“‘Good’ is not good enough.” UNC Board of Governors sharpens focus on literacy instruction

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey

“Frankly this number should scare and appall everyone in this room.”

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey offered a sobering assessment Thursday of recent North Carolina reading scores and the system’s efforts to improve literacy instruction.

A report released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) last fall showed just 32% of North Carolina’s fourth graders were at or above proficient in reading in 2022.

Ramsey told board members that students who can’t read by the end of the third grade are much less likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and complete a degree.

“If a child can’t read, how can they study science, history, math, or literature? How can they grow up to become a teacher, an engineer, a doctor, a nurse, an electrician, a plumber a carpenter?” Ramsey asked. “This burden falls especially hard on low-income and minority children, who are most likely to be left behind.”

State leaders have spent million to improve scores through an evidence-based approach commonly called the Science of Reading.

But a consultant’s report delivered last week to the UNC Board of Governor shows that effort to train prospective teachers in how deliver reading instruction is inconsistent.

In its review of literacy coursework across the 15 University of North Carolina institutions that train teachers, Teacher Prep Inspection-US (TPI-US) ranked only one school as ‘strong.’ Five rated ‘good.’

For nine other programs, consultants found that “significant course content and/or faculty teaching improvements are needed” to ensure that teachers understand and can apply the science of reading concepts.

UNC Board of Governors Vice Chair Wendy Murphy

Vice chair Wendy Murphy noted that this April will mark two years since the NC General Assembly passed and Governor Cooper signed legislation mandating that literacy instruction be based on the science of reading. She said the board should be outraged that more two-thirds of the fourth graders in our state are not proficient in reading.

“How would these statistics move each of us if we were discussing our favorite ball team? 68% of the team cannot shoot a free throw,” said Murphy in offering a sports analogy. “What if a surgeon about to perform a procedure on you had a 32% success rate? We would be outraged, and rest assured we’d be looking for solutions and other options.”

Murphy said while a student’s reading success may start with parents, UNC’s education schools that train North Carolina’s teachers are an important piece of the puzzle and must step-up. Read more

A big shake-up at a troubled state agency, affordable housing vs. NC’s fragile environment, and democracy on the defense: The week’s top stories at Policy Watch

In this issue:

1. North Carolina House Republicans advance a new kind of bathroom bill (Commentary)

It’s been almost seven years since North Carolina Republican lawmakers and then-Gov. Pat McCrory hastily concocted and enacted House Bill 2 – the infamous “bathroom bill.” It targeted transgender people for ignorant, mean-spirited and altogether absurd discrimination, while simultaneously making the state the target of numerous boycotts and countless late-night TV one-liners.

The bill was later repealed but its legacy – as an embarrassment to be forgotten as quickly as possible for most people, and as a proud rallying point for the state’s religious right fringe (and reactionary culture warriors everywhere), lingers on. Across the country, efforts to make life harder for transgender people, and even to criminalize efforts to provide them medically necessary healthcare, continue apace. North Carolina state Treasurer Dale Folwell has been an especially avid and energetic devotee of this brand of discrimination.

Now, however, one of the chief architects of the HB 2 disaster, state House Speaker Tim Moore, is back with a new and very different – but equally absurd – kind of bathroom bill, or to be more precise, bathroom rule. [Read more…]

2. In newly created job, Richard Trumper will try to get ailing ReBuild NC disaster recovery program back on track

Richard Trumper, director of disaster recovery at the Office of State Budget and Management, will move to the NC Department of Public Safety as the senior advisor for disaster recovery, DPS announced today.

He was appointed to the newly created position by DPS Secretary Eddie Buffaloe, Jr.

His first day will be Feb. 1.

“In this new role, Trumper will support initiatives to build long-term and stable recovery for North Carolinians following natural disasters. As part of an expanded, comprehensive approach to recovery, Trumper will work with department leaders, the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency” — also known as ReBuild NC — “N.C. Emergency Management and other partners to get disaster survivors back in their homes faster,” DPS wrote in a prepared statement.[Read more…]Bonus read: Shake up at ReBuild NC: Richard Trumper, who successfully managed state disaster relief, headed to beleaguered agency

3. Durham City Council rejects huge housing development proposal in Falls Lake watershed

Competing concerns over Triangle’s housing shortage and fragile environment fuel 4-2 vote.

