National Reading Scores Show NC Literacy Instruction Needs Improvement

The disappointing news last week that the state’s overall reading proficiency of fourth graders has dropped since the start of the Read to Achieve law reveals some major flaws with that program, and it’s not with the teachers.

When the law was enacted in 2012, it was intended to improve the number of North Carolina public and charter school students were reading on grade level by the end of third grade. According to news reports and one NC State study, the state paid more than $150 million over that time to purchase an assessment system and its corresponding materials for all 115 school districts and dozens of elementary charter schools, and to provide hours of training for teachers and summer camps for students who weren’t reading at grade level.

Despite that spending on such a comprehensive system of assessment, scores have stayed flat and even dipped a little worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Commonly called the “nation’s report card,” NAEP test are administered in odd-numbered years in fourth and eighth grades. North Carolina fourth graders have dipped in proficiency since Read to Achieve started.

There’s a reason for that. While Read to Achieve was well-intentioned and it has its merits, its roll out coincided with several other cuts to education spending in key areas that would have supported implementation. Those areas include instructional assistants, textbook purchasing and curriculum adoption, and professional development for teachers.

Districts like Wake County Public School System could absorb some of this impact through local funding and its own in-house curriculum specialists, but those resources couldn’t completely replace state funding. In smaller districts, and especially the 80-plus low-wealth ones, replacing those state funds with local resources was impossible.

If one were to think of an education system as a triangle with the axes being labeled: Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction, then the Read to Achieve law focused all its efforts in supporting the Assessment axis and the cuts to personnel, materials, and training hurting the other two axes.

Credit is due to the General Assembly for understanding that third grade reading proficiency is a correlating indicator for academic outcomes such as high school graduation and post-secondary attainment as well as overall lifelong success. Legislators created a law, despite certain flaws, that addressed a pressing need in the school system.

But they misunderstood the connections to the cuts in teaching and teaching assistant positions, textbook and instructional materials funding, and in professional development. These key areas have a direct impact on student learning and achievement, and they are very likely the reason why an ambitious law like Reach to Achieve hasn’t produced results.

The past, however, can only serve as a lesson for how to approach the future. That can start with next year’s legislative session. Since it’s a short session that won’t start until the spring, the best place for legislators to start would be with a bi-partisan study committee for fall of 2020 that would report to the leaders of each chamber at the start of the next long session in early 2021.

Emphasis should be placed on ways to support the overall literacy instruction, and lawmakers should include literacy experts, classroom teachers, district leaders and NC Department of Public Instruction administrators in the study committee’s proceedings.

The study committee would do well to set goals that first seek to improve support for literacy instruction within existing annual funding. Second, the committee should investigate ways to make strategic investments in personnel, materials, and professional development. Legislators should also seek to understand how literacy instruction varies across the state and to consider ways to overcome disparities of local socio-economic status and the ability of local school districts to supplement state funding.

More work beyond this is necessary if North Carolina truly wants to ensure that every third grader is reading proficiently. Placing the trust in the teaching professionals and supplying them with the right tools and training is a necessary first step to achieving that goal.

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