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

Education, News

Wayne County superintendent thinks ‘restart application’ will be a slam dunk

On paper, the options before the state Board of Education next week regarding the much-discussed Carver Heights Elementary School in Wayne County seem simple.If the board does not approve the school’s Restart Model application to grant the school charter-like flexibility, then Carver Heights will be taken over by the state and transferred to the controversial Innovative School District (ISD).

And if the board does approve the Restart Model application, then Wayne County schools leaders would have until the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year to improve student achievement or be transferred to the ISD beginning with the 2021-2022 school year. The board meets for the first time this year Jan. 9-10.

Again, the options before the board seem simple, but discussions around the proposed takeover of Carver Heights have been complex and often contentious as the Goldsboro community vigorously pushed back against the takeover.

It took approval of a state technical corrections bill to move the process along to where district officials could resubmit its Restart Application for Carver Heights.

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. That requirement forced state board members, even those who were reluctant to do so, to approve the recommendation for the takeover last month.

Wayne County Superintendent Michael Dunsmore believes the board will approve the district’s application next week. He said the changes to the application requested by state officials have been made.

Dunsmore, who last month threatened to challenge state officials’ handling of the ISD selection process in court,  also noted that state board members were receptive to the idea of a “restart” when it met in December, another factor he contends weighs in Carver Heights’ favor.

“What we expect next week is that they approve our Restart Application and we move on,” Dunsmore said. “This should be a formality.”

Dunsmore said the “restart” at Carver Height is technically already underway. The district has hired a new principal, a former state Principal of the Year with a proven track record with turning around struggling schools.

Carver Heights will have a steep hill to climb if it is to remain off the state’s list for transfer to the ISD.

The school, where 90 percent of the students are black and 90 percent are considered economically disadvantaged, earned “F” scores in reading and math in 2016-2017 and did not meet expected growth goals.

Its performance on state tests during the 2017-2018 school year was the worst among the six schools considered for transfer to the ISD. Only 18.4 percent of students performed at or above grade level on end-of-grade tests.

A year from now, Dunsmore is certain that Carver Height students will show enough improvement on state tests to keep the school off of ISD takeover list.

“I’m very confident,” Dunsmore said, pointing to district success turning around Goldsboro High School. “We’ve proven that we can do it. I think the [state] board recognizes that.”

Education, News

State Supreme Court: Sound education a state responsibility

Last week, the State Supreme Court held in a precedent-setting decision that county boards of commissioners have no responsibility under the state constitution to ensure children in North Carolina have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education as spelled out in Leandro v. State, a landmark ruling that found the state needs to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Instead, the Court ruled that citizens must take up such grievances with the state, which has “ultimate responsibility” to “ameliorate the errors” of inequality in local districts.

Mark Dorosin

“The local elected officials who are charged by the legislature with a very clear list of educational responsibilities, funding and resources, there is no check on how they fulfill those obligations except by going to the state and asking the state to step in,” said Mark Dorosin, an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights who has served as lead counsel in the Silver case.

The Court’s decision, which upheld a state appeals court decision, stems from a 2015 lawsuit, Silver et al. v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, in which plaintiffs in Halifax County alleged that education funding and policy decisions of that board prevent children in the district from receiving a sound basic education.

More specifically, parents and community leaders charged that maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the eastern North Carolina county has created what is described as a system of haves and have-nots.

The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld the conclusion of the state Court of Appeals that only the state bears any constitutional obligations regarding education.

Here is what the court had to say:

[N]o express provision requires boards of county commissioners to provide for or preserve any rights relating to education. . . . Complications born of the incompetence or obstinance of a county board of county commissioners relating to the finances of local education are the “ultimate responsibility” of the State, which must step in and ameliorate the errors. . . . to the extent that a county, as an agency of the State, hinders the opportunity for children to receive a sound basic education, it is the State’s constitutional burden to take corrective action.

Dorosin said Thursday that he and his clients will soon discuss next steps.

“We’ll be meeting with the clients and asking if they want to restart this action but do it as the court has now instructed us and do it against the state,” Dorosin said. “That’s certainly an option.”

The plaintiffs in the Silver case include parents and guardians of five students, the Coalition for Education and Economic Security (CEES), a community advocacy organization and the Halifax branch of the NAACP.

In a statement, CEES and NACCP leaders in Halifax vowed to fight on, and open to pursuing a lawsuit against the state.

“Although we cannot understand how the court could hold that the constitution does not apply to county governments, we are undeterred in our fight for educational equity and quality in Halifax County,” said CEES Chairperson Rebecca Copeland.

And David Harvey, president of the Halifax County NAACP branch, said the court’s decision is disappointing and a big blow to years of effort to bring about change in the county.

“We will not give up,” Harvey said. “If our Supreme Court says we have to sue the state for the county’s failures, then that’s what we will do.”