Senate Unanimously Passes Excellent Public Schools Act

After a year of extensive learning loss, it is critical to pass literacy improvements

Legislation proposes evidence-based policies, including individual reading plans and literacy intervention tools

Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina State Senate today unanimously approved the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021.” The bill covers in-classroom instruction, reading camps, other reading interventions, data collection, and brings together the higher education and pre-K communities to help ensure consistency and quality in literacy instruction.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) introduced the bill along with Senate Education Committee Chairs Sens. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) and Michael Lee (R-New Hanover). The bill builds on the 2019 legislation to implement evidence-based policies to enhance and facilitate a successful reading curriculum for North Carolina students.

Studies and data show that reading comprehension by third grade has major impacts on a child’s future academic career and post-education prospects. Based on that data, the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013 launched the Read to Achieve initiative, which emphasizes the importance of early childhood literacy.

In 2019, when legislators first introduced the “Excellent Public Schools Act” they worked with legislators and staff to analyze the literacy data to identify successes and areas for improvement. As part of that work, legislators and staff engaged a wide array of education experts, stakeholders, and organizations, and analyzed best practices in local North Carolina districts as well as other states. The “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” builds upon those conversations and makes a commitment to using the Science of Reading to meet the needs of students.

Sen. Berger said, “Early literacy is a major determining factor of a child’s future success, so we have to get this right. After extensive learning loss for hundreds of thousands of children during the last year of school closures, it is critical we put our politics aside so we can finally enact improvements to early childhood literacy. I’m pleased to see the Senate come together to support our students.”

Sen. Ballard said, “We can’t improve literacy on our own. We need all of our educational partners, including the Department of Public Instruction and our higher education institutions to come together to help our students thrive. Those efforts are already underway and have helped inform this legislation. I look forward to continuing these vital partnerships to provide our educators with the best preparation programs possible.”

Sen. Lee said, “These are necessary programs and interventions to make sure students can succeed outside of the classroom. This bill is a renewed commitment to our youngest students, so we can put them on a pathway to future success. Teachers and parents play an equally important role in a child’s literacy education and individual reading plans will provide families the resources to help their child flourish.”

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 addresses in-classroom instruction, reading camps, other reading interventions, data collections, and pre-K instruction.

In-classroom Instruction

The bill directs teachers to create individual reading plans for students who need additional assistance in literacy. Teachers will use the data produced from assessments to tailor specific plans of action catered to each student’s particular needs. This is not a one-time plan, but a continuous process that evolves from kindergarten through third grade.

In 2016, Mississippi successfully enacted individual reading plans. Since 2016, the percentage of Mississippi students scoring level three or above on state tests has increased by more than 12 points, with a nearly 10% increase in students scoring four or above. Level three indicates a passing score, and level four indicates proficiency. Individual reading plans are likely not the only cause for student improvement in Mississippi, but the case study offers a valuable data point that supports the policy’s inclusion in the “Excellent Public Schools Act.”

Additionally, in recognition that parental involvement is critical to development, teachers will inform parents of the individual reading plans and direct them to online or hardcopy resources to help at home. And to ensure parents have access to quality resources at home, the bill directs the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop the Digital Children’s Reading Initiative, a website containing free materials for parents to help students improve literacy skills. This is based on Read Charlotte’s website, which can tailor resources to address specific literacy deficiencies.

Lastly, the bill directs DPI to develop or identify model curriculum for use by school districts to ensure best practices proliferate throughout the state. The data indicates that some school districts fare better than others in childhood literacy growth. All districts should adopt best practices to execute consistent literacy strategies.

Literacy Interventions and the Science of Reading

The “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” clearly defines the “Science of Reading” as “evidence-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.” The bill requires certain educators to participate in a training program grounded in the Science of Reading.

It further defines what “literacy intervention” is, including individual or small group instruction throughout the school year, reduced teacher-student ratios, frequent progress monitoring, tutoring in addition to the regular school day, reading camps, and extended learning time before or after school.

School districts will be required to submit literacy intervention plans outlining the literacy interventions that will be offered during the next school year for approval. Those school districts that do not have an approved literacy intervention plan will not receive literacy intervention funds, but will still be required to provide literacy interventions.

Reading Camps

Summer reading camps can be effective remedial tools to improve literacy in students who are falling behind. Importantly, educators who excel in teaching childhood literacy should be part of the summer reading camps when possible. The “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” provides an incentive for those teachers. It’s important that the instructors of those camps are themselves the best and brightest, and so we incentivize educators who excel in teaching childhood literacy to be part of the camps. This proposal creates two new bonus programs for those teachers. Teachers meeting certain criteria, including high growth in reading based on EVAAS data that work at a reading camp will receive a signing bonus. Teachers who work at a third-grade reading camp will be given a performance bonus for each student that becomes proficient in reading.

The bill makes reading camps an optional reading intervention for first graders. Reading camps for second and third graders will still be offered.

To ensure reading camps adopt best practices, the bill directs DPI to determine which methods are working and which are not, and then develop model standards for school districts. In the future, districts will be required to submit reading camp plans to DPI for approval and funding.

Early Literacy Program

One important component of this bill is establishing the Early Literacy Program at the Department of Public Instruction, in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services. This program will help provide age-appropriate resources for our youngest students to help them meet their reading achievement goals. The program will also help train our educators and administrators that work with pre-K students to ensure that the instruction is developmentally appropriate and in line with the Science of Reading. It’s imperative that in order for our children to be proficient in reading we need to start them as early as possible. This program will set our children on the right path so when they get to kindergarten, they’ll already have a strong foundation.

Data Collection

The “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” provides a uniform format for reporting data to make analysis easier. Identifying best practices and then implementing them statewide is a crucial strategy for literacy improvement, and streamlining data collection will improve that strategy.

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