Education, News

With N.C. reading initiative a bust, experts have tips for boosting childhood literacy

With a new N.C. State University study offering a particularly bleak assessment of North Carolina’s efforts to boost childhood literacy, experts are offering tips for parents to do their part in getting past the state’s Read to Achieve doldrums.

That study found no discernible impact from six years, and about $150 million in spending, on the Read to Achieve program, an initiative championed by Republican lawmakers and state Senate President Phil Berger.

The program hinges on early-grade testing and reading interventions for lagging children, but has been a target of some critics who say it contributes to over-testing in the early grades.

Facing the study’s grim findings, The Charlotte Observer‘s Ann Doss Helms offered up a report Monday that delves into the troubling findings for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the state’s second-largest public school system, and some recommendations for parents to help improve student performance outside of the classroom.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Munro Richardson was dismayed but hardly shocked to hear that a recent N.C. State University study found no benefit from the state’s Read to Achieve program.

Hired three years ago to lead Read Charlotte, a private push to boost third-grade reading, he had watched state and local test scores sag despite massive efforts from the state and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When the most recent report came out in September, only 46 percent of third-graders in CMS and 45 percent statewide earned scores that indicate they’re on track to succeed in college and careers. Only about one-third of black, Hispanic and low-income children hit that mark.

Richardson took his own deep dive into reading test scores, comparing five years of results for 107 CMS elementary schools and six Charlotte-area charter schools.

“The picture that emerges is not one of lower poverty schools doing better than higher poverty schools,” Richardson wrote in an email to the Observer. “Or of charter schools doing better than CMS schools. The overall trend for ALL SCHOOLS is headed in the wrong direction. … For the most part the picture is grim.”

That doesn’t mean Richardson and his donors are giving up. Instead, Richardson said, they’ve spent the past three years combing research for strategies that parents and volunteers can use to make a difference — often long before children report to school.

Here are four opportunities for parents, relatives, volunteers and donors to help young children become strong readers.

1. Stop reading to children … and start reading with them.

Instead of just reading a book to a child — which, of course, isn’t really a bad thing — Read Charlotte pushes “active reading.” That means the adult asks questions about what might happen next in the story, helps children learn words by dramatizing them (“Don’t just read ‘whisper,’ actually whisper”) and talks about how the story relates to the child’s life.

Free workshops on “The ABCs of Active Reading” are available around the county; find the schedule at Tutors trained in active reading work with students in eight CMS elementary schools; learn more and sign up at

2. Play games that build skills.

You don’t need to be a teacher or a college graduate to help children learn letters and sounds. Home Reading Helper ( offers computer games and simple home activities that are tailored to a child’s age and reading level. For instance, a kindergartener might play “Frog’s Rhyming Machine” or “Dinosaur Field Guide,” while the parents could print out a vocabulary list and get tips on how to work more words into daily conversation.

Families can also sign up for weekly text messages suggesting additional activities, also tailored to the child’s age, at or by texting READCLT to 70138.

3. Get free books — or provide them for others.

The Charlotte area has plenty of book drives, but the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is now offering to send a free book each month to the home of any Mecklenburg County child younger than 5 years old. Sign up at, or get more information at or 704-943-9780.

Donors can also pitch in at the website; $30 covers a year’s books for one child.

4. Help budding readers get over the hump.

Some students who fail reading tests know how to read words but can’t put them together well enough to enjoy reading and keep up with grade-level work. Developing that skill, called fluency, is the focus of a program called Helping Early Literacy with Practice Strategies, or HELPS.

Richardson says that program, developed by N.C. State University professor John Begeny, is one of his best finds from reviewing research on what works. Many reading interventions have not been evaluated well enough to say scientifically how many children are likely to benefit, Richardson says. And of those that have, the typical program produces reading gains for three children out of 100.

HELPS improves fluency and comprehension for 35 out of 100 participants, based on rigorous comparison studies, Richardson said. The program trains teachers and tutors to read with individual students in 10- to 15-minute sessions in ways that help the students get more confident and comfortable with reading.

Read Charlotte is working with CMS to get HELPS into 11 schools this year. Volunteers, who get three hours of training and are asked to commit one hour a week, are urgently needed. Sign up at

Will this work?

None of these strategies should be expected to work miracles. Groups have handed out books, volunteers have read with kids and districts across North Carolina have cycled through reading programs for years.

State legislators have pumped more than $150 million into Read To Achieve, a program that focuses on testing third-graders and retaining those who can’t read at grade level. Five years in, they have little to show for it.

Richardson says these programs are part of a larger strategy that has to include everything from expanded public prekindergarten to better support for families.

Leora Itzhaki, principal of Montclaire Elementary, has been with CMS long enough to see lots of reading programs launched and discarded. She and her literacy facilitator, Katie Fazio, say they’re optimistic about HELPS reading because it’s so carefully researched and scripted. It’s also funded by a nonprofit organization to keep costs low, rather than marketed by a for-profit company.

