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Report shows literacy instruction deficiencies in UNC System teacher prep programs

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 32% of North Carolina fourth-graders tested as proficient or above at reading. NAEP graphic The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 32% of North Carolina fourth-graders tested as proficient or above at reading. NAEP graphic

North Carolina fourth graders are testing proficient in reading at the lowest level since 2009, and the University of North Carolina Board of Governors is concerned that its schools aren’t equipping future K-12 teachers to reverse that trend.

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures fourth and eighth-graders’ proficiency in math, science and reading, found that only 32.3% of North Carolina fourth-graders were proficient or above in reading. That’s right on par with the national average for 2022 but represents a backward slide in the progress North Carolina had been making since 2007, when only 29.1% of fourth graders tested proficient. 

“We don’t control many parts of this equation,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randall Ramsey said during a Jan. 19 meeting. “The seeds of students’ achievement are sown in early life, starting with engaged parents. And we don’t control K-12 funding or curriculum. But as a university system, we do control what teachers in training learn in our universities.”

‘On the same road’

For the last several years, the UNC System has placed heavy focus on understanding and improving how it teaches literacy instruction to prospective K-12 teachers at its 15 institutions with education programs. 

The N.C. Literacy Task Force, which the N.C. State Board of Education announced in September 2019, laid much of the groundwork. That group, of which Western Carolina University’s Dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions Kim Winter, was a member, was charged with developing a report to include recommended changes to educator preparation and licensure to improve K-3 reading instruction. 

“We were all going in the same direction toward some common goals, but we were on different roads,” Winter said. “So it’s this idea of the last five years, six years of figuring out how we can come together and be on the same road together.”

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In 2020, Winter coauthored a resolution later passed by the UNC Board of Governors that tasked the UNC System with developing a framework for literacy instruction. The board adopted the 115-page Science of Reading framework in 2021, and that same year the Excellent Public Schools Act added a statutory mandate that institutions adopt and implement the program. 

“If you were to think about it in simple terms, it really is this idea of using the evidence that we have from the research base that’s been going on for decades, and continues to evolve, to make sure those are the practices that we’re teaching our teachers,” said Kelly Tracy,  Ph.D., who is director of WCU’s School of Teaching and Learning. 

That’s a simple idea in theory, but it’s complex in practice. These requirements are aimed at students who are already learning the multitudes of general education practices and teaching techniques they’ll need to succeed as elementary or special education teachers — not reading specialists.  

“There’s a lot of cognitive load sitting on our students,” Tracy said. “We’re really trying to make sure developmentally, we’re building a progression to help them understand so that they’re at a very solid spot when they head into their first year of teaching.”

‘Not enough’

Now that the UNC System is two years into the new framework — and the mandate to teach it — it has commissioned a study to evaluate how well its 15 institutions with teacher prep programs are implementing these research-based literacy instruction principles. The Board of Governors discussed the results of the study during its Jan. 19 meeting, and it’s safe to say they were not happy with the results. 

“I sure hope that we keep our nose to the grindstone, and we see that the people of North Carolina get their money’s worth for all that they have paid and the little they have gotten,” Board of Governors member Thomas Goolsby said. “This is embarrassing for the Board of Governors. This is embarrassing for the university system and for the state of North Carolina.”

Reviewers for the study, conducted by Teacher Prep Inspection-US, looked for Science of Reading concept evidence and rated the accuracy and quality of these concepts in all 73 courses it reviewed across the 15 UNC institutions. Reviewers looked at course syllabi and schedules, assignments, assessments, video observations of course instructions and interviews with instructors. 

Only one of the 15 programs scored as having strong implementation of Science of Reading, with five more rated as “good.” That left nearly two-thirds of the programs in need of significant improvements. TPI-US rated eight institutions as “needs improvement” and one as “inadequate.”

“Today’s numbers and results should stir up anger and embarrassment for us all,” said Vice Chair Wendy Murphy. “It is not my nature to shame, but one college of education out of 15 being strong is not enough. Good is not good enough, and needs improvement and inadequate are unacceptable for the crown jewel of this great state. I can think of no other task or topic that will come before us more important than the work being done to train and produce effective teachers, who in turn produce future leaders of this great state.”

The only institution that TPI-US rated as “strong” in Science of Learning instruction was UNC Charlotte, while Fayetteville State, N.C. A&T, N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Wilmington all received “good” ratings. WCU was among the majority of institutions that received a “needs improvement” rating. 

Tracy said her program is trying to approach this disappointing outcome “from a perspective of improvement.”

“I feel proud of so much of the work that we do, and I know how hard we’re working and what we really want our candidates to know, but I also know we can always get better,” she said. 

So far, she said, WCU has received only a generic report listing its program’s strengths and weaknesses, but not an actual rubric showing how it ended up with the score it did. Leaders of WCU’s education program will soon meet with the reviewers at TPI-US to gain more insight into the deficiencies they perceived in WCU’s program. 

