Phonics-based reading is helping kids catch up in post-pandemic classrooms

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt speaking at Council of State meeting, Tuesday, August 2.

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  • North Carolina surpassing other states for early reading comprehension in schools post-pandemic.
  • Record business growth continues in the state, with 93,000 new businesses being created in the first two quarters of 2022.
  • North Carolina's share of opioid settlement money is approaching $1 billion.

North Carolina comes out on top nationwide as the state catching up the fastest with early reading skills post-pandemic, according to N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. She made the announcement at the N.C. Council of State meeting this week.

Truitt said it was due to bipartisan legislation passed in April 2021 that included the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling or LETRS. So far, it has been rolled out to 44,000 educators across the state.

She said research has shown that if a child was not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade, they were four times as likely to drop out of high school.

“We all remember the ads from the 70s and 80s about RIF, Reading is Fundamental, that came from Washington,” Truitt said. “It’s even more true now than it was before.”

She said those of a certain age learned how to read by learning letter sounds and how to string words together, also known as phonics. The country moved away from this approach to early literacy instruction throughout the 70s and 80s and turned to teaching whole language instruction, like California did in 1987 when they passed a mandate to do away with phonics. Whole language instruction has a person look at a word and look at the shapes of the letters and memorize the word.

“That’s not how the brain learns how to read,” Truitt said.  

By 1994, she said California was at the bottom of the pile, and the only state worse than California for reading proficiency was Mississippi. By 2014, Mississippi returned to a phonics-based approach to early literacy instruction. In 2019, they were the only state in the country to see extensive gains in all subgroups of children in ready proficiency.

Truitt said North Carolina legislative leaders, including the governor, the State Board of Education, and the Department of Public Instruction, have taken a page from Mississippi’s playbook and began training with LETRS for a phonics-based approach.

“This is a very big endeavor for our teachers to have to undergo this professional development,” she said. “It will be 180 hours of professional development. It is literally retraining all of our Pre-K-fifth grade teachers on how to teach reading to young students.” 

Truitt said the training was broken down into three cohorts. One-third of school districts started a year ago, one-third in January, and the final third are starting this month.

At the beginning of the school year, coming out of the pandemic, only 27% of kindergarteners were proficient in kindergarten reading standards. In end-of-year data, 67% were proficient in reading for the school year ending in June. Only 38% of first graders coming into the 2021-22 school year were proficient compared to 63% that were proficient at the end of the school year.

Truitt says North Carolina is growing faster than the rest of the country in catching up from the pandemic with reading skills. DPI clarified that the data is promising and doesn’t specify that the results are a direct result of the training.

New Business Growth

Also reported at the monthly Council of State meeting, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall says new business growth in North Carolina continues to grow at a record pace. The first half of 2022 was the second highest first half on record ever. That’s right behind 2021’s numbers. “While we have seen some moderation, entrepreneurs over the last 18 months have created businesses at a torrid pace,” she said.

The first two quarters of 2022 were the second and third highest on record. She said new business creations for the second quarter of this year were 46,000 and 47,000 for the first quarter, for a total of 93,000 for the first half of this year. It is only slightly below last year’s record-setting pace of 96,000.  She compared the new business creations in contrast to the first half of 2020 when the pandemic began when new business creations totaled 52,000, an 80% increase in two years.

“North Carolina’s entrepreneurs are a key reason Moody’s financial analyst firm declared North Carolina’s economy among the best in the country, and the state’s business climate was recently ranked by CNBC and others as the best in the nation, and I think we are really proud of that,” Marshall said.

She also discussed the rural RISE initiative, which links new business creators to local business sources to help them succeed. RISE stands for Resources Innovators Startups Entrepreneurs. She said Robeson County recently became the 15th county to join the initiative, and they plan on adding four more counties in the near future.   

Another Opioid Settlement

Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein reported at this month’s meeting that a $6.6 billion opioid settlement was reached last week from Allergan and Teva.  He said Allergan sold its generic drug business to Teva, where they produced drugs like oxycodone and fentanyl.

“What we alleged was that they marketed it improperly and didn’t put in sufficient protections to ensure it wasn’t diverted into the illegal drug trade,” said Stein. “With the $6.6 billion on top of the $26 billion opioid settlement last year, on top of another that we reached with a generic manufacturer, Mallinckrodt, we are at about $34 billion, and North Carolina’s share is approaching $1 billion. All of it has to go toward attacking the opioid crisis.”

The Council of State meets on the first Tuesday of the month, Room 150, at the Department of Transportation, 1 South Wilmington Street, Raleigh.