Melissa Hedt pauses before entering Susan Engstrom’s second-grade classroom. She’s thinking back over the last several years and the frustration she felt on behalf of teachers who didn’t have what they needed to move all students forward in reading growth.
“We recognized that the curriculum and instruction we had in place for literacy was not effective for all students, specifically African American and Exceptional Children,” says Hedt, deputy superintendent of accountability and instruction for the Asheville City Schools. “They were not growing at the rate that we would like to see.”
The data for the 2021-22 school year back this up. At Asheville Primary, a school that was about 23% minority enrollment, 63.2% of third-graders tested as proficient. At Hall Fletcher Elementary, with about 42% minority enrollment, 49% tested as proficient.
The district started using Wit & Wisdom for its core curriculum to focus on building students’ background knowledge, and it’s supplementing that with phonics and phonemic awareness programs. Hedt smiles, and then she walks into Engstrom’s classroom at Hall Fletcher for a Fundations phonics lesson.
“A multisyllabic word is a word with more than one syllable,” Engstrom reminds her class. “So I’m going to build a word, and you guys can read it to me. Ready?”
She writes the word “unit” on a large whiteboard at the front of the room. She then moves methodically through the lesson. The letter “u” in the first syllable makes a long vowel sound, she says, because it’s an open syllable. The “i” in the next syllable is short, though, because “n” and “t” close it.
Hedt watches as each student is coming out of their seats to volunteer answers. Her smile has almost grown to a laugh.
There’s a strong equity basis in why the state is shifting toward instruction grounded in the science of reading. Making significant gains in reading acquisition, and certainly coming anywhere close to the 95% that some research says is possible, won’t happen without ensuring historically under-resourced groups get what they need.
Leaders in Asheville City Schools praise the state’s approach so far. They say that equitable allocation of resources — more for communities that need them most — is necessary, though. And they hope that neither funding nor difficulty will stand in its way.
“Sometimes it does feel like equity gets thrown out there as a barrier to doing something,” said Sarah Cain, executive director of exceptional children and federal programs in Asheville City Schools. “But this is all about equitable access to good instruction. We all deserve that. All of our children deserve that.”
Behind the Story
This article is part of a series updating North Carolina’s efforts around the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021. EdNC visited 10 schools across five districts and interviewed leaders from the Department of Public Instruction, UNC System, and North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. We wanted to learn about changes to instruction, the state of curriculum and instructional materials, the role of building student background knowledge, challenges from teacher turnover and chronic absenteeism, and where teacher prep programs are with implementation.
Why equitable implementation matters
The state’s efforts to implement the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, the reading law that grounds instruction in the science of reading, are considerable.
The General Assembly has paid for educators to be trained in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). It’s a large investment, at more than $90 million spent to date.
The law requires all colleges of education to prepare future teachers with coursework grounded in the science of reading.
The General Assembly also asked the Department of Public Instruction to create a number of resources. These include literacy instruction standards and digital reading guides.
And DPI created a lot of resources on its own accord — fact sheets, memos, webinars, and checklists. The volume is impressive, particularly given the short time since the law was enacted.
But the abundance of resources sheds light on perhaps the most pivotal factor in successful implementation — districts’ ability to acquire, navigate, and productively make use of resources in such a way that effective instruction reaches students.
Consider that LETRS is just a starting point. It has helped give teachers knowledge of the science of reading and, perhaps more importantly, served as a stake in the ground that has moved the state away from ineffective teaching methods.
But there isn’t yet evidence that shows a direct connection between LETRS training and significant reading gains for students. The study most widely cited shows that teacher knowledge improves.
To move beyond that, schools need lots of things — including strong instructional materials, regular monitoring and assessment, and intervention support.
All of this requires a commodity that’s increasingly scarce in public schools: capacity.
As DPI’s lead for implementing the Read to Achieve Act, Kelley Bendheim has visited several districts. Sometimes she talks about the state’s implementation plans; other times she gathers feedback. A lot of the time, she talks about the resources DPI created.
That’s when she sometimes gets a surprising reminder.
“We’re spouting resources and how to run a [professional learning community] around LETRS, and they want to do something with it,” she says while rattling off five or six other things educators are responsible for doing. “But when they get back, they just don’t have the manpower and the physical resources to make it happen.”
And those resources tend to be leaner in districts with higher concentrations of poverty.
The courts say equity matters, too
Capacity is what the Leandro case is about.
The 2019 WestEd report, an analysis of the state’s education system ordered by the Leandro trial court, makes plain the barriers that certain students and communities face. It also provided evidence of the systemic nature of these barriers.
