Many negatives to North Carolina’s hastily passed Read to Achieve program

As the school year has come to a close, North Carolina’s teachers, parents and students anxiously await the results of End of Grade tests. While the results are important for many, no group is more concerned than our state’s 8- and 9-year-old children.

In 2012, the N.C. legislature passed the Excellent Public Schools Act, which contained language requiring all third-graders to demonstrate proficiency in reading. This portion of the act, which has come to be called Read to Achieve, dictates that students unable to demonstrate reading proficiency on the EOGs or by other assessments are required to attend summer school. Children who don’t demonstrate proficiency after spending their summer in a classroom repeat third grade or enter a modified fourth grade classroom with other nonproficient readers.

This legislation was seen as a strong statement by lawmakers to end “social promotion.” Senate Leader Phil Berger went so far as to warn social promotion from third to fourth grade “could amount to an economic death sentence for those students.”

Few would disagree with the vital importance of being able to read. However, those individuals entrusted to teach our state’s third-graders have profound reservations about the short- and long-term consequences of Read to Achieve. As teacher educators and educational researchers, we sought to understand the effects of Read to Achieve. Findings from our study of 100 third-grade teachers, serving more than 2,000 students in Southeastern North Carolina, raise serious concerns.

Read to Achieve was passed to emphasize reading proficiency, yet a scant 26 percent of teachers surveyed reported that the legislation and its related initiatives had a positive effect on their students’ reading ability. About 40 percent of respondents indicated it had a negative effect, and 32 percent indicated no effect.

Though the majority of teachers reported that they agreed in principle with the stated goal of Read to Achieve, respondents raised concerns about the program’s effects on student interest in reading. About 65 percent reported that they thought the legislation and resulting programs had a negative or significantly negative effect on their students’ interest in reading. Alarmingly, almost 92 percent of teachers said that the legislation and resulting programs increased the stress and anxiety levels of their third-grade students. A common theme shared by teachers was a concern that the implementation of Read to Achieve is actually teaching students to hate reading. One teacher lamented, “It is a dark day to be a third-grade teacher in North Carolina.”

In terms of teaching, 72 percent of teachers indicated that Read to Achieve has negatively affected teaching quality and 80 percent reported that the legislation had resulted in less or significantly less time to actually teach. A disturbing unintended consequence appears to be short-changing other academic subjects. Nearly 50 percent of teachers indicated that Read to Achieve has caused them to spend less time teaching math, and more than 70 percent of teachers report they are spending less time on science and social studies.

In a 2014 evaluation of Read to Achieve conducted by faculty members at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, over 90 percent of elementary school educators indicated that, in terms of Read to Achieve, “NCDPI should have a structured process of listening to and trying to address the concerns of educators.”

It is our sincere hope that the Department of Public Instruction and the state legislature will stop and listen to the concerns of those with the best vantage. While there is an urgency to address the needs of struggling readers, there is limited value in implementing hastily thought-out policy. Having all third-graders reading proficiently is an important and laudable goal, but we have to ask ourselves whether Read to Achieve and its related initiatives are the means to get us to that point. Based on the responses from third-grade teachers, they are not.

Robert W. Smith and Scot Imig are professors in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Dr. Brad Walker of UNCW also contributed.