After ten years and hundreds of millions in spending, why can’t Johnny read?

Published December 7, 2022

By Tom Campbell

Legislative leaders are baffled. We all should be. After pouring more than $200 million additional dollars into helping our children read at grade level, they (and we) want to know when we are going to see results. Just before Thanksgiving we learned that the 2021 test results showed only 47 percent of third-grade students were proficient in grade-level reading. End of grade tests further demonstrated that 53 percent of students in grades three through eight were “not proficient” in grade level reading.

Who is to blame? Is it the children, teachers, parents, educators, legislators or the public? The answer is YES. We all have a role to play in helping our children to read, but we are obviously failing. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sounded the alarm in 2012, correctly assessing that in the first three grades students learn to read. After that, they read to learn. If they can’t read, they can’t learn. Berger led the “Read to Achieve” initiative a decade ago, and since that time North Carolina has implemented several new or revised initiatives when results didn’t improve.

Out latest reading program comes from Mississippi. We’ve always thanked God for Mississippi, since they traditionally kept North Carolina out of being last place among the states in education achievement. But the Magnolia State implemented a program named LETRS, an acronym standing for “Language essentials for teachers of reading and spelling.” Desperate for anything that would work, our state subscribed. Forgive me, but a closer examination of their reading proficiency scores shows they aren’t dramatically better than ours. Their “science of reading training” requires our 44,000 elementary teachers to undergo 160 hours of training.

It’s time to call baloney on reading training being a “science.” It’s a discipline, but science requires experimentation. We don’t need to experiment. We know the fundamentals, like blocking and tackling in football. When I was coming along in the 1950s, we knew what needed to be done. It worked then and will now if we stick to the fundamentals. Perhaps some of you can remember the “Fun with Dick and Jane” reading series.