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CMS Says Reading Recovery Depends On Phonics Plus Anti-Racism

Second-graders at Oakdale Elementary School in Charlotte do a phonics lesson.
Ann Doss Helms
Second-graders at Oakdale Elementary School in Charlotte do a phonics lesson.

As the pandemic deepens the academic challenges that face many students of color, a consensus is building that more effective reading instruction is a key to long-term recovery. Mecklenburg County officials have threatened to withhold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools because of lingering racial gaps in all subjects.

For Munro Richardson, executive director of Read Charlotte, six years of analyzing data boils down to one recurring theme: From 2014 to 2019, state reading exams have consistently showed at least 72% of white third-graders in CMS are on track for academic success. Their Black and Hispanic counterparts have never gotten above 37%.

"That is the core problem for us to solve," he says. "If we do not close that racial achievement gap we are not fixing the problem."

CMS leaders are aware of those gaps and say the district's new reading curriculum will address it. Assistant Superintendent Beth Thompson opened a recent report to the school board with even more grim numbers on reading.

"Students who began in kindergarten with reading gaps had those gaps nearly double by the end of first grade," she said.

That’s right: It wasn’t just that schools were not helping their youngest struggling readers catch up. Those children were falling further behind their classmates.

Science Of Reading Plus Race And Power

Even before state lawmakers passed a “science of reading” bill this spring, CMS went in search of a better approach to reading.

The district chose E-L Education, a curriculum that incorporates many “science of reading” strategies for teaching phonics while building comprehension, vocabulary and background knowledge. The lessons began in August of 2019. EL provided consistent, structured lessons that included read-aloud sessions, training on the sounds letters can make, writing prompts and — before the pandemic made group activities risky — hands-on activities tied to each theme.

But CMS wanted more. In a district where almost two-thirds of students are Black or Hispanic, Thompson says CMS needed a program that confronted issues that had set those students back: "Did it validate their experiences and values? Were we disrupting power dynamics and privileged dominant groups? And were we empowering students?"

Diversity and inclusion are among the building blocks of the E-L approach, according to the company’s website. During last summer’s racial reckoning, E-L prominently displayed a statement on its commitment to explicitly confronting racism.

Simple Lessons Set The Stage

Thompson says lessons are age-appropriate.

"For example, the module on birds is an opportunity for first-graders to start to understand, 'Hey, there are different birds! All birds are not the same, right?'" she said.

They learn that all birds have beaks and feet, but those beaks and feet are different.

"But it doesn’t make one bird better than another, and all the birds have to live in community with each other, right, and how does that work?" Thompson said.

By third grade, students read about schools around the world. Instead of discussing how some settings are better than others, they explore the differences.

Themes like “responding to inequality” and “athletes who lead social change” are threaded through lessons for older students. Fifth-graders read about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball.

"Their project and their continued reading has them looking at different athletes throughout history who have encountered situations where they haven’t necessarily had a fair shake, right, and how they have responded to that," Thompson said.

Older Students Go Deeper

Middle school students read about the Holocaust, Native American boarding schools and Hidden Figures, a unit on the scientific contributions of Black women. Thompson says EL Education added a unit on the Harlem Renaissance after some educators said they wanted celebration of Black Americans, not just a study of strife.

By middle school, Thompson says students need deeper analytic skills. Elementary students might just research their own point of view. Middle schoolers need to pull from various sources and perspectives "reconcile multiple beliefs. And inherent in that is the bias that even an author comes to the table with."

Erin DeMund, a reading interventionist at Oaklawn Language Academy, says she likes the selection of books that feature a multicultural cast of authors, characters and themes. Some literary classics come with talking points, such as how to acknowledge racist stereotypes of Native Americans when third-graders read "Peter Pan."

DeMund, who is also a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, says there are concerns about other aspects of the curriculum, but she hasn’t heard any controversy over the diversity part.

"I have not heard any teachers who are bothered by it or upset about it," she said "I have not heard any parent complaints."

Tackling Race Raises Questions

But race and academics are a charged topic. North Carolina’s Board of Education recently approved new social studies standards that acknowledge racism and oppression. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who voted against those standards as a state board member, launched a website to collect reports of teachers indoctrinating their students.

Last week, House Republican leaders introduced a bill that would require public schools to publicly post all instructional materials and lesson plans. It passed the House on a split vote.

Rep. Jeffrey McNeely, an Iredell County Republican, told the education committee he wants to make sure educators don’t cross lines.

"Hopefully we’re just going to teach the kids," he said. "We’re not going to try to indoctrinate ‘em, or teach ‘em in a certain way to make them believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write, the ability to read."

Also last week, Britney Bouldin of Matthews told the Union County school board she had started a local chapter Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based group that fights government overreach, and says she got more than 100 sign-ups in a week. Bouldin said antiracism is a false ideology that encourages white students to feel shame and Black students to see themselves as victims. Ultimately, she said, that leads to mutual hatred.

"History provides irrefutable evidence that this road leads to massive death and destruction 100% of the time," she said. "By teaching this ideology to our children we’re putting them together on a high-speed train to hell on Earth."

'Race Must Be Present In Solution'

Monica Walker, a trainer for the Greensboro-based Racial Equity Institute, says it’s not realistic to think you can strip references to race and racism from lessons.

"We say that if race is present in the outcomes, then it must be present in the solution," she said.

Walker spent 11 years with Guilford County Schools, leading its office of diversity, equity and inclusion before joining the institute, which provides training to organizations that are trying to address racism. She says students need to understand that the United States is built on race, even though race is an artificial construct.

"Children do need to understand that and they are going to understand it," she said, "but often without any elevation, any education, any inference to that in the places where they should be getting educated."

CMS is making a big investment in EL reading lessons. This year’s budget for elementary and middle schools is $8.6 million, and the curriculum expands into high schools next year.

As for whether it works, that could take years to figure out. Because of the pandemic, the test scores that would normally be used to gauge last year’s results don’t exist, and this year’s disruption means the 2021 scores won’t be a good measure either.

Richardson, the Read Charlotte director, says he hopes CMS will have patience with the program. It’s unlikely to provide an across-the-board solution, he says, but it needs time to bear fruit.

"If you look at the history of public schools we try something for about three years, and then we drop it and we try something else," Richardson said. "Just about the time that you really master it then you’re on to something else."

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.