Many NC kids don’t read well. How faculty colleges try to solve the problem

RALEIGH, NC – North Carolina has spent more than $50 million in K-12 schools to revamp how teachers help kids learn to read, and education leaders hope a new phonic-heavy approach will reverse years of declining reading scores.

But a key part of the K-12 effort are the state colleges that prepare these educators to teach reading — and a new report finds that what most of them are doing so far hasn’t been enough.

It has drawn the ire of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, who are now threatening action if they don’t change things. The campuses in the University of North Carolina system have less than four months to improve the preparation of prospective teachers for teaching reading.

The state’s normal schools will spend the next few months considering recommendations from a reviewer who found most of them have not fully incorporated North Carolina’s new reading requirements.

Conducted by TPI-US, a nonprofit group that advises teacher preparation programs, the review says colleges must ensure their faculty members have a solid grounding in the “science of reading” — a commonly used term to emphasize a research – based approach to literacy. This approach focuses on phonetics, spelling and writing and ties these subjects together in the classroom.

Over the next several years, many efforts will be made to revise how North Carolina public school children learn to read, with most efforts focused at the K-12 level. A recent report submitted to the University of North Carolina’s System Board of Governors found that efforts — the only ones needed at the college level — got off to a rocky start at some colleges.

Board Chairman Randall C. Ramsey said during a January meeting that children can only be successful if their teachers are prepared with the best strategies and practices to help them. The report found that some of these preparations are missing.

“We will not tolerate this any longer,” he said.

Most fourth graders in North Carolina can’t read well, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Only about a third read competently.

“Honestly, that number should shock and horrify everyone in this room,” Ramsey said during the meeting.

The colleges do not select curricula for K-12 schools, nor do they play any political role in the state’s K-12 schools. But the colleges, as the educators of the state’s prospective teachers, play a crucial role in preparing future educators to help children learn to read.

Executive Vice Chair Wendy Floyd Murphy noted that the board spends a lot of time discussing building renovations, salaries, fees and parking, but also has concerns about enrollment and ensuring students are prepared to attend a university in the UNC system .

Most fourth graders can’t read well, she said, “and seldom do we spend a reasonable amount of time on this subject that affects so many.”

A shift in reading promotion

In 2021, the North Carolina General Assembly passed reforms that shifted the state to a more phonetics-based approach.

Nationwide, states and school systems are moving toward this more phonetics-based approach. The movement is the result of decades of research that was brought to a broader public light in 2018 by several audio documentaries by American Public Media. Research shows that people of all ages learn to read letter by letter. For decades, important reading training involved using pictures or other clues—known as “cues”—to help children determine what a word is, rather than following each letter.

Lawmakers later allocated more than $50 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to train the state’s preschool through fifth-grade teachers, other teachers and some administrators on the new approach. They have also provided funding to hire 123 literacy coaches statewide to help districts implement the phonetics-based program, and many are still being hired. Schools must have curricula and lesson plans aligned with the program no later than the 2024-25 school year.

Lawmakers also urged the state’s teacher training colleges to ensure their coursework is aligned with the phonic approach by the fall 2022 semester. Unlike K-12 schools, this mandate did not include funding, staffing, or other initiatives to accomplish this.

So the UNC system secured private fundraising to provide the same education to a handful of faculty members at each university’s Normal School.

Faculty using the system also worked on a framework of shared ideas to help schools implement change.

What the report found

TPI-US reviewed 73 courses across all 15 universities in the UNC system just before the Fall 2022 semester, following the development of the framework.

Reviewers said only six of the 15 universities consistently practiced the new reading approach in all or most courses. The other nine, they wrote, are in need of “significant course content and/or faculty teaching improvements.”

Schools that were not rated as satisfactory often did not integrate all elements of reading studies into every applicable course, did not have consistent approaches in every class, or did not teach reading to meet the needs of different learners. like those with dyslexia.

The reviewers urged schools to adopt literacy frameworks that would incorporate the science of reading into every relevant course.

Only one school received an “inadequate” rating – North Carolina’s largest educational college at East Carolina University.

At the ECU, the required elementary reading instruction courses are designed to teach a different method of teaching children to read and reject the science of reading.

The university, which itself enrolls nearly 3,000 undergraduate students, declined to be interviewed by WRAL News when asked. University spokeswoman Jeannine Manning Hutson said in an email that East Carolina “welcomes the report as an opportunity to align its courses and programs with the 2021 resolution and legislation.”

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which has more than 1,500 student teachers, received the only “strong” rating. Good ratings went to: North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Fayetteville State University, and North Carolina A&T State University. Together, these schools will enroll approximately 3,700 freshman students in the 2020-21 school year.

The remaining schools — those that need improvement — enrolled about 6,700 first-year students in the 2020-21 school year.

TPI-US also reviewed the 15 private colleges with educational programs that enrolled comparatively few students and found that only three of them were “good” or “strong” and the other 12 needed work.

Over the past year, faculty at all universities in the UNC system have been conducting “self-studies” of their reading instruction programs, said Jill Grifenhagen, associate professor of literacy at NC State University. While NC State did well in the report, Grifenhagen said the university is looking at the latest research and checking that its curriculum has everything it needs.

“Obviously we have a sense of urgency,” Grifenhagen said.

She added, “There has been a move away from research-based practices towards practices with less research base.”

That drift is easy to achieve over time, she said, but preventing that drift is something universities and researchers can do.

NC State in particular has practiced a more phonetics-based approach to reading for years, Grifenhagen said, because the research has made clear what needs to be taught.

That’s also how UNC-Charlotte got the “strong” score, Dean Malcom B. Butler told WRAL News. The faculty have been reassessing and moving towards what the research has been saying for a while, he said.

Polls and test results show that NC State graduates feel ready to teach reading and teach comparatively well, said Erin Horne, associate dean of professional education at NC State.

TPI-US researchers suggested that universities in the UNC system take a more consistent approach to their teaching, regardless of the university or the grade level of the teacher. This could involve using common terms or defining concepts in the same way.

The researchers wrote that schools need to revamp their curricula and materials and ensure they use resources that connect what they know to what they teach. They suggested that the education students would learn from the faculty demonstrating literacy classes.

The researchers found that student teachers need more instruction in the relationship between writing and reading to support writing instruction.

Schools need to ensure that teachers have a better understanding of the phonetics-based approach, the researchers wrote. At the moment, many schools teach phonetics, but do so under the umbrella of “balanced literacy” — a practice that can mean many things but often indicates a reading program that involves using the “cueing” method to learn words without writing includes lessons, neglects spelling difficulties when choosing children’s literature, and lets children learn to read independently.

Butler also expects further changes at UNC-Charlotte.

The university’s writing classes for students with disabilities surpassed the reviewers’ eyes, he said. They suggested expanding it to elementary school and early childhood programs.


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