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Some NC Leaders Say Mississippi's Model Charts The Way To Helping Kids Read

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Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.

The pandemic created a host of immediate challenges, but the key to long-term economic recovery is teaching North Carolina’s children to read. That’s according to state lawmakers who recently passed a new “science of reading” bill and a group of CEOs who gathered recently to support that strategy.

They're pinning their hopes on what some might consider an unlikely source of inspiration: Mississippi.

Earlier this month, Republicans and Democrats united to pass a bill that mandates a new approach to reading. Soon afterward, a group of North Carolina executives held a virtual news conference to lend their support. They say creating a new generation with strong reading skills is essential to building the work force they need.

"North Carolina certainly had a lot of work to do before the pandemic to increase early literacy," said Dale Jenkins, CEO of Curi, a Raleigh-based physician support company. "Because of COVID, that work is even more challenging and more urgent."

'Reality Is Not Good'

The quest to build better readers isn’t new for the state’s business community or for lawmakers and school systems. The problem is, what everyone has done so far hasn’t really worked, as Truist CEO Kelly King acknowledged.

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North Carolina's 2019 reading scores on "the nation's report card" exams were similar to the national average.

"Our reality is not good," he said. "Even before the pandemic, our results in North Carolina and across the country were not good."

He cited the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to provide a standard measurement of reading, math and science skills across the country.

Only 36% of North Carolina's fourth graders were rated as proficient readers. That's two percentage points above the national average — not a statistically significant edge.

Broken out by race, "it gets even worse," King said.

While 59% of North Carolina’s Asian students and 49% of white students were rated proficient in fourth-grade reading, only about 20% of Black and Hispanic students were. Students from low-income families fared about the same.

The Science Of Reading

There’s a new strategy to change that. In a four-day flurry of activity, all but five North Carolina lawmakers voted for Senate Bill 387, which lays out a plan based on “the science of reading.”

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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

"The science of reading is not a program. It is a body of research that tells us how the brain learns to read," state Superintendent Catherine Truitt in a March 29 news conference introducing the reading bill. "We are hard-wired to learn how to speak. We are not hard-wired to learn how to read."

Actually, research suggests that a significant minority of children will learn to read no matter how they’re taught. But studies dating back decades show many others need explicit instruction on the sounds letters make, how they combine to form words and what those words mean. The “science of reading” label also encompasses strategies for helping students become fluent readers and understand what they’re reading.

Many teachers and school districts already use those techniques. But Truitt and other “science of reading” advocates say it’s inconsistent, with too many educators relying on “whole language” techniques that lean too heavily on exposing children to words and hoping they absorb the meaning. They also say colleges of education do a poor job of teaching scientific strategies.

It’s complex stuff that often gets simplified into labels, as Truitt herself did when answering a reporter’s question in that same news conference.

"The science is in. The science of reading won the reading war. Phonics won," Truitt declared.

Looking To Mississippi

The science of reading is not a program, but LETRS is. That’s short for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, created by the Texas-based Voyager Sopris Learning, which is owned by Cambium Learning, which is owned by Veritas Capital.

The state Board of Education recently chose the LETRS teacher training program as part of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan for schools. The reading bill would extend that training to all pre-K and early elementary teachers across the state. Lawmakers say that ensures that all students will master the basic skills to become readers.

Why are North Carolina leaders pinning so much hope on it?

"One state has become a model for changing this paradigm," said National Gypsum CEO Tom Nelson. "Mississippi."

That’s right: The state whose dismal education rankings traditionally make other Southern states look good by comparison.

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In 2013 only 21% of Mississippi fourth-graders were rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, well below the national average. That year legislators approved a “science of reading” bill and chose LETRS to retrain teachers.

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In 2019, almost 32% of Mississippi fourth-graders hit the proficient mark. Go to the LETRS website and you’ll see references to those exam results, things like “Statewide LETRS implementation made Mississippi No. 1” and “Mississippi outperforms all.”

Mississippi was No. 1, in the sense of “most improved.” It was the only state that made statistically significant gains on fourth-grade reading, in a year when North Carolina and 16 other states slumped and the rest were flat.

But Mississippi started out well below North Carolina and the national average. Its big strides only means it’s now statistically tied with them — at levels that everyone agrees are not good.

Still, those gains drew national attention, including a December 2019 piece by APM Reports senior education correspondent Emily Hanford. "There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It," reads the New York Times' headline on her analysis.

Hanford noted that "there’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores," but gave Mississippi's "science of reading" strategies good reviews.

Skeptics Weigh In

In coming years, Mississippi might keep moving up. But Paul Thomas, a Furman University education professor, says we shouldn’t bank on that.

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Furman University eduction professor Paul Thomas

"Coming up from way on the bottom is much easier to do, and a lot of things could be the cause of it," he said.

In the early 2000s, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools invested in Open Court, a phonics-based reading curriculum. Based on early gains with the lowest readers, district leaders said they were on track to eliminate reading gaps. But that didn’t materialize, and the district eventually dropped the program. Years later, a large long-term study found Open Court was not effective.

Thomas, who specializes in the history of education, says that pattern keeps playing out.

"A lot of what’s driving 'the science of reading' are people who’re looking to make money," he said. "So there’s a lot of programs out there that want to sell to schools."

While Mississippi’s adoption of LETRS coincides with a rise in scores, Thomas says there’s no research showing cause and effect. He notes that Mississippi’s scores started rising well before 2013.

"Mississippi’s been just slowly, gradually increasing their reading scores," he said.

Thomas says throughout decades of debate about reading, the strongest predictor of struggles is low socioeconomic status. He says North Carolina would get more gains from investing in universal health care or addressing food insecurity.

Teacher Support Or Straitjacket?

The business executives lauded the state’s reading bill for its emphasis on training and supporting teachers, rather than tutoring individual students who fall behind.

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NCAE Interim Executive Director John Wilson

That’s not so popular with the North Carolina Association of Educators. Interim Executive Director John Wilson says a rushed legislative process is never a good sign.

"I think they’re looking for the miracle cure, and I think they’re going to be disappointed," he said.

Wilson, a former Wake County special education teacher, says teachers worry that prescribing one program for all teachers will turn into "another instructional straitjacket where we can’t give kids what they need."

Wilson says the most successful approach is one-on-one help for struggling readers that can be tailored to each child’s needs. That approach, he says, is "very successful (and) very expensive."

He says he’d rather see the state invest in smaller classes, more teacher assistants and books for kids to take home.

Paying The Bill

But the universal “science of reading” training for teachers is now the law. The state has already approved $12 million in COVID-relief money to start the LETRS training. State Senate Leader Phil Berger said another $30 million or more could be needed as part of the ongoing budget process.

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Don Flow, CEO of the Statesville-based Flow automotive company, said at the news conference that business leaders support that spending.

"This $12 million is a great down payment toward achieving consistency across our state," he said. "But we will need more."

At the news conference, which was conducted through video conferencing, WFAE tried to ask if the CEOs supported any kind of tax increase to support early literacy. The moderator refused to even pose that question to the executives, instead messaging that, “they have not gotten into details of how to fund these efforts.”

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