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Senate proposes Read to Achieve changes to fix plan’s ineffectiveness

Legislators, State Board of Education members, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and higher education leaders are backing a proposal to revise the state’s 2013 Read to Achieve plan, which has not increased students’ third-grade reading proficiency as intended. Released Monday, the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 would require plans for struggling readers, DPI-approved reading summer camps, and expanded professional development for early literacy instruction.

“There’s a lot to this bill, but the overarching theme is this: Read to Achieve is working well in some places and needs adjustment in others,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “We want the best policies that put North Carolina students in a position to succeed. That is our first and our only goal. If some things need fixing, then let’s fix them. And if some things are working well, then let’s replicate those.”

Berger said the legislation is the result of analyzing what is and is not working with Read to Achieve’s (RtA) implementation. A variety of education leaders, he said, have looked at best practices in local school districts and in other states like Mississippi and Florida. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation’s analysis of the program found the impact for students one and two years out to be “null.” A presentation to the State Board in January on the Friday Institute report reads, “In practice, RtA appears to be 115 different pilots operating under a few common parameters.”

State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton said Monday that when board members looked at reading issues during that January meeting, “two clear conclusions emerged.”

“One, we needed to tighten implementation at the state and local level of Read to Achieve, a policy which we thought had great promise for the state,” Buxton said. “And second, we needed greater teacher supports in the development of teachers, in the ongoing support of teachers, and in the curricular supports that they had to work with children. I’m pleased to say that this bill will take steps in all those directions.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said the department is working to develop an online platform based on Read Charlotte that will house the individualized reading plans and link to materials parents can use to help their children develop literacy skills. Pamela Shue, DPI’s deputy secretary of early learning, said the plans will list literacy skills, teacher strategies, and desired outcomes for children in K-3 classrooms having difficulty with reading.

The legislation says the student plans would also include the specific skills where the student is struggling, identified by assessment data. The plan would be given to students who are identified as below grade-level by assessments at the start of the first or second semester. The legislation requires teachers to notify parents if their child has a plan and encourage them to pick from strategies that can be implemented at home to improve reading ability.

The bill directs the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching to expand its professional development to support more educators involved in early learning and literacy instruction. The bill requires a report from the organization to the state superintendent and the chair of the State Board detailing the number of teachers in its different programs and data around the quality of those programs.

The bill also requires the development of a Comprehensive Plan to Improve Literacy Instruction, created by a task force led by the state superintendent. The task force would include representatives from the UNC system, the State Board of Education, the State Board of Community Colleges, the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission. The plan, according to the legislation, would ensure literacy instruction “is evidenced-based, designed to improve outcomes for children in gaining early literacy skills, and consistently delivered by teachers.” The plan would include the development of state requirements around early literacy training in educator preparation programs. 

“As we’ve analyzed the results of Read to Achieve, we found that K-3 literacy instruction is not something that only happens in K-3 classrooms,” Berger said. “Higher education and teacher preparation programs play a large role in how teachers offer literacy instruction. By bringing everybody to the table, and developing a long-term plan, we think that we can streamline the early literacy process and ensure our students have the strong foundation they need for success in life.”

Summer camps, which have long been a part of the Read to Achieve program, are also a part of the bill. The bill would require school districts to submit summer camp plans to DPI by the beginning of October, outlining the camps’ programming and staffing. Specifically, the bill reads: “Each plan shall include information about the local school administrative unit’s efforts to staff reading camps with the most qualified teachers possible, including the unit’s efforts to attract teachers associated with high growth in reading based on EVAAS data and teachers who have earned a reading bonus.”

No state funds for the camps, according to the bill, would be given to districts unless DPI approves the camp plans. School districts would have an opportunity to amend plans if they are not initially approved by the department. 

The bill also allows for the renewal and possible expansion of the state’s pilot with Wolfpack WORKS, a program out of N.C. State University’s College of Education that supports beginning K-2 reading teachers in high-needs school districts.

No state funds are currently tied to the bill. Berger said more funds will be added if needed but that the state’s normal Read to Achieve allocation may be enough for the proposed changes. Berger said the plan will continue to be reviewed and tweaked as implementation shows its strengths and weaknesses.

“… Just as we did not stop with the 2013 Read to Achieve program, we will continue to look at the policies, we will continue to analyze the outcomes, and we will continue to do whatever we can to try to move the needle as far as the third grade reading scores,” Berger said. “That data point is that important as far as outcomes for kids long-term.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.