partnership is really essential to closing those gaps that we see year after year.”

Although she lacks familiarity with the curriculum, Jade C. Gardner, a parent at Haggerty, said that she hoped it would still support students with learning disabilities, like her child.

“I just hope that everything works out and it works best for the kids,” she said.

—Staff writer Darcy G Lin contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Emily T. Schwartz can be reached at