RALEIGH — More money and iPads are coming to K-3 classrooms to bolster literacy instruction, but critics question the methods used to improve reading scores.
The Department of Public Instruction will make an additional $400 available to all K-3 classrooms for literacy instruction. The department will also send out more iPads so that every K-3 classroom has at least four devices, state Superintendent Mark Johnson announced Monday, Aug. 19.
“These millions of dollars are in addition to what schools already receive from the state,” Johnson said in a news release. “By getting this money out of Raleigh and into the classrooms, we will be giving teachers more of the resources they need to help students succeed. The people of North Carolina elected me to bring change and that is what I will continue to do.”
But the iPad purchases are controversial. Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher and Red4EdNC activist, questioned the legality of buying the iPads.
“State law holds that individual school districts should be provided with funds for electronic devices and allowed to make decisions about purchases on their own. After all, each district’s needs and capabilities are different.”
DPI defends the purchases. In 2017, Johnson’s administration found unused millions in Read to Achieve funding. To make use of the additional funding, the department sent $200 to each K-3 reading teacher to buy supplies, started a professional development program with N.C. State University called Wolfpack WORKS, provided master literacy training to every school district, and bought enough iPads for every K-3 classroom.
Of the 24,000 iPads bought, 2,000 were returned to DPI, WRAL reported, because some schools preferred using Google Chromebooks. The returned devices sat in a warehouse for a year. Johnson said the iPads were left in storage longer than expected because of Hurricane Florence and the lengthy recovery process that followed.
Johnson bought 800 more iPads in July, which will be deployed alongside the more than 2,000 iPads now in storage.
Graham Wilson, interim director of communications at DPI, said the 2017 iPad purchase used Read to Achieve funds from a pool of money that wasn’t targeted to districts. The 800 iPads that Johnson bought in July used money to implement the new reading diagnostic assessment.
“Four tablets per class means North Carolina can now be the leader in personalized learning to support young readers,” Johnson said. “Personalized learning uses new technology as a tool for students and teachers to allow each student to learn at their own pace, to replace high-stakes assessments, and to provide a better picture to teachers of each student’s progress and challenges.”
Some have criticized Read to Achieve for producing lackluster results. Senate leader Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, introduced legislation in April aimed at improving the state reading program. During a committee hearing on the bill, Berger said Read to Achieve is working well in some areas, but improvements are needed.
A 2018 study from N.C. State University found reading scores haven’t improved since Read to Achieve was adopted. Test scores remained flat for fourth-grade readers, while scores slightly dropped for third-graders. The study said Read to Achieve measures don’t seem to have had any tangible impact on students.
Aside from the controversy over iPads, spending alone won’t necessarily improve K-3 literacy, says Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
“Boosting reading proficiency will require systematic changes to preschool instruction, teacher training, professional development, assessment, and classroom practice,” Stoops said.
“Accountability is key,” Stoops said. “Elected officials and state education leaders must ensure that educators employ additional funding and technology in productive, research-based ways. Otherwise, K-3 literacy efforts in North Carolina will continue to disappoint.”