Montclaire, where many of the students come from Spanish-speaking families, has 21 third-graders taking part in HELPS. On a recent morning they trooped in and out of a mobile classroom, where volunteers had them read a timed passage, check their speed and accuracy, had them re-read any sections they had trouble with, read aloud to their students and tried again to see if they had gotten faster and more accurate.

In some ways it was almost mechanical, with the adults reading from scripts, following flow charts and graphing each student’s results. But the volunteers added warm praise, dynamic reading and trips to the “prize box” for meeting goals. The children seemed to enjoy the exercise.

Montclaire won’t have data on its kids until midterm testing, but the educators and volunteers say they’re seeing results. Many of the students who used to read hesitantly and stumble over words — all the Montclaire students in the program are also English language learners — are showing that they can read aloud at a faster pace with a little coaching and practice.

“It’s very methodical and repetitive,” Fazio said, “but the kids love it, I think.”

Courts & the Law, News

Column: Following new lawsuit, it’s time for NC redistricting reform

Thomas Mills, a longtime political consultant and founder over at Politics NC, says he has a suggestion for North Carolina leaders, after government reform advocates and Democrats filed a new lawsuit that takes aim at the state’s gerrymandered legislative districts.

According to Mills, lawmakers should call for a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission.

From Politics NC:

North Carolina legislative districts are headed back to court. There are so many lawsuits about redistricting and gerrymandering that it’s hard to keep track. This one will go to state courts where Democrats just won a solid majority on the Supreme Court.

To recap a little bit, and this is just from memory, the Congressional districts need to be redrawn before the 2020 election because a three-judge federal panel found them to be unconstitutional. Legislative districts in Wake County are already supposed to be redrawn because the legislature tried to make them more Republican after ordered to redraw other districts. Apparently, the legislature took it upon themselves to redraw any districts they thought needed more protecting, whether they were found unconstitutional or not. In doing so, they violated a constitutional provision that does not allow redrawing districts between Censuses.

This is the third decade in a row that North Carolina has undergone redistricting chaos. For all their squealing, Republicans sued as often as Democrats and Democrats’ maps weren’t nearly as biased as those drawn by Republicans. Polls show North Carolinians know more about redistricting than people in other states. It’s time to stop.

So here’s a suggestion: Republicans in the legislature agree to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 that will put in place a redistricting commission appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. They should set strict rules for redistricting that allow for little political jockeying. In exchange, Common Cause and its allies will drop ALL redistricting lawsuits leading up to the 2020 election. We can get through the next two years without worrying about drawing new district lines and look forward to a decade free of court cases about gerrymandering.

It’s time legislators put the people of North Carolina ahead of their political ambitions. We’ve had enough of extremist ideas and legislation that embarrasses our state. We need to return to our reputation of moderation and common sense. A bipartisan agreement to end gerrymandering would be a great place to start.

To this point, top lawmakers like Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who’s spearheaded the GOP’s much assailed redistricting, have rebuffed calls for an independent redistricting process.

Yet, as the new suit’s litigants point out, Democratic General Assembly candidates in North Carolina took about 51 percent of the vote in this year’s elections, but were slated to win only about 44 percent of the seats.

Democrats broke the Republican veto-proof majority in the state House and Senate, but Republicans retained control in both chambers.

Federal judges have already ruled against state lawmakers in a similar lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional districts, and North Carolina awaits word on whether legislators’ appeal will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the new suit would challenge state legislative districts in state courts, a challenge that may ultimately be heard by the state Supreme Court. With this year’s election of civil rights attorney Anita Earls, Democrats hold a strong majority on that court.

Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton has been dutifully keeping track of the winding lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s tortured maps. Be sure to follow her work.

Education, News

Wayne County school leaders cite “great dismay” about Innovative School District takeover

In a recent letter to North Carolina officials, school system leaders in Wayne County expressed “serious concerns and great dismay” about the potential takeover of a struggling elementary school by the state’s controversial Innovative School District.

“The ISD is without a proven school turnaround record, without a strategic plan to assist our children, and without any accountability to the taxpayers, parents, or children of Wayne County,” Superintendent Michael Dunsmore and Board of Education Chair Patricia Burden wrote in the letter.

Policy Watch received a copy of the letter Tuesday, although the message was e-mailed and hand delivered to the State Board of Education and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the state board, last week.

It was sent a day before members of the State Board of Education punted a decision on the takeover to next month. The program would allow state leaders to turn over control of the troubled public school to a private school management group, including charter organizations and for-profit companies.

Wayne County leaders said state officials “witnessed our community’s outrage” at a town hall meeting last month, adding that they’d also received a petition with almost 2,000 signatures opposing the takeover from the community and the local NAACP.

