MURPHY: Science of reading is the answer to North Carolina’s literacy crisis; Teacher prep programs need to get on board

UNC Board of Governors Vice Chair Wendy Murphy.

Literacy is the foundation of learning. If students can’t read well, there’s almost no chance they’re going to succeed in school. That’s why state leaders have been rightly focused on early grade literacy, and rightly alarmed that 68% of North Carolina fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

The state’s public universities bear some of the responsibility for that failure. Schools of education across the University of North Carolina System are the single largest source of teachers in our public schools, and there’s ample evidence that they have not been preparing early grade teachers for the vital work of reading instruction. Despite a 2021 law requiring teacher preparation programs to offer instruction in the well-established science of reading — a law passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature and signed by Governor Cooper — many of our universities continue to follow an outdated, discredited approach to literacy.

An evaluation of our state’s public schools of education found that just one out of 15 is rated “strong” in its approach to literacy instruction. Five are rated good, and nine either need significant improvement or are inadequate in the way they teach reading instruction. Given all we know about the difference that proper reading instruction can make in a student’s life, that’s unacceptable.

This isn’t the first time the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, the UNC System’s education schools, or North Carolina’s families have been faced with urgent news about declining literacy. In fact, this problem has only worsened since 2019, when 64% of our fourth graders were not proficient in reading. 

These numbers should elicit outrage from us all. Imagine how we would react if 68% of players on our favorite basketball team couldn’t make a free throw? Or if the surgeon in charge of a family member’s care had just a 32% success rate? 

We would be outraged. More than that, we would be looking for immediate solutions. 

The good news is, we have those solutions. We know how to achieve literacy in North Carolina. 

For decades, rigorous research conducted by cognitive scientists and specialists in early literacy have shown that “decoding” — teaching students how to match sounds and letters phonetically — is critical for proficient reading. It’s the way many older North Carolinians were taught, sounding out words and learning to connect the text on the page to spoken language. We now have a name for this combination of learning strategies: the science of reading. 

Yet many schools of education across the country, including here in North Carolina, continue to teach “balanced literacy” or the “three-cueing method” that rigorous research has shown to be ineffective, especially for struggling readers. A generation of teachers came out of education schools believing that reading, like spoken language, comes naturally to children if they’re simply exposed to books and words regularly enough.

It’s easy to see why this idea would be appealing to educators who love books and want children to feel the same. Unfortunately, it’s wrong. And it has led to the kind of dismal statistics above, with fewer than one-third of our elementary students learning to read proficiently.

The UNC Board of Governors is not going to tolerate this kind of dereliction in one of our most important areas of responsibility. Many of our public universities began as teacher training academies. Preparing educators to teach the young people of our state has always been among our core duties and highest public trusts. We must approach it with the same rigor, the same respect for scientific findings and advancement, that we take for granted in our training of doctors, nurses, and engineers.

Teaching young children is a vital, challenging profession. The men and women we send into our state’s classrooms deserve to know that they’ve benefited from the highest quality preparation available. States like Mississippi have tackled this problem aggressively, using statewide reading mandates, millions in funding and materials support, and clear standards for student advancement. In 2013, Mississippi fourth graders ranked 49th in the nation for reading proficiency. In just six years, that state rose to claim the nation’s 29th spot. 

This type of marked improvement isn’t based on luck or miracles. It requires hard work, passion, and commitment to learning strategies that will help our children become successful adults. Those tools are already in place here in North Carolina. Back in April of 2020, amid a global pandemic and rising concern about learning and literacy, the Board of Governors established a common framework for literacy. This was a team effort guided by the UNC System Office and top educators from our state’s public and private universities. 

Today, a handful of our System’s universities have adopted this literacy framework. Others still have a lot of work to do. 

The UNC Board of Governors has set literacy education as a top priority in 2023, bringing all teacher preparation programs into alignment with the System’s literacy framework and state law. I can think of no other task more important for our universities than to produce effective teachers, who in turn produce the future leaders of this great state. We will step up to this challenge. The children of North Carolina deserve nothing less.

Wendy Murphy is the Vice Chair of the UNC Board of Governors.