North Carolina recently joined a group of states that have mandated a sweeping overhaul to how schools teach beginning readers, joining a national movement of education systems attempting to bring teaching in line with an approach that is now known as the “science of reading.”
But for some, the Tar Heel state’s experiment feels like déjà vu. Almost a decade ago, the state passed another reading bill that was supposed to boost student achievement in the same way. It didn’t.
This time, state officials and advocates for the proposed changes say the legislation, passed in 2021, provides the support, training, and guidance for schools and teachers that the earlier law lacked. Instead of just mandating that all students be “proficient” readers by the end of 3rd grade, the law attempts to give schools a roadmap and tools for how to get there.
“The accountability with state testing has always been there in looking at literacy, but the professional development and the resources were never part of that law,” said Andrew Houlihan, the superintendent of Union County public schools in Monroe, N.C. Adding those components was “a huge move in the right direction,” he said.
North Carolina’s second attempt to legislate these changes gets at the heart of a key instructional challenge for shifting teaching practices across thousands of classrooms: What’s the right level of state involvement? And who gets the final say in what happens in the classroom?
Its new approach is banking on intensive PD and support as the right recipe, both for practicing teachers and new ones—but the results will take time to test.
Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach
The 2012 law, called Read to Achieve, established a retention policy for 3rd graders who were not yet proficient in reading. It created optional summer programs for these students and required supplemental tutoring and intervention in the 4th grade year for students who were still behind after the summer program.
A 2018 evaluation of Read to Achieve from researchers at North Carolina State University found 3rd and 4th grade reading scores remained stagnant five years after the program’s initial implementation. They recommended strengthening early literacy instruction and intervention before 3rd grade.
Read to Achieve was a “reactive” approach, said Amy Rhyne, the director of early learning at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. It instituted a response for failure without providing a roadmap to success.
“Before, the answer was tutoring for kids who were struggling, and reading camps for students who are struggling,” Rhyne said. “It’s too late if you wait until the end of 3rd grade.”
In their report, the NC State researchers also noted that the kind of interventions districts were doing varied statewide. That flexibility meant that summer camps were often using curriculum that wasn’t effective for supporting struggling readers, said Virginia Sharpless, co-founder of Literacy Moms NC, a dyslexia advocacy group that helped shape the new law.
I thought, ‘This has got to change.’ It was glaring in my face, what was wrong.
The 2021 legislation attempts to address these problems. Districts still have the freedom to choose the materials that they use during the school year and in summer reading programs, but there’s a stricter process for demonstrating that curricula and resources support evidence-based practices.
The law also puts in place intensive training for K-5 teachers and some other educators, requires schools to develop intervention protocols, and mandates teacher preparation programs to teach future teachers how to use evidence-based approaches.
With these requirements, the state is hoping that districts will shift their practices to align with the “science of reading.”
Science of reading advocates support explicit, systematic instruction in the foundational skills that form the building blocks of reading ability—how to link sounds to letters to read words. Decades of research have shown that this kind of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction is the most effective way to help children learn how to lift the print from the page.
In a science of reading framework, teachers help students develop their word-reading abilities and their understanding of language, content, and text structures separately at first. Quickly, though, these decoding skills and language abilities weave together like strands in a rope, allowing students to read increasingly complex texts.
This is a different approach from how most teachers in the United States—including North Carolina—have been trained to teach reading. Instead, most U.S. teachers say they practice balanced literacy, a wide range of strategies that vary based on the teacher.
One of the goals of balanced literacy is to get students reading books and let them choose their own materials right away, even if they can’t read all of the words. Teachers coach beginning readers to rely on multiple sources of information, like pictures and story context, to guess at what words might be. Students get some instruction in how to decode words, but it may not be systematic.
‘This has got to change’
Even considering the popularity of balanced literacy, it would be wrong to say that no one in North Carolina was following the “science of reading” before the 2021 law took effect.
In fact, the state had developed its own training almost 20 years earlier, called Reading Research to Classroom Practice, geared toward supporting students with reading difficulties. It’s been accredited by the International Dyslexia Association. Despite this, literacy leaders in the state say that the state is a patchwork: There are pockets of best practices, but there’s no one overarching approach.
This kind of variation in teaching methods and materials is a hallmark of reading instruction in the United States. Most states and districts—and many individual teachers—make their own decisions about what instructional approaches and materials to use. Often, this means they’re drawing from balanced literacy methodologies, even if they’ve also received training or resources more aligned to the science of reading.
