Last week, NC State’s College of Education and Friday Institute for Educational Innovation released the most comprehensive study yet of the Read to Achieve initiative. After analyzing the reading progress of elementary students who had participated in the program, researchers determined that the North Carolina General Assembly’s efforts to improve elementary literacy have not increased reading proficiency whatsoever. A closer look at how this unsuccessful legislation was conceived as well as a silver lining identified in the report should help guide future education policy in North Carolina.
When Read to Achieve was passed in 2012, the legislation was intended to end social promotion and help third graders avoid what Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the “economic death sentence” awaiting students who are unable to read proficiently:
The goal of the State is to ensure that every student read at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success.
Berger’s intentions may have been laudable, but it was obvious from the beginning that Read to Achieve lacked the educator’s touch. The initiative attempted to improve reading by increasing the volume of assessments in grades K-3 and ratcheting up the threats of retention, essentially punishing children for not being able to read well enough in early grades. It’s not the approach an effective teacher would take.
According to former N.C. Superintendent June Atkinson, when Read to Achieve was drafted, the Department of Public Instruction was very candid about the challenges it presented and the impact it would have. DPI warned the General Assembly that the volume of portfolio assessments the legislation added to third grade was too high and that the pace and funding of implementation didn’t provide enough professional development for teachers to effectively transition to the new system. The General Assembly had also slashed Pre-K funding 25 percent from pre-recession levels at the time, and DPI informed legislators that quality early childhood education was an important component of building a foundation for literacy. All of that feedback fell largely on deaf ears.
Five years and $150 million wasted taxpayer dollars later, NC State’s new study makes it clear that state legislators need to do a much better job of involving professional educators in the design of education reforms. None of the core components of Read to Achieve, which include the threat of retention, additional reading instruction with increased number of assessments, and optional summer reading camps, have increased reading proficiency when it comes to End of Grade reading tests.
It’s important to note that, although Read to Achieve (RtA) has clearly not accomplished its goals on the state level, the study did find individual schools and teachers which are making progress in helping elementary students improve their reading. NC State’s researchers point out that the way Read to Achieve is being implemented varies greatly among North Carolina’s 115 school districts, and “many practitioners across the state believe their localized versions of RtA are having an impact on their students.” They suggest we identify and scale up local successes, adding that “policy-makers and state and local RtA implementers may benefit from inclusion of a wider representation of North Carolina’s early childhood and literacy experts in planning for the next stages of RtA.”
Researchers also reiterated concerns first expressed by DPI way back when Read to Achieve was designed — that any interventions which address third grade only and ignore the crucial years that come before it will have limited success. Increasing access to Pre-K and developing more effective literacy interventions for Kindergarten through second grade are essential if we want to improve reading among our third grade students.
Improving early childhood literacy is one of the most important goals we can have in our public schools and in our state. But if efforts to address our students’ deficits in reading don’t include seats at the table for educators, they are much more likely to include serious and avoidable flaws. Our state lawmakers must value educators as essential stakeholders and welcome the expertise we bring when they craft education policy. In partnership with the Department of Public Instruction, they must work with local school districts to identify success stories and help create processes for teachers to be able to share effective literacy practices across county lines.
When our state education policy is informed by the folks who are doing the actual day-to-day work, who know the children best and deeply understand the realities we face in the classroom, maybe then we’ll start to see the changes we all want.