JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Science of reading bears fruit

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, June 13, 2024

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RALEIGH — Over the past two years, North Carolina had made critical investments in the future of our state.

John Hood

No, I’m not talking about highway projects, or university R&D, or the private investment in new companies, locations, and workers facilitated by the legislature’s pro-growth tax and regulatory reforms. These are, indeed, valuable instances of capital formation — of physical, intellectual, and human capital — but today I refer to a different piece of legislation.

In April 2021, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the Excellent Public Schools Act. Gov. Roy Cooper signed it. Among other things, the bill requires that literacy instruction in the state’s public schools be based on the science of reading, a term of art that describes a research-based consensus in favor of “phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language and comprehension.”

After decades of “reading wars” between competing camps of educators, researchers and policymakers, those advocating phonics as an indispensable tool for decoding words prevailed in both scholarly debate and practical results. When the state of Mississippi rewrote its instructional approach to emphasize the science of reading, for example, its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress dramatically improved — and not just in reading.

According to the most-recent Urban Institute analysis of NAEP scores, Mississippi fourth-graders ranked second only to Florida in average reading scores adjusted for student background (which is the proper way to assess the value added by schooling). The year Mississippi passed its science-of-reading bill, it ranked 40th in the subject.

During this same period, Mississippi also rocketed to third in math scores, behind Florida and Texas. After all, learning how to read proficiently opens the door to learning other subjects.
North Carolina’s reading instruction was never as bad as Mississippi’s. Indeed, as I’ve often pointed out, our public schools have ranked high in value-added performance for many years (our fourth-graders rank sixth in reading and seventh in math, according to the Urban Institute analysis).
Nevertheless, our students have much to gain from the 2021 reforms. So far, we appear to be implementing them effectively. EdNC’s Hannah Vinueza McClellan reported last week that some 44,000 elementary-school teachers have been trained in North Carolina’s LETRS program (which stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling).

“We know how critical literacy is to student success,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, “and I’m thankful for the passion and commitment of North Carolina educators to help our students achieve their goals.”

Early evidence suggests the new approach may be bearing fruit. From 2022 to 2024, there was a marked decline in the number of students rated below the state’s benchmark for reading fluency, accuracy, and comprehension. Minority students made especially strong gains.

It’s far too early to declare victory, of course, but it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how this promising change in policy came about.

Nationally and within our state, education researchers and policy analysts across the spectrum were willing to follow the evidence on reading instruction wherever it led, even if it challenged their preconceived notions. Republican and Democratic lawmakers did the same — the Excellent Public Schools Act passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 113-5 margin in the House — and appropriated $114 million to train teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators in the LETRS program.

North Carolina’s turn to the science of reading occurred within a national context. We were willing to learn from the practical experience of Mississippi and other jurisdictions. Our legislation has, in turn, become a model for other legislatures to follow. That’s how public policy is supposed to happen.

And just to finish the thought: as promising as our initial experience seem to be, there are no guarantees. We may find that the early improvements in reading performance don’t persist into later grades. We may discover flaws in the LETRS training that require administrative or legislative tweaks.
Public policy is, itself, a learning process. Let’s all strive for fluency and comprehension.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.