Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

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Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”

Sen. Tillis to undergo surgery for prostate cancer

Senator Thom Tillis revealed Monday that he will undergo surgery next week following a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

North Carolina’s junior senator says the cancer was detected early and he expects to make a full recovery.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in American men with about 248,530 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The 60-year-old Republican notes that he was ‘blessed’ to have had the cancer show up in a routine screening.

Annual physical exams are just one of the preventive benefits covered under the Affordable Care Act.

Read Senator Tillis’ full statement on his health below:

Equity task force hears from “the father of environmental justice”

Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” reinforced the interconnectedness of transportation, segregated housing, climate change, and pollution on the health and economic well-being of Black Americans in a meeting with a state task force this week.

Gov. Roy Cooper started the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force last year. He told members this week that some of the policy recommendations they delivered in December would be reflected into his state budget proposal.

Bullard, the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, is the author of 18 books including Dumping on Dixie. First published in 1990, Dumping on Dixie discusses the importance of the national protest in the 1980s against dumping in Warren County  soil contaminated with toxic PCBs  to the environmental justice movement.

Black Americans and Latinos are less likely to live in a household with a car, which impacts employment, evacuation in a disaster, and the ability to get to a grocery store, Bullard told the task force.

“Not having a car can mean lack of access and mobility,” he said.

Transit system cuts have a disproportionate impact on Black Americans and Latinos.

“If you don’t have transportation, you are subject to a higher unemployment rate,” he said.

Black Americans are more likely to live in urban “heat islands” and breathe polluted air, Bullard said. Studies link air pollution with higher death rates from COVID-19.

“Zip code is still the best indicator of health and well-being,” he said.

In the transition to a clean energy economy, it is important to look for business opportunities for “those who have historically been left behind,” he said.

Historically black colleges and universities should have business incubators, Bullard said, and students should be trained for jobs in the changing economy.

“Understand, we have to get it right,” Bullard said. “We’re not going to have a lot of chances to fix it along the way. We have to get it right, right out of the chute.”

RTI  International has been hired to develop an implementation plan for the task force proposals.

Impeachment clouds final week of Trump presidency, divides NC delegation

The final full week of the Trump presidency comes with the U.S. House advancing plans that could impeach President Trump following last week’s deadly assault on the Capitol.

House members will start with a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment. If Pence and the Cabinet fail to act, the House will vote on impeachment as early as Tuesday.

Congresswoman Kathy Manning (NC-06) of Greensboro shared her account of the attack on the platform Medium:

…there was noise from outside and Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer and Majority Whip Clyburn were rushed out of the House Chamber by security. The Chamber doors were locked and Capitol Police shouted that the Capitol had been breached and there was tear gas being released in the rotunda. They shouted to take out the gas masks that were in cases under our chairs. We struggled to open the packages and tried to figure out how to use the masks and whether to put them on. I heard a hum as many masks were activated. We were told to stay seated and be ready to take cover.

All at once the Capitol Police told the members on the House floor to evacuate the Chamber quickly. I watched as people rushed to the exits on the far side of the Chamber, some carrying their masks, others wearing them, as the police shouted to breath normally when we put the masks on so we wouldn’t hyperventilate.

In the gallery, the doors remained locked and we stayed in our seats, watching the people on the House floor below evacuate. There we were, probably 40 of us in the gallery, with Capitol Police, waiting, listening, occasionally hearing pounding on the outside of the doors. The police were shouting to each other and into their radios, trying to discern what was happening. One member showed me an article on her phone with pictures of the rioters who had breached the Capitol. The police told us to be ready to take cover behind our chairs because the marauders had guns. More pounding on the outside of the doors, followed by silence and waiting. Finally, the police told us to evacuate by running through the gallery to the other side, and take our gas masks. So we moved, stepping over discarded gas mask cases, ducking under handrails and trying to stay low.

