Education

Want to boost NC reading achievement? Start earlier, invest more.

This week’s State Board of Education meeting brought disappointing news about how well North Carolina children are mastering reading.

The statewide report on North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program found more than 43 percent of third-graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

Certainly there were bright spots like Mooresville City Schools and Watauga County Schools where the pass-rate was roughly 72 percent. But in places like Edgecombe County Public School and Thomasville City Schools, the percentage of third graders not reading at-grade level exceeded 63 percent.

There are many things that can influence the test results. A retired teacher wrote earlier this week after our Monday numbers column to share that special education students or ESL learners can skew a district’s results.

But education experts are taking a look at the statewide data and asking is it time to rethink Senator Berger’s signature education program?

This weekend on NC Policy Watch’s News & Views, Rob Schofield sits down to discuss the findings with Matt Ellinwood, director of the Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

Ellinwood discusses the need for investing more in North Carolina’s high-quality pre-K programs and providing greater resources to schools struggling to boost reading levels.

Click below for a preview of our radio interview with Ellinwood:

It’s also worth noting that state officials are not seeking legislative changes to Read to Achieve this session.

As education reporter Greg Childress explained this week, the state board instead has offered three recommendations to improve Read to Achieve outcomes:

The recommendations include providing greater financial and support to schools, identifying and “scaling up” reading programs that work and transitioning from a third-grade “social promotion mindset to a literacy development mindset.”

Education

State Board of Education okays Carver Heights “restart” without controversial private takeover

Without comment, the State Board of Education on Thursday approved a “restart application” that allows Carver Heights Elementary School to avoid a state takeover.

Under the “restart” school reform model, the struggling Wayne County school will be given “charter-like” flexibility to operate, meaning it will be free of some of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools.

The school must show academic improvement over the next year or risk being swallowed up by the controversial Innovative School District (ISD) beginning with 2021-2022 school year.

The ISD was created in 2016 to allow the state to place consistently low-performing schools under the control of private operators such as nonprofits.

“They have time now to implement and delay their entry into the Innovative School District,” said James Ellerbe, the state’s assistant director of district and regional support who oversees school transformation programs.

Wayne County Principal Michael Dunsmore told Policy Watch last week that the restart at Carver Heights has technically already begun.

The district has hired a new principal, Patrice Faison, a former Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year award recipient, who has gained a reputation for turning schools around.

“She’s known as a mover and a shaker,” Ellerbe told SBE members on Wednesday, noting that Faison, while principal at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, made 19.4 percent growth in composite score, which was the highest for both the district and the state.

Charter-like flexibility

In its “restart application, Wayne County Public Schools (WCPS) was granted calendar flexibility – the district plans to add 30 minutes to each school day beginning this month. And the school’s instructional staff will get five extra professional development days, beginning in the summer.

WCPS will also be granted licensure flexibility so the district can use “highly skilled” members of the military, arts and music communities in Carver Heights Classrooms.

“These community members have special skill sets (e.g., foreign language speakers, trade, and industry specialists, professional musicians and artists) but we can’t use them as classroom teachers because of licensure restrictions,” WCPS officials said in the restart application.

The district also has budget flexibility to enable Carver Heights to pay teacher performance and growth bonuses, master teacher stipends, professional development stipends and pay for extended day and extended year and other such cost.

The district requested and was granted curriculum flexibility to implement what is referred to as “Balanced Literacy” instructional blocks to allow teachers to integrate instruction across content areas to make learning more relevant and meaningful while emphasizing literacy, vocabulary, reading and writing.

It took approval of a state technical corrections bill passed during last month’s lame duck legislative session to pave the way for Carver Heights to resubmit its restart application.

The bill also repealed a requirement that the State Board select at least two qualifying schools to transfer to the Innovative School District no later than the 2019-2020 school year.

ISD must have five schools by 2021

The decision to allow Carver Heights to move ahead with its restart plan means the ISD must bring four more schools into the district by 2021 as required by state law.

Currently, the ISD has one school, Southpole Ashpole Elementary School in Rowan County.

LaTessa Allen, superintendent of the ISD, acknowledged Thursday that adding four more schools by 2021 will be a “bit of a challenge.”

The school district in Durham and others where schools where tapped for ISD have vigorously pushed back against state takeovers.

ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen

“We know it’s going to big task, but we know the greater task is going to be to move students forward, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on,” Allen said.

When asked if ISD would try a different strategy to make the district more appealing, Allen said ISD strategies are led by legislation approved by the General Assembly.

“Of course we’re always looking at ways to improve what we do,” Allen said. “We want to ensure we’re working collaboratively with our State Board [of Education] and our districts, and communities as we’ve done before to make sure this process works for all of us and students.”

Commentary, Education

Senator Berger’s signature education program continues to fail

In October, researchers from NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation helped to confirm what many educational advocates have long claimed: North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program is a failure. This week’s State Board of Education meeting included a presentation on the evaluation, which served as an important wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. However the evaluation – while rigorous and well-written – leaves many important questions unanswered.

The Read to Achieve program, created by the 2012 budget bill, is an effort to improve early-grades’ reading proficiency by refusing to promote students who fail the state’s third grade reading test. Read to Achieve was based on a similar initiative from Florida and was championed by Senator Phil Berger.

While Florida’s program coincided with improved test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there was little indication that improved scores were driven by forcing struggling young readers to repeat third grade. After all, Florida coupled its third grade retention policy with large investments in interventions to help students become better readers, such as increasing instructional time, hiring reading coaches and intervention teachers, purchasing new instructional materials, investing in teacher professional development, and offering summer reading camps to struggling young readers. In fact, a recent study found Florida’s retention policy had no impact on improving the high school graduation rates of retained students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program took a sharply different approach, attempting to replicate Florida’s apparent success without providing any interventions to help children pass their third grade reading test. North Carolina only invested in diagnostic reading tests to help teachers identify struggling readers and summer reading camps for third graders who had already failed the state reading exam and were facing the possibility of repeating the grade. Districts were required to provide additional tutoring and instruction for failing students, but did not receive additional funding to carry out these mandates.