“I think that will be really valuable for us,” Winter said. “We have this big set of things that were highlighted as here are all of these specific things, with examples in our report, that we’re doing very well, that were highly rated, and then really it boils down to these two things that we’re continually working on, but we just sort of see them as broad commentary.”

Winters provided excerpts from the report showing 15 bullet points of program strengths but only two areas for improvement. The reviewers said WCU’s program does not adequately assess the ability of teachers in training to administer and score assessments for all oral literacy skills, and that it should better provide a spiraling framework across courses in which instructors introduce and revisit multiple research-based reading models for all literacy skills. Winters said those are both complex and difficult issues to tackle, and that WCU has already been working to improve in those areas. 

“I would argue it’s likely everyone needs to be working on these two things, because there they really are big ones,” Winter said. 

Tracy said the review itself was an intensive process, requiring professors to provide videos, interviews and a slew of course materials. WCU turned over everything the reviewers asked for, Tracy said, but that was not the case at all UNC institutions. While most program leaders provided “vital assistance” to reviewers, the report said, some program leaders and faculty offered “minimal cooperation.” This included faculty members declining to provide course session videos or interviews and program or institutional leaders withholding course materials or access to faculty. 

“I’m sure that’s upsetting from a Board of Governors’ perspective what’s happening, but all we know is what we did, which was laid ourselves bare,” said Tracy. 

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The review by TPI-US concluded that only one of the UNC System’s 15 teacher prep programs were “strong” in implementing the Science of Learning framework. UNC graphic

Lessons learned 

WCU has already started incorporating lessons learned from the report. The day after she received the document, Tracy said, she revised what she was doing that year. 

“I just believe in the work that we do and want people to understand that we are really working hard to make sure our kids are good readers, and we just really care deeply about this work,” she said. 

Additionally, the Goodnight Foundation is working with a set of universities across the state to fund endowments for distinguished professorships in early literacy. These eight professors will create a network of early literacy expertise charged with advancing UNC literacy preparation programs across all 15 schools. WCU and N.C. State are the only two institutions where that effort has come to fruition thus far. At WCU, $1.5 million from the Goodnight Foundation and $1 million in matching funds from the UNC System created a $2.5 million endowment. WCU is actively searching for a faculty member to fill the seat. Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said WCU is “extremely grateful” for the opportunity. 

“The ability to read and write is the cornerstone of success not only for students in the classroom, but also for productive and engaged members of society,” she said in a press release announcing the endowment. “This is why Western Carolina University was founded nearly 135 years ago — to provide educational opportunities to the people of the western mountains of North Carolina. Teaching and learning are embedded deeply in this institution’s DNA, and through donations like the one from the Goodnight Foundation we are able to further our opportunities in these areas.”

Across the road from WCU’s main campus, the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, which has a focus on literacy, welcomes teachers from across the state for intensive professional development. 

“We’ve already started brainstorming ways that this professor can be involved in the work that they do,” Winter said. 

Thus far, the UNC System’s efforts have focused on K-3 instruction, but Winter said future efforts should also consider birth to kindergarten as well as middle school. 

“About 33% of our sixth graders come to us in middle school not literate, and so we’re talking about teaching reading across that gigantic span,” she said. 

In the meantime, the Board of Governors is looking for immediate action from programs that fell short in the TPI-US review. In January, the board unanimously approved a resolution requiring elementary and special education teaching programs to address areas in need of improvement and present evidence to UNC System President Peter Hans by July 1 of the actions they’ve taken to do so. If a program doesn’t present sufficient evidence by that date, its chancellor, dean and provost will be required to present to the Board of Governors Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs. The committee, in consultation with Hans, will then decide “what remedies are appropriate to ensure compliance.”

Success is vital, because reading is vital. Literacy is the foundation of success, for individuals and for entire societies. From the furthest-flung faculty office to the Board of Governors boardroom, everyone agrees on that — and on the frustration of seeing how little forward progress has been made in the last few decades. If two-thirds of kids aren’t learning to read fluently, what does that mean for them as adults? 

“If you’re looking historically at how did you oppress people, you withheld literacy, because literacy empowers you,” said Tracy. “So how do we make sure all of our students in our state are empowered?” 

By the numbers

• 32.3% of North Carolina fourth graders tested proficient or above

• Since 1992, the lowest percent proficient was 24.7% in 1992 and the highest 38.5% in 2017.

• North Carolina’s 2022 score was on par with the national average — eight states scored higher, seven scored lower, and the rest scored about the same. 

• Only 17% of Black students scored proficient or above, compared to 56% of Asian students, 44% of White students and 21% of Hispanic students.

• Of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, only 17% scored proficient or above compared to 41% of those who do not qualify for the program. 

• Proficiency among female students was 3 percentage points higher than among male students, at 34%. 

Source: 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress data

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