Business leaders make urgent plea to address early literacy crisis wrought by COVID

North Carolina CEOs push for support of NC Pre-K and “science of reading” to create more proficient third-grade readers

The pandemic’s effects on education have leaders from some of North Carolina’s most prominent businesses sounding the alarm on declining third-grade reading proficiency. Early research has confirmed COVID hit the state’s youngest students the hardest – particularly students of color and those from low-income families. At a virtual press conference today, the business leaders shared policy recommendations and outlined how early literacy lays the critical foundations for every North Carolina child to succeed in school and into the workforce.  

Today’s press conference included:

  • Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS.
  • Darius Adamczyk, Chairman and CEO of Honeywell.
  • Nick Ellis, President of SEPI Inc.
  • Don Flow, CEO of Flow Automotive Companies.
  • Dale Jenkins, CEO of Curi.
  • Kelly King, Chairman and CEO of Truist Financial.
  • Tom Nelson, CEO and President of National Gypsum.
  • Fred Whitfield, President and Vice Chairman of Hornets Sports & Entertainment.

Four years ago, Goodnight and a group of North Carolina executives released a report from the Business Roundtable, Why Reading Matters and What to Do About It. The CEO group urged the state to act on certain report recommendations which, thanks to the support of the General Assembly and governor, led to expanded access to NC Pre-K, the creation of the B-3 Interagency Council and a robust data system to be launched later this year.

The COVID pandemic threatens the progress the state has made. At today’s press conference, eight North Carolina CEOs emphasized the importance of NC Pre-K and the “science of reading” to help close reading gaps and address inequities.

“As we look past recovery from the pandemic and toward a strong, sustainable economy – with an eye on equal opportunity for every North Carolinian – we must increase early literacy by implementing and expanding what we know works,” said Goodnight. “North Carolina can be a national model for increasing third-grade reading proficiency if we move forward on the policy recommendations we have outlined today.”

NC Pre-K enrollment gains reversed by pandemic

Increases in NC Pre-K funding over the last four years allowed an additional 6,500 children to participate in the program, peaking at just over 31,000 children in the 2019-2020 school year. This represented roughly 50 percent of children eligible for the program. In one year, COVID eliminated those gains with over 9,100 fewer children enrolling in NC Pre-K this school year. Instead of serving 50 percent of eligible children, only 36 percent were enrolled.

The business leaders recommended the state, at a minimum, maintain and, when possible, increase funding to expand access to NC Pre-K to continue toward the goal of enrolling 75 percent of NC Pre-K eligible children in every county.  

Research from Duke University confirms the high-quality NC Pre-K program for 4-year-olds lays the foundation for a comprehensive literacy development system. Children who participate in NC Pre-K are better prepared to enter kindergarten, have higher literacy rates and math skills, and are less likely to be held back a grade or placed in a special education program – outcomes that last through at least the eighth grade.

Reading inequities exacerbated by COVID

Before COVID, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 36 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders were reading proficiently. The numbers were much worse for Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income families. Unfortunately, the pandemic accelerated that trend. In North Carolina, 75 percent of third-graders were not reading proficiently at the latest midyear assessment.

The NC CEO group recommended the State commit significant recurring funds to train all of North Carolina educators – teachers, principals, university faculty, teacher mentors and others. And, in doing so, move the State away from a student tutoring model to one that supports our educators based upon the “science of reading.”

The science of reading is much more than just phonics. Instruction based in the science teaches children to “decode” the English language by learning five components, properly sequenced: phonics; phenomes (how different letters and combinations create different sounds), fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Efforts to align to the science of reading are underway

Mississippi implemented extensive educator support for the science of reading in 2014. It is the only state in the country that has seen significant increases in its NAEP scores for fourth-grade reading proficiency, both in 2017 and 2019.

Currently, the science of reading is largely missing from North Carolina’s teacher preparation programs, is not widely used in elementary school curricula and is often not incorporated into professional development for current educators.

The business leaders recommend moving toward a statewide model that supports training and mentoring educators – pre- and in-service teachers, district-level literacy mentors, elementary principals and university faculty – to strengthen early literacy instruction. They also favor moving away from the current system that focuses more on tutoring struggling readers.

The UNC colleges of education are aligning curricula with a new framework for teaching pre-service teachers based upon the science. The state’s independent universities and community colleges are also exploring how they, too, can align.

Moreover, the General Assembly recently passed, and Governor Cooper signed into law SB837, which revises Read to Achieve, legislation requiring that every child read proficiently by the end of third grade. Those revisions include the direction to train all P-5 educators in the science of reading.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is developing a plan to begin training teachers, principals and literacy mentors on the science of reading, using $12 million from federal COVID relief funds. However, the business leaders stressed that this was not sufficient funding to cover the costs to train all P-5 educators, elementary schools principals, university faculty and others who will need the training.

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