The Friday Institute evaluation focuses on the narrow question of whether the eligibility for additional reading help (i.e., summer reading camps, additional reading instruction) improved future reading scores for students who just barely failed their third grade reading test. Their research concludes that these interventions have provided no measurable benefit to struggling readers.

These findings are important, as they can help the state reassess and modify the supports provided to struggling readers.

However, the assessment fails to answer the question that I think most North Carolinians want to better understand: why has third grade reading performance plummeted? Since the adoption of the Read to Achieve program, North Carolina’s third grade reading performance has fallen precipitously, more than any other state test.

Are declining third-grade reading scores the product of over-stressing 8 and 9-year olds by telling them they’ll be held back if they fail? Is it because incessant testing kills kids’ (and teachers’) love of reading? Is it because these cohorts have experienced slashed funding for NC Pre-K and other classroom supports?

Regardless, the plummeting test scores and the evaluation paint a damning picture of Senator Berger’s signature education initiative. We already know the program is failing to boost reading achievement. Overall performance continues to drop. And we now know via this latest evaluation that the limited assistance provided to struggling readers has been insufficient to boost their scores. It’s clear that Read to Achieve has been a profound failure and should be abandoned.

Education

Board of Ed member: Why learning to read matters and NC must do more

On the heels of a report showing too few third-graders demonstrating reading proficiency, State Board of Education member Wayne McDevitt shared a compelling story about a high school classmate who confessed he never learned to read.

McDevitt’s story came Wednesday near the conclusion of a discussion about the state’s Read to Achieve initiative on which the state has spent more than $150 million.

The Report to the General Assembly shows that 43.7 percent of third-graders tested statewide during the 2017-18 did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

The experts say that learning to read by the third grade is a good predictor of whether a student will graduate high school on time, and how well that student will do later in the workforce and in life.

McDevitt said his classmate is fortunate to have come along during a time when a person with a strong work ethic and good character could get by without learning to read.

“He’s done well,” McDevitt said the classmate who is also a preacher and memorizes sermons his wife reads to him. “He owns a couple of bulldozers and a backhoe.”

But McDevitt said the classmate acknowledged there’s no way he could do as well today because he wouldn’t be able to read construction documents.

McDevitt used the story to illustrate the importance of teaching children to read so they are prepared for college or work after graduation.

Approved by the General Assembly in 2012, The Read to Achieve initiative was designed to ensure students could read at grade-level by third grade.

But a study by researchers at N.C. State University last fall found that Read to Achieve has done little to improve early childhood literacy rates, despite the $150 million price tab.

“Our vision says that our graduates are going to be ready for post-secondary education, careers and go on to be productive citizens,” McDevitt said. “We as a state have to be passionate about this. We have to be persistent.”

State officials are not seeking legislative changes in the wake of the findings, but did issue three recommendations to improve Read to Achieve outcomes.

The recommendations include providing greater financial and support to schools, identifying and “scaling up” reading programs that work and transitioning from a third-grade “social promotion mindset to a literacy development mindset.”

Education, News

Diversity improves as more students enrolled in charters

Enrollment has climbed to 109,389  students in North Carolina’s 184 charter schools, which is an 8 percent increase over the previous school year, according to the state’s annual report on charter schools.

The State Board of Education will discuss the report on Wednesday during its first meeting of the new year.

The enrollment increase is sure to get the attention of charter school critics who contend the publicly-funded schools siphon valuable resources for the state’s traditional public schools.

And it’s a safe bet that supporters of the schools will see enrollment growth as a healthy sign for charters, which they contend give parents choice when traditional public schools aren’t working for their children.

Academically, 68 percent of the state’s charters met or exceeded growth while 73 percent of traditional public schools did so.

Meanwhile, 40.5 percent of charters received a letter grade of either “A” or “B.” The percentage was 33.7 percent for traditional public schools.

One interesting tidbit in the report shows the percentage of students of color enrolled in charters has increased each of the last four school years.

From 2014-15 school year to the 2017-18 school years, the percentage of students of color enrolled in charters rose slightly, from 41.5 percent to 45 percent.

During that same span, the percentage of students identified as economically disadvantaged dipped slightly from roughly 35 percent during the 2014-15 school year to approximately 33 percent.

Another tidbit: The percentage of Latino students enrolled in charters ticked up slightly from 9.2 percent to 9.9 percent, the second consecutive increase following the creation of a task force by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to examine charter school outreach to Hispanic families.

Yet that number still lags behind traditional schools, where Latino students accounted for more than 16 percent of overall enrollment as of 2015-2016.

The task force recommend that North Carolina officials consult with states such as Florida that have large enrollments of Hispanic students for solutions to improving outreach. The task force also suggested that more charters provide applications in Spanish and begin to refer to charters as “public charter schools” to minimize confusion because there is no English to Spanish translation for charter school.

Here’s a quick overview of the state of charter schools in North Carolina:
• 184 currently operating charter schools
• More than 109,000 students enrolled in charter schools – 7.3% of state’s total ADM
• 22 charter schools currently in Planning Year/Ready-to-Open process – 10 are acceleration applicants
• 35 charter applications received in 2018
• Eleven charter schools considered for renewal in 2018 – Nine (9) received 10-year renewals – Two (2) received 3-year renewals with stipulations
• One charter school was assumed
• One charter school was closed due to low enrollment