Retooling of NC student literacy efforts on fast track

Published 9:13 pm Wednesday, March 31, 2021

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RALEIGH (AP) — An overhaul of North Carolina’s efforts to improve reading proficiency for early-grade students in the public schools is advancing quickly through the legislature, clearing the Senate on Wednesday by a unanimous vote.

A House education committee later approved the same “Excellent Schools Act” in a rare evening meeting. It signaled the General Assembly’s hope to give final legislative approval to the popular measure and send it to Gov. Roy Cooper before the legislature’s spring recess next week.
The measure seeks to improve upon the 2013 “Read to Achieve” program, which was championed by Senate leader Phil Berger but has not lived up to expectations. Berger advanced a 2019 bill to address its weaknesses, but Cooper vetoed it, saying it wasn’t enough to fix the problems. Fourth-grade reading proficiency scores have seen little improvement in recent years.

There’s been broad support so far for this year’s bill, also sponsored by Berger. Behind-the-scenes work by leaders of the Department of Public Instruction, State Board of Education and University of North Carolina system in seeking consensus on literacy policy has helped persuade potential detractors.

One of the biggest changes compared to the 2019 bill is the embrace of scientific methods to teach children how to read that emphasize phonics, vocabulary and spelling. This steps away from a “whole language” method that gained prominence in the 20th century. Berger said upwards of 30,000 teachers ultimately will be trained following “the Science of Reading” over two years,
The legislation also directs the “Science of Reading” as required coursework within elementary school teacher college preparatory programs. An Early Literacy Program will be created within DPI, and local school districts will have to turn in literacy intervention plans starting in the fall of 2022.

Like the 2019 bill, early-grade students struggling with reading also would receive individualized improvement plans. Teachers could obtain signing and performance bonuses for working in summer reading camps already offered through Read to Achieve. More online reading resources also would be available for parents.

The bill cleared the Senate on the same day a Senate education committee approved a House bill pushed by Speaker Tim Moore to assist students who have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both measures will rely in part on federal COVID-19 relief funds for their implementation.