Earlier this month, I was honored to attend “North Carolina and the Science of Reading,” an event sponsored by the Charlotte-based Belk Foundation. Speakers from the Barksdale Reading Institute in Mississippi and The Reading League outlined the ways policymakers and state education leaders responded to disappointing test scores and inequitable reading instruction by embracing methods and strategies that apply insights gleaned from cognitive science. Keynote speaker Natalie Wexler gave an overview of the critical relationship between knowledge accumulation and reading comprehension.

It may surprise some to hear that a literacy expert from Mississippi came to North Carolina to tout the success of reading instruction in the Magnolia State. The October 2019 release of fourth- and eighth-grade reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress explains why. Mississippi has made tremendous gains in reading performance over the past two decades. In fourth-grade reading, Mississippi was 10 points below the national average in 1998.  By 2019, the state average score reached the national average. In eighth-grade reading, Mississippi was 10 points below the national average in 1998 but moved to within six points of the national average in 2019. But that only tells half the story.

Overall performance of the state requires measures that account for its demographics. The Urban Institute’s America’s Gradebook tool adjusts NAEP scores to account for demographic differences across students in each state. Urban Institute researchers incorporate controls for age, race or ethnicity, special education status, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, and English language learner status. In 2019, Mississippi ranked second in the nation in fourth-grade reading performance and 17th in the nation in eighth-grade reading performance when adjusted for these factors. In other words, Mississippi’s performance is even more impressive when its student population is taken into account.

Of course, these results raise questions about how Mississippi was able to achieve these gains. Emily Hanford contends that part of the state’s success was due to its focus on the science of reading.  She notes that, in 2013, Mississippi legislators funded an initiative designed to teach the science of reading to prospective educators. This included an emphasis on decoding and language comprehension with phonological awareness (sound structure of spoken words), phonics, fluency, and vocabulary at its core.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 would have followed suit. Sponsored by Senate leader Phil Berger, the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 would have made critical improvements to North Carolina’s Read to Achieve initiative by ensuring that educators and those who train them focus on the science of reading. 

For example, the legislation required individual reading plans that included information on the “evidence-based reading instructional programming” used by the teacher to develop “oral language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.” In addition, the bill required state education officials to include these elements in the development of a digital children’s reading initiative and a statewide comprehensive plan to improve literacy instruction. State approval of teacher education programs would have required evidence that these programs teach prospective educators how to deliver evidence-based reading instruction. In sum, the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 would have ensured that the science of reading formed the foundation of literacy instruction in North Carolina public schools and teacher education programs.

Of course, the transformation of reading instruction in North Carolina will have to wait. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill in August.

Cooper’s veto was somewhat surprising. The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 was a good-faith effort to get Read to Achieve implementation back on track. The legislation received bipartisan support in the state House and Senate. J.B. Buxton, a Cooper appointee to the State Board of Education, had a role in drafting the legislation and spoke favorably of it. So why did Cooper veto the bill? News & Observer editors concluded his veto “put politics ahead of a Read to Achieve remedy.” 

In other words, Cooper wanted to send a message to his political opponents in the General Assembly, even if it meant torpedoing research-based reforms that have the potential to improve reading instruction for more than 400,000 children in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Lawmakers in Mississippi and elsewhere have put politics aside and approved legislation that advances research-based literacy instruction and teacher training in their respective states. It’s time North Carolina does the same.