RALEIGH — North State Journal sat down with N.C. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt to check on the status of Operation Polaris and to see what work is on the horizon for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Operation Polaris is Truitt’s long-term roadmap transforming North Carolina’s public schools, including a goal of having “a highly-qualified, excellent teacher in every classroom.” At the core of Operation Polaris is the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration (OLRC). Other key components include literacy, human capital, accountability and testing, and student support services.
Truitt told North State Journal that Operation Polaris is proceeding and that the project’s hub, the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration, has been the “nerve center of everything that happens on a day-to-day basis here.”
“We have some immediate things that we need to do in light of pandemic recovery, not the least of which is be good stewards of the $3.6 billion dollars that the state has received from the ARP or ESSER-Three that is supposed to be spent by 2024,” said Truitt.
ARP is the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan which was enacted in March of 2021. Part of that plan is ESSER, which stands for the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund. The ESSER funding in ARP represents the third round of ESSER money, the first two were part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
“We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we cannot get caught up in finite thinking,” said Truitt of her department’s work. “We must work on short-term fixes while we are laying the groundwork for strategic long-term thinking, and that’s what the office of learning recovery does.”
Truitt said OLRC has been working with districts who might not have the human capacity to figure out the best way to spend tens of millions of dollars in a short period of time.
OLRC and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) will also be looking at the kind of research the department needs to see how relief money is being spent and what educational programs worked and which didn’t.
When asked if there was any current indication of where districts were spending their current relief funds, Truitt said they don’t know yet and that some districts haven’t spent all of their ESSER-One and Two funds yet.
“So, we know that ESSER-One dollars largely went to COVID mitigation strategies — HVAC, getting rid of water fountains in favor of water-bottle fillers, PPE equipment, etcetera,” said Truitt. “ESSER-Two went for summer school.” She added that “We think that there will be summer school again” and that it will be required for some students.
Truitt said DPI will be submitting a report in early spring to the General Assembly on summer school that occurred in 2021. The report will include attendance rates as well as programs used during summer school that worked and/or didn’t work.
The Science of Reading (SOR) is a major part of Operation Polaris in terms of increasing literacy performance in the state. Training in the Science of Reading is already underway, and some districts, like Moore County, are already engaged in its use.
“The implementation plan [for SOR] is required as part of Excellent Public Schools Act, which required us to contract with LETRS,” Truitt said. She added that DPI started off with three staggered cohorts for LETRS training. Cohort one began in early fall, cohort two will begin in January and cohort three will start during the summer of 2022.
Senate Bill 387, the Excellent Public Schools Act, was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper earlier this year. That law states that the “Science of Reading” means 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.
LETRS stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which is a product of Voyager Sopris Learning, Inc. (VSL, Inc.).
“About 3,000 teachers have already started the [SOR] training,” Truitt said. “My estimate is that there are about 11,000 people who will be trained when all is said and done.”
Truitt remarked that districts “overwhelmingly reached out to have special education and English Language Learner teachers added to the training. She said DPI included those in the contract even though the legislation did not require it.
“I would say, overall, we’re really pleased with how districts have jumped into this,” Truitt said, adding that “implementation, actually, is ongoing.”
On the horizon, Truitt said that the N.C. Standard Course of Study manual will be revised.
“One of the things that’s happening at the state board, which will be presented at the December board meeting, is that I have tasked an internal team at DPI to rewrite the North Carolina Standard Course of Study manual, which is right now an internal-only used document,” said Truitt.
According to Truitt, the standards lack uniformity, with “no two templates that are the same.” She said that for both drafting standards and standards revisions, an updated manual will provide “some semblance of consistency and coherence to this process.”
“What came out during that process of getting those standards passed was that our districts are spending anywhere between $0 and $1.1 million dollars on helping teachers unpack new standards,” said Truitt on the state’s history standards, which she referred to as an “inherited mess” from her predecessor.
Truitt also indicated that the state’s math standards will be up for revision during her term and said that that DPI will be “looking carefully at the sequencing of the standards, because I think that’s where the most heartburn is.”
“I think that math specifically is a microcosm of the problem at large about public education in North Carolina and in this country,” said Truitt. “And that is when the brain struggles; it’s lit up. And we don’t ask kids to struggle with solving problems.”
“I think literacy does have something to do with kids struggling in math,” Truitt said. “You can’t do higher-order math and real-world math if you can’t read. But we also know that our post-pandemic data show that our students are further behind in math than they are in reading.”