Reading & Literacy

Mississippi Students Surged in Reading Over the Last Decade. Here’s How Schools Got Them There

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 19, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of Man helping a young guy up stairs into an open book as a metaphor for targeted literacy training.
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Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, and it ranks nearly last in K-12 school spending and per-pupil funding. Years ago, the state’s reading scores reflected those challenges. But not anymore.

In 1998, 47 percent of students in Mississippi performed at or above the basic level of proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). By 2022, that number jumped to 64 percent—slightly better than the national percentage of 61 percent.

The progress began to speed up 10 years ago, after state legislators passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, a sweeping bill that targeted literacy efforts from a number of vantage points.

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“Some people call it [improvements in reading proficiency] the ‘Mississippi Miracle’,” said Tenette Smith, executive director of elementary education and reading at the state’s department of education. “It has nothing to do with a miracle.”

Instead, Smith said it has everything to do with the act’s multi-pronged approach to boost reading proficiency.

Part of this approach is the act’s retention strategy, whereby 3rd graders who score below a minimum standardized test score must repeat the grade. This controversial practice has garnered significant attention, including a recent Boston University study that reported on its positive, long-term effects among Mississippi students. But Smith and Kristen Wynn, the state’s literacy director, pointed to other, lesser publicized strategies they say are having a positive impact on Mississippi students’ improved reading proficiency.

These include free, full-day pre-K programs that promote reading readiness; universal screening for literacy three times a year for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade; individual reading plans (IRPs) for students whose screening results are below grade level; and formal methods for parents to engage in those IRPs. Underscoring these strategies is a significant investment of $15 million per year to support literacy, 60 percent of which goes to coaching and intervention services staff.

It appears to be paying off.

Professional qualifications and right personality required

After the literacy act passed in 2013, the state’s original intent was to hire 75 mostly full-time coaches to work in state schools where students performed the worst on 3rd grade standardized reading assessments, said Wynn. Initially, over 600 people applied for 75 coaching positions, mostly full-time positions whereby each coach would be assigned to work in two schools. Only 24 were selected.

“They were looking for quality over quantity,” Smith said. “That only 24 were selected showed us we had a lot of ground to cover.”

The state was looking for people who were well-versed in evidence-based reading, which is centered on the five core components of reading as identified by the National Reading Panel—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—and who knew how to intervene with students who had deficits in those particular areas of reading, explained Smith. Preferred qualifications included a master’s degree in education and three years experience teaching reading.

But, noted Smith, professional qualifications aren’t necessarily enough. “If they don’t have the personality to work with adults, make that connection, transfer the knowledge [of reading instruction best practices] to an adult, then it won’t work out,” she said.

Maryann Mraz, a reading and elementary education professor at the Cato College of Education at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has extensively studied the role and impact of literacy coaches on teachers. Her perspective on the traits of effective literacy coaches around the world echoes Smith’s.

“To succeed, literacy coaches must have clearly defined roles, extensive support, and an existing rapport among teachers—or the possibility of creating such rapport,” wrote Mraz in an academic paper on the topic.

Teachers welcome support from literacy coaches

By the 2022-2023 school year, the number of literacy coaches hired by the state increased to 52 deployed to 86 public schools throughout Mississippi, according to Jean Cook, the education department’s spokesperson.

Armstrong Elementary, in Greenville, Miss., was one of them. Lucindy Cunningham, a 3rd grade teacher at the school, has welcomed the opportunity to work with three different literacy coaches in the past ten years. “They aren’t there to evaluate us. They are there to be a support system,” she said.

Cunningham said that, prior to the 2013 literacy act, she wasn’t expected to teach in alignment with the evidence on reading. Having a literacy coach made that shift easier, she explained. She ticks off some of the ways these coaches have supported her: showing her how to set up literacy centers in her classroom that focus on the core components of reading; identifying useful resources, such as those from the Florida Center for Reading Research; explaining how to interpret data from reading assessments and apply it to improve reading achievement; and supporting effective ways of teaching writing.

“They are some of the most well-trained experts in the country,” Smith said of the literacy coaches. They’re also just one piece of teacher support.

Intense professional development

Another component of the state’s literacy act was to overhaul its professional development related to reading instruction. The state now provides to all K-3 general ed teachers and K-8 special education teachers a yearlong, master’s level professional development course grounded in the science of reading, explained Wynn.

“It’s very intense, but we needed it in order to move our students, in order to grow our teachers,” said Wynn. “They were not leaving their teacher-prep programs prepared.”

Wynn said that, prior to 2013, reading instruction throughout the state’s elementary schools was very balanced literacy-heavy, an approach that places a strong emphasis on understanding meaning, and less on the systematic and explicit use of phonics.

“We needed to come together and develop a common language,” she said. The intensive statewide PD, based on the science of reading, helped do that.

In addition to the yearlong statewide PD training, teachers attend smaller, regional sessions specific to their grade levels that provide the opportunity to implement what they learn.

Like the students they instruct, the teachers’ scores count. They are required to notch at least a 60 percent on post-training assessments. “We can then target additional PD based on common deficits,” Smith said.

The coaching instruction and PD are a lot for Mississippi’s educators to absorb. But, said Smith, “We hear from teachers and administrators who say, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know.’”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as Mississippi Students Surged in Reading Over the Last Decade. Here’s How Schools Got Them There

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