Two years ago, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the Excellent Public Schools Act, which (in addition to slashing the number of slots in our states prekindergarten program and eliminating teacher tenure) enacted a new program called Read to Achieve.
Read to Achieve promises to prepare students for college and career success by ensuring that every child in North Carolina can read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. The policy creates a system of monitoring, remediation and eventually retention for students who have difficulty with reading development and support for schools with large numbers of students with reading deficiencies. But who are they really talking about here?
• During the 2011-2012 school year, 31 percent of third-grade students in North Carolinas public schools failed the reading end-of-grade assessment.
• 53 percent of African-American and Latino third-grade students failed the reading EOG, compared with only 19 percent of their white peers.
• 44 percent of economically disadvantaged third-grade students failed the reading EOG, compared with only 14 percent of their more affluent peers.
• 58 percent of students with limited English proficiency failed the reading EOG, compared with only 28 percent of their native English-speaking peers.
Students who do not demonstrate reading proficiency at the end of third grade are, overwhelmingly, children of color and children living in poverty. This is the reality in our state. Yet the Read to Achieve policy does not mention race or class even once.
If we truly want to improve the quality of early literacy education that all children in North Carolina receive, we need policies that do not ignore race and class. We need education reform that acknowledges and addresses systemic racial and socioeconomic inequalities in our state. To that end:
• Access to high-quality child care and preschool must be expanded. Quality early childhood education is one of the best investments our state can make. Children in quality preschool programs are less likely to be retained, need special education services or get into future trouble with the law. Yet access to high-quality child care and preschool remains out of reach for many families in North Carolina, especially after Republican legislators slashed funding and eligibility for the NC Pre-K program.
• Barriers to learning must be addressed. For example, providing reliable transportation options for families in traditional public and public charter schools and providing health coverage to the hundreds of thousands of uninsured children in North Carolina will reduce absenteeism, a chronic problem among children living in poverty.
• Attention must be paid to the inequitable distribution of high-quality teachers within and across districts. Schools with large populations of minority students, low-income students and academically struggling students are most likely to have teachers with the weakest qualifications and the least experience.
• State funding must be equitable rather than equal. State funds are likely to be insufficient for high-poverty districts with large numbers of struggling students in their summer reading camps. These districts will need additional financial support to comply with the provisions in Read to Achieve.
To be sure, it is not acceptable for nearly one-third of our third-graders to fail the reading EOG (or nearly one-half of third-graders if you look at the scores from the more rigorous Common Core-aligned assessment administered in 2013). Providing meaningful summer learning opportunities for struggling students is a step in the right direction, especially since summer learning loss is an acute problem among children living in poverty.
We are not going to improve our young childrens early language and literacy skills and prepare them for success in college and careers with remediation and retention alone.
Allison Rose Socol is a doctoral student in the Policy, Leadership and School Improvement Program in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.