Why Can’t UNC-System Education Programs Fix Literacy Instruction?

Is reform coming? Not if the educrats have their way.

[Editor’s note: This article is the third in a three-part series on teacher education in the UNC System. To read parts one and two, please click here and here.]

Members of the UNC Board of Governors are not happy. A years-long effort to align teacher training with the best scientifically proven methods to teach reading has fallen flat on its face. Given the grim state of literacy in the state, a January report outlining UNC-System schools’ failures is particularly egregious.

According to a recent third-party review of UNC educator preparation programs (EPPs), only UNC Charlotte’s EPP is properly grounding teachers in research-based literacy instruction methods, also known as the “science of reading.” The skills addressed in that science include phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

A years-long effort to align teacher training with scientifically proven methods has fallen flat on its face.The review was conducted by TPI-US, an organization that inspects teacher preparation programs. The review was commissioned by the legislature to evaluate how well EPPs are preparing future teachers in the science of reading, as mandated by the 2021 state law, the Excellent Public Schools Act.

As charged by the legislature, TPI-US reviewed 30 programs across North Carolina, 15 of which were UNC-System schools. The method of evaluation consisted of reviewing course materials and faculty teaching videos and conducting interviews with faculty and leadership about the nature of their instruction in the science of reading. TPI-US then sent each institution individual reports with one of four ratings: “strong,” “good,” “needs improvement,” or “inadequate.” Of the 15 UNC schools, one was rated “strong,” five were rated “good,” eight were rated “needs improvement,” and one was rated “inadequate.”

After TPI-US presented these results at the January 18 meeting of the Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs committee, UNC-System president Peter Hans expressed deep concern. In his comments, Hans revealed which schools had received which ratings.

Among the UNC institutions, UNC Charlotte received the “strong” rating. The five schools that received the “good” rating were North Carolina A&T, Fayetteville State, UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, and UNC Wilmington. The remaining nine programs were rated as either “needs improvement” or “inadequate.” Notably, Hans did not reveal which program had received the “inadequate” rating.

“This list [of the nine schools] includes some of the largest providers of educator preparation in the state,” said Hans. “We simply must do better. We must do better immediately.”

Of course, the fact that only one of 15 teacher education programs fared well is alone cause for dismay. But these results come after years of planning, state investment, advisory groups, and the appointment of numerous committees and subcommittees.

At the full board meeting on January 19, BOG member Thom Goolsby commented that the state has spent “billions of dollars in both K-12 and in training our teachers.” He continued, “This is embarrassing for the Board of Governors, this is embarrassing for the university system, and for the state of North Carolina.”

These results come after years of planning, investment, advisory groups, and the appointment of numerous committees.Given that the UNC System is the largest provider of teachers in the state, data on early literacy levels is indeed embarrassing. According to the 2019 NAEP reading assessment scores across North Carolina, only 36 percent of fourth-graders can read at a “proficient or better” level. That number drops to 33 percent for eighth-graders. Far too many fall in the “below basic” category (33 percent of fourth-graders and 28 percent of eighth-graders).

The numbers get even worse when broken down by sub-group (black, Hispanic, low-income, and white). Only 14 percent of black eighth-graders can read proficiently. White students fared much better by comparison, but their numbers are still outrageous. Roughly 40 percent of fourth-grade and eighth-grade white students can read proficiently—meaning that more than half cannot.

At both the committee and full board meetings, BOG vice-chair Wendy Murphy gave a scathing account of the System’s circuitous—and fruitless—attempts to improve literacy instruction.

Murphy commenced by stating, “I cannot begin to describe the anger and frustration felt by us all after hearing the results.” She proceeded to provide a history of the System’s efforts to improve teacher preparation.

In 2017, former UNC-System president Margaret Spellings commissioned a group of consultants to evaluate the System’s schools of education. The results of that review, reported on by the Martin Center here, were compiled in a 2018 report entitled “Leading on Literacy.” The report showed wide variation in course quality and content among the EPPs. Referring to the report, Murphy stated, “Some instructors were requiring candidates to write their personal philosophies about how to teach reading, equating what they ‘feel about reading’ or how they learned to read as a valid way to make instructional decisions.”

Again referring to the report, Murphy added that some assignments appeared to be “irrelevant to teaching literacy.” Furthermore, “Some candidates spent class time constructing alphabet books or writing their own children’s books.”

Some teacher candidates spent class time constructing alphabet books or writing their own children’s books.In response to the “Leading on Literacy” report, the System office launched the EPP advisory group, which was first convened in 2018 and reported on by the Martin Center here. The group synthesized a list of strategies for improving literacy instruction, and several “communities of practice” (i.e., committees) were instituted to address each of these strategies in depth.