The contentious Kemp Road project – 655 single-family houses and townhomes on 280 acres in the environmentally fragile Falls Lake watershed – is dead, at least temporarily.

But before sticking a fork in the proposal, Durham City Council members dug into several underlying issues vexing residents of one of the fastest-growing areas in the country: housing, gentrification and race.

Ultimately, the council voted down the rezoning that opponents said would have contributed to pollution in Lick Creek. The creek, seven miles of which is on the federally impaired list, flows into Falls Lake. In turn, the lake feeds the Neuse River, which travels to the Pamlico Sound and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. [Read more…]

4. UNC Board of Governors courts more controversy with new proposed rule on hiring and enrollment

Proponents say their objective is to protect freedom of speech and thought, but critics see other motives and many potential landmines

Discussions about political debates, beliefs, affiliations, ideals or principles could be banned in employment and enrollment processes at UNC System schools, if the UNC Board of Governors approves a proposed rule change.

System leaders say the change, introduced in a meeting of the board’s university governance committee Wednesday, will provide politically neutral protections for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech for students, faculty and university employees. But critics, including faculty leaders, say the move is part of a national conservative attack on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work.[Read more…]

5. NC Supreme Court justice discusses work of Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice at Greensboro event

Anita Earls touts progress in combating criminal justice inequities, calls for work at state and local levels to continue

When Anita Earls moved to Charlotte in 1988, one of the first people who welcomed her to the Queen City was the chair of the Charlotte League of Women Voters. Earls credits the chapter with helping her grow as an attorney and inspiring her through its work in support of maintaining racial integration in the city’s schools.

On Tuesday, Earls, now an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, repaid the favor, talking to the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad about the work of the state’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice — and how its power originated at the local level through the work of groups like the League.[Read more…]

6. A closer look at the mounting toll of fentanyl on the nation’s youth

Last year, Policy Watch delved into the epidemic within the opioid epidemic: the terrifying rise of synthetic opioid fentanyl and staggering number of deaths it has caused in North Carolina and across the country.

This month a new analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by the nonprofit Families Against Fentanyl sheds new light on the ongoing crisis, particularly deaths among children 14 and under.

The group’s analysis found fentanyl deaths among that group are rising faster than any other, tripling nationwide in just two years from 2019 to 2021 (the last year for which full CDC data is available). Over the same period, fentanyl deaths among infants increased twice as fast as overall deaths. [Read more]

7. Veto showdowns and voter ID: Democracy will be on the defensive again at the legislature in 2023

The N.C. General Assembly gathered on Jan. 11 amid trappings of ceremony and good cheer to kick off its 2023 session. Then reality reared its head: At least in the state House, the majority party apparently intends to play rough.

Democrats in the minority are left to wonder if their Republican counterparts see them not as duly elected colleagues with whom they may disagree over this bill or that, but as enemies to be muzzled and marginalized.

By extension, those enemies must include voters who sent the Dems to Raleigh – perhaps to defend voting rights, expand Medicaid and adequately fund the public schools, among other public interest priorities.

This isn’t a case of “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” as the stock car racers used to say. No rules are set to be broken. That’s because they’ve changed the rules.[Read more…]

8. Josh Stein announces 2024 gubernatorial bid

Attorney General Josh Stein has officially entered the 2024 race to become North Carolina’s next governor. Stein announced his run with a three minute video on social media, pledging to fight for North Carolina’s future.

About 30 seconds of the ad is devoted to the incendiary rhetoric of Republican Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, who is widely expected to make his own run. Robinson has called homosexuality ‘filth’, pushed for banning abortions, and said that men not women are called by God to leadership positions.[Read more…]

9. Child vaccination rates, already down because of COVID, fall again

This report was first published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Child vaccination rates dipped into dangerous territory during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were shuttered, and most doctors were only seeing emergency patients.

