North Carolina Senate Republican leaders want schools to emphasize the use of phonics to help deal with how many young children are having challenges learning to read.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, which will be introduced this week, will require North Carolina school districts to train elementary schools teachers in the “science of reading,” a method of reading instruction that stresses phonics. The legislation comes as reading scores have dropped in the state despite the efforts of the Read To Achieve program to improve early childhood literacy.

“Read to Achieve is working well in some places and needs adjustment in others,” Senate leader Phil Berger said at a news conference Monday. “We want the best policies that put North Carolina students in a position to succeed. That’s our first and our only goal.

“If some things need fixing let’s fix them, and if some things are working well, let’s replicate them.”

Scores not improving in Read To Achieve

The Read To Achieve program was launched in 2012 by Berger as his signature education program to get more children proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Due to COVID-19, no state end-of-grade reading tests were given last school year. But state reading scores in the 2017-18 school year were lower than they were in the 2013-14 school year.

In 2019, Berger introduced legislation passed by the General Assembly that he said would improve Read To Achieve. But Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, vetoed the bill and called Read To Achieve “ineffective” and “costly.”

Berger said he’s hopeful that the new legislation will be approved this time. The new bill incorporates elements of the 2019 bill plus some new features.

Science of reading

Legislators and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, stressed how the law promotes the science of reading. This puts North Carolina squarely in the midst of a national debate over how to teach reading.

Many schools across the country use an approach called “balanced literacy,” which includes some phonics. Phonics help teach students to read by associating sounds with letters. Balanced literacy also includes strategies such as having young students guess words they don’t know based on the context, such as by looking at pictures or the first letter in the word.

Truitt said “balanced literacy” has been taught to 75% of the nation’s teachers and has caused a crisis of illiteracy, especially among low-income students. She said schools need to go back to teaching using phonics, which she said has been proven by research to work.

Under the legislation:

Schools would use federal coronavirus relief dollars to train elementary school teachers on the science of reading.

The State Board of Education will develop literacy instruction standards based on the science of reading.

School districts will review how they teach literacy and see if they meet the new standards.

Bonuses for teachers

Other parts of the bill will include:

Creation of a signing bonus to encourage teachers who have proven to be effective to work at summer reading camps.

Creation of a performance bonus for teachers who work at the summer reading camps based on how many of the students they work with who go on to pass the state exams.

K-3 teachers developing individual reading plans for students who are not reading at grade level.

The state Department of Public Instruction will develop a Digital Children’s Reading Initiative so parents can find resources online to help their children read.

Concerns about student learning

The new legislation comes amid concerns about how the switch to mostly remote instruction over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic has affected the state’s students.

Test results released this month show that the majority of high school students did not pass state end-of-course exams given in the fall. In addition, school districts reported that 23% of their students are at risk of academic failure and not being promoted at the end of the school year.

The test data also showed that the majority of third-grade students who took the beginning-of-grade reading exam scored at the lowest level and three quarters aren’t proficient in reading.

Berger said the Senate will act on legislation passed by the House requiring school districts to create a summer school program to help students who’ve fallen behind during COVID-19.



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