CARY (April 14, 2021) – In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and learning losses among the state’s most vulnerable students, North Carolina needs to double down on early-childhood education and literacy, a group of prominent CEOs said today.
“COVID learning losses have impacted our youngest students the hardest – and particularly our students of color and those from low-income families,” SAS CEO Jim Goodnight said in a virtual news conference featuring eight corporate executives.
“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.”
While they praised state legislators and Gov. Roy Cooper for passage of a recent bill to improve literacy rates, the executives made two basic asks:
- Continued emphasis on, and expansion of, the NC Pre-K program. The CEO group has stressed since 2017 – when just 43 percent of the 4-year-olds eligible for the program were served – that the state should aim to raise participation to 75 percent of eligible children in every county, and legislators have increased funding.
Yet 9,100 fewer children were enrolled in NC Pre-K this year than a year earlier – a reduction from 50% to 36% of eligible 4-year-olds, leaving 39,000 unserved. “It is needed now more than ever,” said Fred Whitfield, President of Hornets Sports & Entertainment.
- Recurring funds to train teachers, principals, university faculty and others in the research-backed science of reading.
The consequences – including the implications for higher education – are serious.
Dale Jenkins, CEO of Curi, said that a child who is reading proficiently by the end of third grade is three times more likely to graduate from high school and proceed to postsecondary education – and a child not reading at the end of third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school.
The pandemic, of course, hasn’t made literacy efforts any easier. Kelly King, CEO of Truist Financial, cited a February study in 41 states that found a declining percentage of kindergartners (37%) and first-graders (43%) were on track to reading proficiency. And the number of Black and Hispanic kindergartners at risk of not learning to read had almost doubled.
North Carolina, of course, is no exception.
“In February, it was reported that 75 percent of our third-graders were not reading proficiently at the mid-year assessment,” King said. “It’s just simply not acceptable.”
THOUGH RECENT MEDIA COVERAGE has obsessed about phonics, National Gypsum President and CEO Tom Nelson noted that education leaders have emphasized a comprehensive approach for several years based on the research-backed science of reading. Phonics is just one component, he said, and educators need to understand that science.
“Children do not learn to read naturally or easily. As a result, teaching children to read is very complex,” Nelson said.
“The science has confirmed there are five components to learning to read. This goes beyond just ‘phonics’ and also includes ‘phonemes’ – or how different letters form different sounds; along with fluency; vocabulary; and, of course, reading comprehension.”
Though it is backed by decades of research, Nelson said, the science of reading is too often omitted from teacher-preparation programs, licensure exams, elementary curricula and professional development for educators.
He noted that Mississippi has gained national recognition for training teachers in the Science of Reading and raising fourth-grade reading proficiency, and Tennessee recently committed $100 million to a similar effort.
Don Flow, CEO of Flow Automotive Cos., noted that a COVID-relief bill passed last month by legislators and signed by Cooper commits $12 million in federal funds to begin training educators in the science of reading.
“This $12 million is a great down-payment toward achieving consistency across our state – but we will need more,” Flow said. “It will require significant recurring state funds if we are going to do this right.
“When we do this – when we accomplish this – we will change the trajectory of our state’s youngest readers.”
King said Truist has faced literacy challenges among its own employees. And he connected learning to read with the country’s founding principles.
“To me it’s a very moral, bedrock issue,” he said. “You can’t pursue life, liberty and happiness if you can’t read.”