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Two-thirds of North Carolina eighth-graders can’t read proficiently. Teacher prep programs don’t make the grade.

A North Carolina law mandates teaching phonics, but most educator prep programs scored poorly in recent review

Only one of 30 reviewed University of North Carolina educator preparation programs excels in teaching research-based reading instruction methods, according to a third-party review.

TPI-USA, an independent organization that inspects teacher education programs, was commissioned by the North Carolina state legislature to evaluate how well the programs were preparing future teachers in the “science of reading” as mandated by a 2021 law, The James G. Martin center reported today.

Elementary educator preparation programs for general curriculum teachers must include “instruction in the teaching of reading, including a substantive understanding of reading as a process involving oral language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension,” according to the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021,” the law which also mandated the review.

In other words, the law requires teachers to teach kids phonics. However, the programs the independent reviewer surveyed hardly made the grade.

“As charged by the legislature, TPI-US reviewed 30 programs across North Carolina, 15 of which were UNC-System schools,” according to The James C. Martin Center. “Of the 15 UNC schools, one [UNC Charlotte] was rated ‘strong,’ five were rated ‘good,’ eight were rated ‘needs improvement,’ and one was rated ‘inadequate.'”

The list of nine schools that scored poorly “includes some of the largest providers of education preparation in the state,” UNC-System President Peter Hans said at a Jan. 18 UNC educational planning committee meeting. “We simply must do better. We must do better immediately.”

Only 36 percent of fourth-graders in North Carolina and just 33 precent of eighth graders can read at a “proficient or better” level, according to a 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress report, the meeting minutes stated. Thirty-three percent of fourth-graders rank in “below basic” for reading, according to the NAEP report.

Even more, only 14 percent of black eighth graders in North Carolina can read proficiently.

A North Carolina education report from five years ago found a wide range of course and instructional quality and made it clear that many teachers were not adequately teaching reading through phonics.

“It is not clear that all instructors thoroughly address the five essential components of reading instruction, particularly phonological and phonemic awareness; word analysis, decoding, phonics, and morphology; how to effectively teach and assess vocabulary development; and how to teach comprehension strategies that help students identify and solve comprehension problems,” according to the authors of the 2018 report, “Leading on Literacy: Challenges and Opportunities in Teacher Preparation Across the University of North Carolina System.”

A National Reading Panel convened by Congress that included school administrators, teachers and scientists identified the strongest approach to reading instruction as one including “explicit instruction in phonemic awareness” and “systematic phonics instruction,” according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website.

The panel reviewed for its analysis more than 100,000 reading studies published since 1966. It submitted its final reports in 2000 and has not been reconvened.

Highly influential Columbia education Professor Lucy Collins made the landmark decision in 2022 to “rewrite her signature curriculum with a greater emphasis on elements neglected by the educational mainstream — especially daily phonics lessons,” The College Fix reported.

For decades she had championed an alternative approach, “balanced literacy,” which encouraged new readers to focus on the story and “word-guessing” with cues such as pictures, and to choose books based on interest and enjoyment, The New York Times reported in a May 2022 article on Collin’s reversal.

Calkins’s former teaching philosophy, which deemphasized phonics instruction and encouraged children to focus on books of their own choosing, was a “romanticized vision for education,” according to an article that month in National Review.

But faced with mounting evidence that phonics works best, Calkins “made a major retreat,” according to The Times.

“More than a dozen states” have passed laws pushing phonics, The Times reported. That includes North Carolina with its 2021 “Excellent Public Schools Act.”

For some North Carolina teachers, however, it seems old habits die hard.

“Resistance to change by the schools of education is likely another contributing factor,” to the educational prep program’s failure, The James C. Martin Center stated. “If faculty were trained to teach reading in a different way than what’s laid out in UNC’s framework, they may be unwilling to adopt new methods.”

“It might also be the case that they are used to acting independently and do not like being dictated to by the System office.”

MORE: As publisher edits out DEI from new phonics curriculum to appease red states, scholars object

IMAGE: Merrimack College/Flickr

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