But instead of recovering after schools reopened in 2021, those historically low rates worsened, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts fear that the skepticism of science and distrust of government that flared up during the pandemic are contributing to the decrease.

According to today’s data, the percentage of U.S. children entering kindergarten with their required immunizations fell to 93% in the 2021-22 school year, 2 percentage points below recommended herd immunity levels of 95% and lower than vaccination rates in 2020-21, when many schools and doctor’s offices were closed. [Read more…]

10. Weekly Radio Interviews and daily and Radio Commentaries:

Click here for the latest radio interviews and commentaries with Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield.

11. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

UNC program to spotlight affirmative action in admissions, abortion in public discussion series

UNC Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse will begin 2023 with public discussions of  affirmative action in university admissions and abortion – two divisive social issues, one now before the Supreme Court and the other a renewed battleground in state legislatures, including North Carolina’s.

In late October the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases over affirmative action in admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University, the nation’s first publicly funded university and its oldest private university respectively. In arguments lasting nearly six hours the court’s new conservative majority gave the impression they are leaning toward plaintiffs fighting to end the practice, with potential broad consequences for university diversity programs of all kinds.

A ruling is expected this month or early next. The February 24 panel discussion on the topic, part of the Abbey Speaker Series on the topic, should be timely.

The in-person discussion,  to be held at 3 p.m. at the Carolina Union Auditorium, will be moderated by  UNC Law Professor Ted Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights. Panelists will include Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Economics at Brown University; John McWhorter,contributing writer at The New York Times and associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University and Rachel F. Moran, Distinguished and Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Irvine.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse will host a panel discussion on affirmative action in university admission Feb. 24. Panelists, from left to right: Glen C. Loury, John McWhorter and Rachel F. Moran

More on that discussion, including registration information, here.

In March, the Abbey Speaker series will tackle faith and abortion – an always divisive topic give new urgency with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Regulation of abortion is now the subject of revitalized political battles in both congress and state legislatures, with North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders indicating they will push new restrictions in the current legislative session.

The March 22 discussion, to be held at 5:30 p.m. at a venue to be determined, will also be livesteamed online. Mara Buchbinder, professor and vice chair of the department of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, will moderate. Panelists will include: Maharat Ruth Friedman, clergy at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue (OSTNS); Lauren W. Reliford, political director for Sojourners and Leah Libresco Sargeant, author and public discourse chief of staff at Better Angels.

The panel discussion on faith and abortion will feature, from left to right, Lauren W. Reliford, Maharat Ruth Friedman and Leah Libresco Sargeant.

More on that event, including information on how to register, here.

Winston-Salem State Chancellor to step down, interim leader announced

Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson announced his retirement Monday.

Robinson, who has led the school for eight years, will step down at the end of the current semester. UNC System President Peter Hans appointed Anthony Graham, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Winston-Salem State, as interim chancellor effective July 1.

Winston-Salem State Chancellor Elwood Robinson

“Chancellor Robinson has provided steady leadership for Winston-Salem State,” Hans said in a statement Monday. “Including noteworthy achievements such as a new center for entrepreneurship, a record $30 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, and strong rankings in economic and social mobility for the university’s graduates.”

“I know all Rams join me in thanking him for his dedicated service to the campus and the state,” Hans said.

Hans also praised Graham, saying he has the skills and commitment to lead the university through a smooth transition.

Graham, a Kinston native, earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and master’s degree in education and doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Graham has served as chief academic officer at Winston-Salem State since 2018. Before that, he served as dean of the College of Education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he was a professor of educator preparation and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Winston-Salem State is one of the UNC system’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This leadership change comes at a time when HBCUs nationwide – including those in North Carolina – are seeing revitalized interests and increased enrollment, even in the face of falling student numbers at other campuses in the system.

Beginning-of-the-year assessments show K-3 students literacy skills on the rebound from pandemic

Source: NCDPI

(The headline has been updated to reflect that the literacy assessments took place at the beginning of the school year.) 