High-poverty schools have fewer human and material resources, the report says. This contributes to students in those schools trailing their peers in access to opportunities and achievement of outcomes. The 2019 E(race)ing Inequities report from the Center for Racial Equity in Education documented these access issues before the pandemic.
“Many well-meaning professionals working in high-poverty schools struggle to overcome barriers to learning that have been created through policies (or lack thereof) that perpetuate or repeat the failure to provide the educational resources, support, and opportunities students require to have their educational needs met,” reads the WestEd report.
While most news coverage of the Leandro case has focused on whether the General Assembly will fully fund the plan, a dollar amount that continues to change, most of the words in the Leandro Plan are devoted to how the state can provide students access to sound, basic education — not just for how much cost.
And a lot of those words deal with allocation of resources. The success — or failure — of science of reading implementation could be a case study in the importance of capacity and those resources.
But, can starting with equality actually be equitable for moving reading proficiency?
While many of the resources provided by the state come by way of information and materials, there is also allocation of human resources. The first of that happened this year – with the General Assembly approving funding for 115 early literacy specialists.
In a state where each of the state’s 115 districts is behind in reading proficiency, this approach to build capacity everywhere comes with the intention of equity, DPI officials say. The idea is that when everyone is behind, getting support everywhere is getting it to where it’s needed most.
“The goal in this implementation piece is increasing the capacity and empowering the people,” said Amy Rhyne, the director of DPI’s Office of Early Learning, “as opposed to us putting out mandates and putting out memos. It’s just not going to work like that.”
The model, Rhyne said, has the early literacy specialist working with the district’s designated literacy team or “literacy lead” — a designation each district submitted to DPI when LETRS training began. The specialists will work top-down, to get DPI resources into the district, as well as bottom-up, to provide support to coaches in schools identified as low-performing.
So far, DPI has hired early literacy specialists for about half the districts. Those districts seem happy with the early literacy specialist model. Asheville got to give a great coach a promotion, but keep her local. New Hanover County liked its specialist so much it wants another. The role is so rewarding for folks who have toiled long and hard to teach kids to read, DPI has even gotten applications from principals.
But for some districts, filling even one early literacy specialist role is difficult. It’s an indication of systemic inequity, and a flaw in a model that depends on ensuring there is a specialist in each district.
“We probably will not have one come out of Clinton City,” said that district’s curriculum and instruction head, Theresa Melenas. “It’s just the reality of it. So what’s happening to this money that was allocated in July?”
One of the issues with hiring, districts report, is that the pay scale is too low to entice qualified applicants. The General Assembly initially allocated $14 million for the positions. DPI has asked for more during this session.
Rhyne said last year that the 115 literacy specialists are a beginning, acknowledging that this beginning aims for equality. She said the plan is for these specialists to be on the ground and identify, within each district, where more resources are needed. Then the state can start looking at more equitable allocations of coaching support.
“Somebody has to coach and sustain all the time,” Rhyne said recently. “And if I’m a high-performing [specialist] then I can find within my coaches or my teachers some high-performing folks who I can continue to empower and build. And you’re building your capacity and your pipeline, too.”
On systems and equity
Asheville City Schools is relatively well resourced for its region. Even so, district leaders say they see resource gaps for historically marginalized groups. The district closed Asheville Primary last year — amid declining enrollment there, it was an effort to bolster resources elsewhere.
Like at Ira B. Jones Elementary, where Ruafika Cobb walks the halls and embraces her students. The fourth-year principal banters with her young students and sits and watches them read and write. As she leaves a student’s side, she has a habit of turning back, to steal one more sight.
These kids are Cobb’s why.
For her, systems exist on levels. There’s a state level, and then there’s her school and community.
While the state system walks toward equity, she grasps at it tightly, now. At her school, 40.5% of students live in economic disadvantage. Equity can’t wait. She celebrates the state’s approach, but like leaders in her district, she knows ensuring every district has the capacity to support teachers in getting vital instruction to students is urgent.
“We are literally asking a teacher to wire a student’s brain so that they can become proficient readers – we teach them to read,” she said. “When we talk about equity, and excellence with equity, that is how we provide equity for all of our students.”
Both Rhyne and Bendheim said they understand the importance of equitably implementing a law that’s as exhaustive as the Excellent Public Schools Act. Recognizing what research actually has good evidence is as difficult, sometimes, as the actual teaching of reading. It’s hard to make sure instructional practices are sound without sufficient allocation of human resources.
Getting some capacity everywhere is a necessary beginning, they say. With someone on the ground in each district, equitable decisions about further allocations will be more informed.
“We’re learning – all the districts are learning – and it’s different for everyone,” Bendheim said. “But I do think we start discussing it right now as a systems approach, until we get to where you’re talking about — at that low-performing [level]. But the system has to be in place.”