Reading 101

Published August 29, 2019

By Tom Campbell

Nothing is more important in education than children learning to read. It is the foundation upon which all learning is built, however North Carolina’s success rate in helping children master reading proficiency isn’t stellar. 

In 2012, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger recognized the deficiency by stating what we all know, namely that in the first three grades we teach children to read and after that they read to learn. He spearheaded the “Read to Achieve” legislation, patterned after successful programs in Florida, Mississippi and other states. One common thread was that children couldn’t be passed from one grade to the next if they could not read at grade level.

Six years and $150 million in expenditures later, The Friday Institute at NC State analyzed the results of “Read to Achieve” and said no gains were attributed to the program and, in the case of third graders, proficiency actually declined slightly. Only 52 percent of first-graders, 56 percent of second graders and about that same percentage of third graders could read at grade level. We can make excuses for why this or that student or even why this or that school wasn’t proficient, but the bottom line is these results are unacceptable. 

Recognizing that Read to Achieve didn’t live up to expectations, the legislature took another stab at improving results with SB 438. It would require individual reading plans for students not at grade level, develop a digital children’s reading initiative so parents could find resources online to help their students and would further expand the Wolfpack Works program that focused on helping first and second year teachers in selected high-need districts with literacy-specific support. 

Governor Cooper vetoed the legislation, saying we’ve already spent too much money on a program that doesn’t work. Berger and legislative leaders fired back that one of Cooper’s appointees to the State Board of Education helped write SB 438 and the veto was politically inspired. Making matters worse, we can’t agree about which reading assessment program will be used to measure end-of-course reading achievement.  

North Carolina can do better than this. Let’s stop playing politics with our children’s education and cut out the turf battles, lame excuses and poor outcomes. We also shouldn’t be squabbling over budgets. What is needed is an immediate declaration of war on unacceptable reading proficiency, accompanied by a D-day type attack, an all hands-on deck assault with everyone working together to get all our children’s reading up to grade level by the end of third grade. 

The child who cannot read at grade level doesn’t care what political party you belong to, who is to blame, who gets credit for results, or even which assessment tool you use. Their future success in school depends on being able to read and it is unacceptable to wait another two or three years to get this right. If we don’t have the people who can get this done, let’s go find them and bring them on board. This is one war we need to win and win immediately.

Let’s stop acting like children and help our children learn to read. Little else matters until they can.