While state lawmakers wrestle with establishing a biennial budget, a bill previously passed by the General Assembly, and signed into law, takes effect Thursday, July 1: the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021. The act modifies the implementation of read-to-achieve programs, including changes to reading instruction in North Carolina public elementary school classrooms, with the aim of improving literacy levels by the time students reach the third grade.

The Read to Achieve program was adopted in 2013 with an aim to ensure all third-grade students were proficient in reading before being promoted to the fourth grade.

The new law was introduced as legislation in March by Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on April 9. The changes touch on in-classroom instruction, reading camps, data collection, and other student interventions, with an emphasis on individually crafted student reading plans.

Notably, the law transitions reading instruction away from a ‘look and say’ method to adopt a ‘Science of Reading’ approach based on phonetic practices of comprehension, and establishes an Early Literacy Program in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to provide teacher training and support.

The law means teacher licensing will include three continuing education credits directly related to literacy and based upon the science of reading method.

“For those of you who may not know, the science of reading is evidence-based reading instruction, practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students,” Berger emphasized at the March press conference.

Protracted school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic response have had a deleterious effect on education growth among students. Early education suffers particularly from extended loss of in-person instruction, at ages where reading instruction and comprehension are most vital.

According to a 2019 report from National Assessment of Educational Progress, before the pandemic school closures, 30% of rising fourth-graders were unable to read proficiently at grade level. After the pandemic closures, an unprecedented disruption to education, the need for enhanced reading instruction and accountability is plausibly higher.

Introducing the bill in March, Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, appealed to the sense of urgency:

“It’s critical that we get these efforts underway to help our students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.”