News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. doing well in preparing children to read, but all the news isn’t good

North Carolina ranks 12th in the nation for how it prepares teachers to teach children to read, a new report shows.

It’s a sign the state is finally discarding outdated teaching techniques that hurt child literacy, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. 

But there’s no guarantee high-quality schools of education in North Carolina will lead to “dramatic increases in student achievement,” he said.

“That’s the rub.” 

More than half of education programs in the U.S. today give teachers outdated literacy training, slowing the progress of minority and low-income children. North Carolina prepares its teachers better than most states — 60% of its education programs earned an A or B on scientifically based reading instruction — but its literacy rates remain poor, says a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research organization aimed at modernizing education. 

That’s despite the state’s Read to Achieve program, which spent millions in taxpayer dollars to improve third-grade reading. In 2013, the state launched the program to help struggling children read proficiently by the end of third grade, but $150 million and seven years failed to make a dent. The NCTQ report blames these poor results partly on widespread use of outdated, often discredited methods of teaching reading.

Those methods make dismal outcomes for low-income children who are more likely to fall behind in reading and test scores, Stoops said. 

“The real focus that North Carolina has to have as a state is to ensure that our most vulnerable children have access to high-quality teachers that are using research-based methods to teach reading,” he said.

Three in 10 children aren’t able to read by the end of the third grade in the U.S., but the numbers are worse in the Tar Heel state. Just 36% of North Carolina students scored at or above a fourth-grade reading level in 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project within the U.S. Department of Education

“We write off about a third of all kids every year in the U.S., and North Carolina isn’t an exception,” said Kate Walsh, president of the NCTQ. “Their chances of learning how to read after third grade are slim to none.”

Better preparing teachers in scientifically based reading could send the number of illiterate fourth-graders plummeting below one in 10 children, research by the U.S. National Institutes of Health says. 

“Teachers have to live with the fact that they weren’t given the tools they need to do their job,” Walsh said. “When they do get exposed to these scientific methods, I’ve seen teachers break down into tears, knowing that they’ve had year in and year out of kids they didn’t teach to read, and it didn’t have to be that way.”

North Carolina hosted 32 undergraduate programs and six graduate programs that earned an A under the teacher council’s Early Reading standard since 2013. North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University was among the 15 programs that received an A-plus in the nation. 

The report rated programs on how they trained teachers in the five components of reading science: vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, as well as phonics and phonemic awareness — helping students recognize the sounds of spoken words, and translating those sounds into the written word, respectively.