Dunsmore and Burden blasted state leaders’ “inconsistent” process for choosing Carver Heights, noting that last year, the ISD excluded schools like Carver Heights which had received Federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs) to boost performance.

Wayne County Public Schools “assumed this same exemption would apply this year,” they wrote. “Inconsistent criteria make it impossible for school systems to effectively plan or make meaningful decisions about low-performing schools, as the criteria are not articulated and ever-changing.”

Leaders in the ISD recommended Carver Heights for the program last month after narrowing a field of the lowest-performing schools in North Carolina down to six.

The Goldsboro school, which serves grades 3-5, had the lowest academic scores among the final six. On its 2016-2017 state report card, Carver Heights earned an “F” grade and did not meet expected growth.

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen said the school was chosen after officials spoke with administrators in all of the remaining schools.

“We are confident in our process and the accountability data used in selecting Carver Heights Elementary for recommendation to the State Board,” Allen said in a statement Tuesday.

“The passion in this community is real,” state Superintendent of Innovation Eric Hall said last week. “But we also have to come to a point where we say only 18.4 percent of our students are proficient in reading and math, where do we go from here?”

Yet school leaders wrote that they’re working on a redistricting process to break up the “heavily segregated nature” of the elementary. According to the state, 90 percent of the school’s students were considered economically disadvantaged, a population that tends to lag behind their more affluent peers.

“The taking of this school, and the restrictions on school assignment in the ISD statutes would prevent and interfere with these efforts for possibly the next five years, to the detriment of our overall student population, the students at Carver Heights Elementary School, and our community as a whole,” Wayne leaders wrote.

Among their other criticisms, Wayne County leaders blasted an Oct. 15 letter from Allen notifying them of her recommendation to take over Carver Heights, accusing Allen of writing “inaccurate or false information and conclusory allegations, unsupported by any evidence or exhibits.”

State lawmakers approved the program two years ago because they said long-beleaguered schools needed a change. But opponents, including the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, the N.C. Association of Educators, have been bitingly critical, calling the initiative a private “takeover scheme.”

If the takeover is approved by the State Board of Education, Carver Heights would be the second school to join the ISD in as many years. The district began work this year in a Robeson County elementary, handing over operations to a newly-formed group, Achievement for All Children, that has deep ties to the legislature and the state’s school choice movement.

Read the entire letter below.

10-31-18 Forest_NCBOE Letter Exhbits – Redacted Resumes by Billy Ball on Scribd

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

After attempted bombings, President Trump attacks the media once again

President Donald Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

One day after authorities announced that they’d intercepted a series of suspicious, and possibly explosive, packages mailed to prominent Democrats and members of the media, President Donald Trump has returned to his regularly scheduled programming.

From CNN:

President Donald Trump returned on Thursday to blaming the media for much of the “anger” in society, a day after CNN and Democrats were the targets of explosive devices.

“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” Trump tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.”
“Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” he continued.
Although the President has often derided the media as “fake news,” even labeling reporters the “enemy of the people,” Thursday’s tweet is especially striking in the wake of potential attacks on a major media outlet and political figures who have criticized him.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who was an intended recipient of one of the packages, responded to Trump’s tweet, telling the President to “stop blaming others” and “look in the mirror.”
Trump’s attacks came just hours after he seemed to strike a moderately more reflective tone, urging partisan opponents to decry “political violence.”
From Politico:

President Donald Trump once suggested that “Second Amendment people” could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton won the election and stacked the courts with anti-gun judges.

In 2016, he encouraged the roughing-up of protesters at his campaign rallies. Last year, Trump tweeted a video of himself tackling a man with a CNN logo superimposed across his face, adding the hashtag #FraudNewsCNN. And just last week, he made light of a Republican congressman who was convicted of assault for body-slamming a reporter.

Amid disturbing reports that explosive devices were sent to some of the president’s top political enemies by one or more unknown persons, Trump’s critics say he has a reckless penchant for, at a minimum, celebrating violence against his enemies — and, at worst, inciting it.

But the president embraced a very different message on Wednesday, decrying “political violence” and presenting himself as a bipartisan healer during remarks at the White House, touching off an unexpected national debate about political discourse that itself quickly grew divisive, with left and right each accusing the other of bad faith.

“Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective,” a staid Trump said Wednesday night at the start of a rally in Wisconsin, adding later, “By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving today? Have you ever seen this?”

Trump’s solemn remarks were a jarring contrast with his typical raucous political rallies, where he regularly whips his supporters into a frenzy by mocking his critics and political opponents.

In Trump’s world, Clinton should be imprisoned, Obama “founded” ISIS, CNN is “fake news,” billionaire George Soros is funding liberal protesters and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who called on activists to confront administration officials, should “be careful what you wish for.”

