Or, if you don’t teach phonics and phonological awareness, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend
The Charlotte Observer is reporting on a bill to improve reading instruction in North Carolina after a $150 million program to improve reading failed to improve test scores. This immediately reminded me of House Bill 272, which was floated during the 2019 regular session of the Kentucky Legislature to push more scientific information on how to teach reading into our Ed schools. Sadly, Kentucky’s bill died in committee, and that might be really unfortunate for our kids, because it looks like we do even worse with reading instruction than they do in the Tarheel State. And, research from North Carolina points to what is happening.
North Carolina has some pretty compelling research about what is, and is not, happening in its schools of education regarding the way teacher candidates are being taught to instruct reading. The report, titled “Leading on Literacy: Challenges and Opportunities in Teacher Preparation Across the University of North Carolina System,” is quite a read. Some of the findings from the reviews of syllabi in North Carolina’s education schools make it pretty clear why their $150 million went down the drain with no discernable reading improvement. Here are some key findings found on Page 22 of the report:
i) Most programs teach a “balanced reading” approach to literacy instruction, although exactly how that is defined or enacted is not clear. It is also not clear if all instructors understand the concerns about this approach and that many of the practices that are taught are not, in fact, based on rigorous evidence.
Balanced Literacy, as it is usually called, is basically just a repackaging of the Whole Language reading fad with a bit of ineffectively taught phonics and phonological awareness thrown in to make it appear to be what it is not.
j) 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.
The five essential components of reading instruction were well researched in the National Reading Panel Report in 2000.
This finding basically says North Carolina’s Ed schools simply are not teaching what is needed.
k) Instructional strategies based on research were mentioned in a cursory way, if at all, on most syllabi. However, explicit instruction with modeling, Systematic instruction with scaffolding, multiple opportunities for students to practice, corrective and reinforcing feedback, and how to monitor ongoing student progress were mentioned in very few courses, and those courses tended to be taught in the special education program. It is also not clear if instructors modeled these practices in the classroom and that candidates had opportunities to practice these important instructional skills.
This is pretty simple, really. If you don’t pay attention to the research, you won’t do what works.
And, that is how North Carolina basically threw $150 million down the toilet.
I am not aware of anything approaching the study in North Carolina that has been done with Kentucky’s education schools. However, given our even more miserable Grade 4 reading performance on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (see table below), I suspect a similar study done in the Bluegrass State’s Ed schools would show exactly what was found in Tarheel country.
Also, given the sad fact that HB-272 didn’t go anywhere, whatever they are going to try next in North Carolina will probably put that state ahead of Kentucky, which currently isn’t set to try anything different.
If Kentucky were already beyond the “Balanced Literacy” masquerade, passing HB-272 would not have been a problem. The fact that HB-272 got killed looks like more evidence that North Carolina isn’t the only state tossing lots of dollars in the wrong direction when it comes to reading instruction. The difference is that Kentucky seems intent on tossing still more money in a direction that isn’t working for kids.