North Carolina lawmakers want to know when they’ll see results in a decade-long effort that has fallen short of getting most students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.
The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the Read To Achieve program became state law in 2012, with state education officials hoping a new literacy program will provide long-term gains. But for now, data presented Tuesday to a legislative committee shows only 47% of third-grade students were proficient in reading last school year.
Rep. John Torbett drew laughs initially at the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee meeting when he asked when they could expect to see 95% to 97% of third-grade students be proficient in reading.
“We’ve been talking about this a long, long time, and we’ve had different programs and different changes,” said Torbett, a Gaston County Republican. “I want some surety with certain components.
“Mathematically calculate so we can all have them at our disposal about when do you see a proficient reading at the end of third grade for our kids in North Carolina. If not, it’s just talk.”
Relying on LETRS training
Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher initially didn’t want to give a response. But Maher ultimately tied hoped-for gains to the new LETRS science of reading training that all of the state’s Pre-K and elementary school teachers are receiving.
“If you had to put me on the spot here, I would talk about this year’s perhaps kindergartners and as those kids move now to third-grade we should be fully implemented in the model,” Maher said. “That’s when I would expect to see extremely significant results.”
LETRS, which stands for “Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling,” stresses phonics when teaching students how to read. The state’s 44,000 elementary teachers have to complete the 160 hours of training by 2024.
“The ultimate outcome obviously that students learn to read is our essential goal in all of this,” said Amy Rhyne, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Early Learning. “But we also have to begin with teaching those students how to learn to read, and that begins with our teachers.”
“Lost opportunity for learning’
The General Assembly passed Read to Achieve legislation in 2012. It was modeled on literacy efforts in other states, including the “Just Read, Florida!” program created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001.
Even before the pandemic, the third-grade proficiency rate was only at 57% in the 2018-19 school year. Proficiency rates dropped nationwide during the pandemic, when students received only limited amounts of in-person instruction.
“We continue to talk about learning loss and what that means,” said Deputy State Superintendent Robert Taylor, who will leave DPI to become Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education in January.
“I think we may need to characterize that as a lost opportunity for learning. The question always begs what did the student lose? It was really the opportunity to learn.”
Rhyne said young students missed out on foundational skills during the pandemic.
Even when schools resumed in-person instruction, Rhyne said face masks impacted the ability of students to look at the mouths of their teachers as they learned to read.
Reading proficiency rates for the state’s first, second- and third-grade students are still below pre-pandemic levels but are higher than they were in the 2020-21 school year.
Rhyne said it’s promising that the state’s K-2 students are rebounding faster than other states based on a literacy assessment program used around the country.
“We want to celebrate the work that’s being done, but we also recognize there’s plenty left,” Rhyne told lawmakers.
Rhyne said they may “see some early wins” now as teachers begin applying the LETRS training. But she said they need to allow teachers time to learn the content.
Schools have increasingly turned to high-dosage tutoring as a way to try to address learning loss. This tutoring involves working with students multiple times during the week.
For instance, the Wake County school system recently launched the WakeTogether program to recruit hundreds of volunteer tutors to work with elementary school students on their reading skills.
Maher said tutoring is an effective intervention. But he says tutoring is most effective when it’s provided by teachers during the school day.
Maher said that tutoring in conjunction with other strategies, such as a well-designed and implemented summer reading camp, is probably the most effective strategy.
“I would be a little bit concerned to say that only tutoring … is the solution,” Maher said. “It is certainly one solution.”
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, the committee co-chair, said he agreed tutoring isn’t the only solution. But the Burke County Republican said school districts should use more of their federal COVID dollars to address learning loss.
“We need to think seriously about helping them to look at how tutoring might possibly up our game on this,” Blackwell said.