In February 2020, the advisory group presented its work to the Strategic Initiatives Committee, recommending that the board establish a common literacy framework that all teacher preparation programs would adopt. This led to the BOG passing a resolution in April 2020. This resolution called for the development of a common literacy framework that:

  • is “based on the abundance of evidence on effective reading instruction”;
  • “complies with state law and regulation”;
  • “ensures that teaching candidates receive explicit, systematic, and scaffolded instruction in the essential components of reading.”

The resulting literacy framework, outlining the competencies and sub-competencies teachers should be taught, was released in February 2021. Soon after, all of the EPPs conducted a self-assessment of their curricula to align their coursework with the new literacy framework. That work occurred in three phases, from March 2021 through the fall of that year. (The Martin Center has not been able to obtain the self-audit results.)

In April 2021, as previously mentioned, the state passed the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, which mandates that literacy instruction be based on the science of reading. That law is a modification of an earlier literacy effort, “Read to Achieve,” that aims for statewide reading proficiency by the third grade.

Concluding her remarks, Murphy stated, “And yet here we are today, five years later, listening to another group of consultants tell us that the crown jewel of North Carolina … has one college of education that is strong, five [that are] good, and nine that need improvement or are inadequate.” “I ask you today,” she continued, “where is the outrage?”

Murphy went on to urge the committee to adopt a resolution and identified the following section as particularly important:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Governors shall require that by July 1, 2023, all UNC System educator preparation programs in elementary and special education general curriculum will have addressed areas in need of improvement as identified in the legislatively-mandated review so as to comply with the provisions of the Excellent Public Schools Act and shall provide evidence to the President of actions taken to bring programs into full compliance.

The resolution further states that if a program does not produce adequate evidence of improvement, then that institution’s dean, provost, and chancellor will be required to present at the next Educational Planning Committee meeting. On January 19, 2023, the full board unanimously passed the resolution.

A strong possibility is that these efforts were doomed in their infancy.In light of the long and windy road the UNC System has taken to improve literacy instruction, one can’t help but wonder whether yet another resolution will yield much improvement. Why has so much work proven to be so ineffective?

The reasons are likely numerous, but one strong possibility is that these efforts were doomed in their infancy. As Terry Stoops wrote for the Martin Center in 2017, the Leading on Literacy report’s recommendations were “broad, peppered with jargon, and rarely mention[ed] the costs or resources required for implementation.” The language animating the advisory group’s and committees’ work over the ensuing years was at times similarly broad, vague, and “peppered with jargon.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a complicated layering of bureaucratization came up empty.

Resistance to change by the schools of education is likely another contributing factor. If faculty were trained to teach reading in a different way than what’s laid out in UNC’s framework, they may be unwilling to adopt new methods. It might also be the case that they are used to acting independently and do not like being dictated to by the System office.

Aside from these possible explanations for the EPPs’ implementation failures, it’s worth asking whether the adopted literacy framework itself incorporates all the necessary components of effective literacy instruction. It’s possible that the UNC System’s efforts have fallen prey to the same shortcomings present in the broader science of reading movement.

The Knowledge Matters Campaign (KMC), an organization that raises awareness of the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension, discusses those shortcomings in a statement released last August. Authored by the KMC’s scientific advisory committee, the statement applauds the growing number of states embracing the science of reading.

But, the KMC notes, the science of reading is often imperfectly applied and focuses too narrowly on the development of foundational skills. There is more to reading than merely deciphering letter combinations and word order. Comprehending the meaning of those words is necessary, as well. Teaching strategies for comprehension, however, often fall short. The KMC explains:

Reading success requires much more than foundational skills … Knowledge is necessary to comprehend what we read. Foundational skills are literally meaningless unless readers can make sense of words and texts. This sense-making requires knowledge that must be systematically built (not just activated!) through instructional experiences and curricula that evoke curiosity and the desire to learn more. In short, knowledge matters.

As both education theorist E.D. Hirsch and cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham have repeatedly stressed, the possession of a shared body of specific background knowledge is crucial for reading comprehension.

A closer look at UNC’s literacy framework, particularly its section on comprehension, may be merited. This section does mention the importance of “prior” or “background” knowledge several times. But the framework does not explicitly mention that students should be taught a shared and systematically-built body of knowledge. It’s unclear whether the framework’s authors would be willing to articulate what specific knowledge students should learn.

Should they prove opposed, then perhaps their framework isn’t as “aligned” with the science of learning as is widely claimed. UNC-System leaders would do well to seriously meditate on this exhortation by Robert Pondiscio, AEI senior fellow and former South Bronx public school teacher:

Follow the science: If we know that shared knowledge is essential to language proficiency, and that reading comprehension cannot be reduced to an all-purpose suite of “skills and strategies,” then our reluctance to build knowledge in a systematic and coherent way is not merely a poor choice, it’s choosing to impose illiteracy on disadvantaged children.

As BOG members are painfully aware, children can’t sit around and wait for literacy to be taught effectively. They will continue to draw from the well currently available to them—as dry and impoverished as it may be.

Shannon Watkins is the research associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.