Trump’s latest about-face is newsworthy in that it marks just the latest attack on figures in the media, a prime target of the president’s since his rise with extreme right voters.

Following a newsroom shooting in Maryland this summer, the president waited a matters of days before unleashing more broadsides, pointing to reporters at a Montana rally and denouncing them as “bad people.”

And while it’s not fair to blame the president and his supporters for all such attacks, Trump should understand his role in the matter. He is an influencer, for better or worse.

Violence should be condemned in the strongest terms, but our president somehow finds extenuating circumstances when it comes to attacks on the media.

Trump should know better, and he does.


Study: North Carolina’s “Read to Achieve” a flop

Sen. Phil Berger was one of the biggest supporters of “Read to Achieve.”

A new — and disheartening — study from researchers at N.C. State University finds no impact from the state’s “Read to Achieve” program, The Charlotte Observer reported Monday.

“Read to Achieve,” an initiative rolled out by Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly six years ago, has had no discernible effect on early childhood literacy, the new study finds, despite a $150 million tab.

The program expanded third-grade reading efforts, establishing summer reading camps and allowing schools to hold back students who did not pass year-end reading exams.

It was one of the signature laws passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2012, but has had a rocky road since its inception.

From The Charlotte Observer:

With five years of test scores showing little benefit from North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program, researchers from N.C. State University decided to dig deeper for hidden gains.

They found nothing.

That’s grim news for a state that has spent more than $150 million on a third-grade reading campaign, believing it could set young children on a path to academic success. In a study released last week, researchers from NC State’s College of Education found no benefit to holding students back if they couldn’t pass reading exams by the end of third grade, nor to giving them free summer reading camps.

State leaders say the report, titled “Is Read to Achieve Making the Grade?”, signals a need to improve the program, not to scrap it. And they say they’re already working on that.

For instance, state Superintendent Mark Johnson says summer reading camps have been expanded to first- and second-graders, testing has been reduced and schools are doing more to work with parents.

And Johnson said the state government and the university’s College of Education are trying to boost teachers’ skill at teaching reading through a $5.9 million Wolfpack Works grant program.

“We will continue to use data-driven analyses, including feedback from classroom teachers, to drive changes … ,” Johnson said in a Friday statement. “We have an obligation to these students to act with urgency and pursue innovative strategies to ensure every child can read well by the end of third grade.”

The General Assembly passed Read to Achieve legislation in 2012. It was modeled on literacy efforts in other states, including the “Just Read, Florida!” program created by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. The goal in North Carolina was to end “social promotion” by keeping students in third grade until they could read at grade level and providing extra support to help them get there.

But in the years that followed the percent of North Carolina third- and fourth-graders graders passing state reading exams stayed flat or declined. National reading exams showed equally discouraging results.

The N.C. State team, which included experts from the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, looked for more subtle benefits that might not show up in state averages. They focused on the first group of third-graders who participated in the program and tracked their scores in fourth and fifth grade.

By identifying third-graders who scored just above and just below the score required to pass reading exams, they created two nearly identical groups — one that was promoted to fourth grade and one that had to keep taking tests and doing additional work to clear the Read to Achieve hurdle.

The first batch of Read to Achieve kids weren’t doing any better in fourth or fifth grades than their counterparts, the study found, even if they were held back and assigned to classes with intensive reading intervention.

The researchers broke the results down by gender, race and family income, checking to see if one or more groups benefited even if the overall average didn’t show it.

They found no exceptions.

And they looked at students who participated in reading camps between third and fourth grade. Because those camps aren’t required, they wondered if a smaller group of students who got the most help might show measurable gains.

Still nothing.

The study suggests Read to Achieve has been too tightly focused on third grade, saying children need help as soon as they begin school and after they’ve advanced to fourth grade.

Trip Stallings, one of the researchers, said Monday the work actually needs to start earlier and extend beyond the school day. While North Carolina has a highly centralized public education system, he said, early childhood support falls to a more fragmented system of public and private groups.

“The intention of the legislation is admirable. This is probably the best the state can do,” said Stallings, director of policy research at the Friday Institute. “We are wrestling with an issue that starts well before a teacher sees any of these kids.”

The researchers also noted that it’s up to each school district to execute the state-mandated plan. That leads to inconsistencies on everything from teacher skills to the type of summer camps offered.

“Indeed, we have heard from many practitioners from across the state who believe their localized versions of RtA are having an impact on their students, but because of the sometimes very small size of the group of students impacted in most of the state’s (school districts), we are not able to test these intuitions statistically,” the report says.

Patrick Ryan, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said Friday that the findings come as no surprise.

“As the report acknowledges, (districts) have taken different approaches with different results,” he said. “Senate staff has already been analyzing the successes and failures at the local level to make policy adjustments, as would happen with any major initiative.”