There was no panic — people helped each other and made sure no one was left behind. As we reached the far side of the gallery we were told to stop, duck down on the floor and take cover. And we did — crouching on the floor behind the gallery knee wall, which seemed like the safest place because of the marble façade. Then we were told to take our pins off so no one could identify which of us were members in case the doors were breached. We all stayed in place on the floor, silent, for what seemed like 15 minutes.

I watched the Capitol Police with their guns drawn, standing at the doors, deciding whether it was safe to evacuate. Suddenly they opened to doors and told us to move quickly down the many flights of stairs to the basement of the building. Down we ran.

We made it to the basement, then were directed to a large room where we were to wait till the Capitol was secured.

We waited for hours. Finally, Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer came into the room. They spoke eloquently about the gravity of what had occurred and announced that as soon as the Capitol was secured, we would return to the House Chamber and resume our work. We would not let the incitement of a violent mob by an irresponsible and unhinged president prevent us from performing our Constitutional duty to certify the free and fair election of Joe Biden.

Many questions remain about the security preparations made before, and treatment of rioters by law enforcement during, the insurrection. But thanks to the work of the Capitol Police, the Capitol was secured. Late in the night, I returned to the House floor to perform my Constitutional duty on behalf of the people who sent me to Washington. I was honored to cast my vote to continue our remarkable Democracy.

Manning is among a growing members in Congress who believe Trump’s remarks leading up to the riot and his  response afterwards makes him unfit to hold office.

Rep. Greg Murphy (NC-03) has vowed to oppose any effort to remove Trump from office before January 20th:

Cooper extends statewide curfew and urges people to stay home as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens

As North Carolina hospital beds fill and spread of the coronavirus gets worse, Gov. Roy Cooper extended the statewide curfew and told residents they should stay at home when possible.

State leaders are trying to contain a virus that is sweeping through the state – with critical community spread in nearly every county – and direct the logistics of COVID-19 vaccinations.

The 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that started Dec. 11 and was set to end this Friday is extended another three weeks, Cooper said at a news conference Wednesday.  The statewide mask mandate remains in place.

A secretarial directive from Dr. Mandy Cohen at the state Department of Health and Human Services recommends more stringent actions:

  • Leave home only for work, school, for health care, or to buy food.
  • People over 65 or who are at high risk of developing severe illness should avoid leaving home at all and should have groceries delivered if possible.
  • Public spaces where people are not wearing masks should be avoided.
  • Stay away from crowds.

“This is the most worried I’ve been in this pandemic,” Cohen said.

On Tuesday, Cooper said he had mobilized the National Guard to help distribute the vaccine.

At the Wednesday news conference, National Guard Major General Todd Hunt said the Guard will be working in teams of six, and each will include two people who can give shots. “The rest are logistical support,” he said. “They can ramp up or down. They can go anywhere in the state based on the state’s needs.”

Everyone is working hard to ramp up, Cohen said. Some local health departments need people to give the shots, enter data, answer phones, or help with IT, she said.

“Everyone shares that sense of urgency. We want to make sure we can get vaccines to folks as quickly as possible. ‘’

Vaccines are still in limited supply, Cohen said. Beyond hospitals and local health departments, the state will look to federally qualified heath centers to start giving shots.

The vaccine rollout has been slow nationwide.

In a separate Q&A session with reporters Wednesday,  Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and a former FDA commissioner, said he would like to see the National Guard focus on getting vaccines to high risk groups that are hard to reach.

“A lot of governors have started calling on National Guard assistance to help with this last-mile problem,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who want to get the vaccine now, who will stand in a line or call repeatedly until they get through,” McClellan said. “I’m also worried about reaching front-line workers who may not have the time, bringing the vaccines to them.”

Plans for vaccinating more people should include pharmacies, medical practices and other community sites beyond hospitals, McClellan said.

The most recent federal COVID relief bill includes about $8 billion to help states with vaccine distribution.

The money should be used to help states ramp up use of the National Guard and on targeted efforts to get vaccines to high-risk populations, he said.