North Carolina’s K-3 students are rebounding from a pandemic-fueled slide in literacy skills, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the State Board of Education last week.

The superintendent made her remarks during the state board’s recent monthly meeting. She cited data from an assessment administered at the beginning of the school year.

Of the 454,000 students assessed, nearly 28,000 more performed at or above the benchmark when compared to the previous school year, Truitt said.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

“We feel like in looking at all of our K-3 reading diagnostic data that we are finally confident to say that we feel like there is a post-pandemic rebound happening in early literacy in our state,” Truitt said.

Recent state testing data show that student learning suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic. National Assessment of Educational Progress scores also showed historic declines in reading and math.

The state’s elementary school students’ literacy skills are tested at the beginning, middle and end of the school year as part of the state’s Read to Achieve program designed to ensure all students read on or above grade level by end of third grade.

The diagnostic data show that the percentage of K-3 students who are on track, meaning they read well enough to receive instruction in core subjects, is higher in each grade level. The growth was most evident in first grade where 48% of students were on track in reading compared to 38% a year ago.

The data also show that fewer students need intensive intervention due to poor scores.  Last year 44% of first graders, for example, needed intensive intervention in reading at the beginning of the school year. The percentage of students needing such help fell to 32% at the start of this school year.

And disaggregated data show that white, Black and Hispanic students all began the year as more proficient readers compared to last year’s K-3 students.

Truitt credited teachers and the state’s shift to instruction based on the science of reading, which is a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read. Thousands of elementary school teachers have undergone Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training to try to help students become better readers.

“Teachers across the state are working hard to help students become proficient readers by grounding their instruction in the science of reading,” Truitt said. “They deserve to be commended for taking on this often very difficult and demanding work of learning themselves how to teach differently.”

Truitt also noted that 5,000 fewer fourth graders started the school year with the label reading retained than started last school year with the label.

She boasted that North Carolina’s year-to-year gains were greater than those in other districts taking the same assessment. According to an NCDPI press release, North Carolina’s results were compared with those of 1.6 million K-3 students elsewhere in the nation whose literacy skills are measured with the same assessment provided by Amplify, the education company that provides the mCLASS assessment under contract with the state Department of Public Instruction.

Amy Rhyne, who leads the state’s early literacy program as director of the Office of Early Learning at the Department of Public Instruction, said she believes the latest assessment results reflect a significant effort by teachers statewide to improve literacy skills for all students.

“We are extremely proud of the shifts teachers are already making as they intentionally align instruction to what they are learning about the science of reading,” Rhyne said. “Early data also indicate better results in schools where teachers are progress monitoring with fidelity, between benchmarks. Responding to data in a timely manner allows for ongoing, aligned instructional supports.”

In other news, the NC Department of Public Instruction announced that it was awarded a $17 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help meet the mental help needs of students in public schools.

The money will be used to partner with colleges and universities and 15 school districts to increase the number and diversity of mental health service providers in high-needs schools.

The funding comes in two competitive grants: the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration (MHSP) Grant and the School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) Grant Program.

The applications cited data from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which found that one in five North Carolina high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide.

The first grant, “Project Adding Direct Support (ADS),” NCDPI’s Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant will serve over 120,000 students in eight school districts: Pitt, Pender, Wayne, Harnett, Scotland, Alamance-Burlington, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Catawba. Project ADS will increase the number of licensed school-based mental health providers by a minimum of 60 within five years.

The other grant, “Project FAST,” NCDPI’s School-Based Mental Health Grant, will serve approximately 73,000 students in six school districts: Cabarrus, Davidson, Guilford, Randolph, Scotland and Stanly. Project FAST will increase the number of school-based mental health providers to 30 over the project’s five-year period.

“Providing school-based mental health candidates with tuition assistance, high-quality professional development, sign-on incentives, and supplement increases will go a long way in helping to meet staffing challenges in school districts,” Pachovia Lovett, NCDPI’s school social work consultant who sought the two grants, said in a news release. “We are excited to begin this work and eager to see the impact in retaining and re-specializing counselors and social workers into school-based mental health providers.”