This was what Tara Galloway, then the state education department’s director of K-3 literacy, saw when she visited classrooms across North Carolina in late 2018.
Galloway visited classrooms where teachers encouraged students to skip over difficult words or use picture clues, rather than attend to the letters in words. She saw a direct line between North Carolina’s stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the way that schools were teaching foundational reading skills.
“I thought, ‘This has got to change.’ It was glaring in my face, what was wrong,” she said.
Under her leadership, the state identified action steps to take on early reading instruction, began working on a new statewide literacy plan, and approved a new definition of high-quality reading instruction. At the same time, some leaders in North Carolina’s educator preparation programs were also starting to shift.
A 2018 report commissioned by the University of North Carolina system recommended “foundational shifts” to how these schools taught future teachers to teach reading, including increased use of evidence-based strategies and more intensive student teaching experiences.
In February 2021, a few months before the new law passed, the UNC system released a new literacy framework and called on educator preparation programs to integrate it into their coursework for elementary general education and special education teachers.
Advocates support the Mississippi model
While the department and the state university system took on these initiatives, they were also facing outside pressure.
Literacy Moms NC, the dyslexia advocacy group, launched a complaint campaign against the department of public instruction in fall of 2019. They alleged that the department hadn’t done enough to identify and serve students with reading disabilities, violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
A year later, the department found itself out of compliance, requiring changes to its process for identifying students with disabilities.
Literacy Moms NC pushed the state to look at its southern neighbor: Mississippi. Starting in 2013, that state passed a series of laws that made sweeping changes to how schools taught reading. In the years since, its reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have jumped up from near the bottom of the pack to meet the national average, leading to it become something of a northern star for advocates and legislators in the science of reading movement.
North Carolina’s state board of education heard presentations touting Mississippi’s model throughout 2019 and 2020, and the architects of Mississippi’s plan met with state education officials and legislators. The state’s new superintendent of public instruction, Catherine Truitt, publicly supported science of reading initiatives. Truitt, a Republican, was elected in 2019—with support from Literacy Moms NC.
“I’m a bleeding-heart liberal,” said Sharpless, one of Literacy Moms NC’s co-founders. But in the case of the state superintendent, she’s also a single-issue voter.
“When you go and talk about literacy and say, ‘The schools are failing,’ usually Democrats don’t say things like that,” Sharpless said.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, also a Republican, first introduced the reading bill in the 2019 session. It passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who said that the legislation put a “Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed,” referencing the 2012 law.
The 2021 version of the bill received more bipartisan support—it passed unanimously in the Senate and on a 113-5 vote in the House. Cooper signed it into law in April 2021.
Change takes ‘time and energy’
The new law elicited mixed reactions. Some feared a return to “drill and kill” instruction, a mandate they felt would force teachers to focus on basic skills to the exclusion of everything else. Even some educators who supported the law’s intent were wary.
Several reading experts in North Carolina have questioned whether every teacher needed extensive two-year training. The course, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, is intensive and expensive.
“We have thousands of teachers who have already been trained in Reading Research to Classroom Practice,” said Rebecca Felton, a reading researcher who worked with the state to develop the training. She favored a more targeted approach—identifying where teachers already had this knowledge, where teachers needed some extra support, and in what circumstances LETRS might be a better option than the more condensed Reading Research to Classroom Practice.
Among the remaining questions is whether new teachers will get the support and training that the state’s current teaching force is receiving via LETRS.
Eventually, the goal is that all teachers will be learning this common language before they ever step foot into a classroom, said Monica Campbell, a professor of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. She is a co-chair of the task force that’s providing LETRS training for faculty members at independent colleges and universities, among other supports.
Some doubt the depth of higher education institutions’ commitment. Universities aren’t structured the same way as school systems, and strict mandates about course content will run afoul of academic freedom protections, Felton pointed out. “Professors are basically given carte blanche,” she said.
Campbell is more optimistic, calling North Carolina’s commitment to change in higher education “the most encouraging thing I’ve ever seen.” But she’s also realistic about how time-intensive it will be to make these changes.
“The main concern is being able to complete the professional development in the amount of time that we have, and to really be able to take it in and think about it and talk about it, and process it,” she said. “Program redesign is never simple. These things take a lot of time and energy.”