Mississippi plans significant reductions in grocery and income taxes for 2025 session

In a bustling classroom on a Tuesday afternoon, Jessica Johnson engaged her students in a hands-on activity. She displayed a set of index cards, each containing a word, and asked the students to identify the type of vowel sound. The students eagerly gathered around the table, sorting the words into different buckets based on their vowel sounds.

At Kirkpatrick Health & Medical Science Magnet, an elementary school in the Clarksdale Municipal School District, teachers like Shalandria Ivy actively guide their students in the Reading Roadmap after-school literacy program. In one classroom, Shalandria helps her students identify images, sound out the first letter of the item in the drawing, and locate that letter in their cards. By serving as both teachers and tutors, these educators are dedicated to promoting literacy among their students.

Johnson and Ivy, along with hundreds of other reading teachers and leaders in Mississippi, played a crucial role in the significant improvement of test scores following the implementation of the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. In the past, Mississippi faced challenges in terms of reading outcomes for students. However, the state’s remarkable progress, often referred to as the “Mississippi Miracle,” has garnered international recognition and praise.

In Clarksdale and other school districts in the state, the significant improvements in reading skills have not been as remarkable. Teachers and students have experienced less-than-miraculous effects due to various factors, including limited resources and high teacher turnover.

Janice Citchens, a first-year English teacher in the West Tallahatchie School District, acknowledges the challenging task of providing students with the necessary academic support. She emphasizes the need for intensive remediation to address their comprehension gaps, preventing them from engaging with grade-level content. However, Citchens firmly believes in her students’ potential, expressing confidence that with adequate resources and guidance, they can achieve great heights.

‘The science of reading’

In 2013, a state law was enacted to strengthen the support system for children’s reading development and to enforce retention for those who did not meet the required standard by the end of third grade. Although the law did not impose a compulsory curriculum, the State Board of Education actively encouraged and, in certain instances, mandated teacher training on the fundamental principles of the “science of reading.” This term encompasses a collection of research that highlights the significance of phonics instruction in the process of acquiring reading skills.

The state gained national recognition for the success of its new system, which involved targeted teacher training, improved parent communication, and interventions for lower-performing students.

In recent years, Mississippi has experienced significant improvements in test scores, particularly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal government-administered test commonly used for state comparisons. A decade ago, the state ranked among the lowest in fourth-grade reading scores. However, in 2019, Mississippi made remarkable progress and garnered nationwide attention for achieving the highest gains in fourth-grade reading. Furthermore, in both 2022 and 2023, Mississippi has been praised for surpassing the national average in this field.

According to a recent analysis conducted by Mississippi First, an education policy nonprofit, it has been found that nearly every district in the state has experienced some level of improvement in third-grade reading scores since the passage of the 2013 state law. In fact, a staggering 97% of school districts have shown improvement.

Despite the success achieved in Mississippi, there are still numerous districts facing difficulties in ensuring that all students become proficient readers. Shockingly, 24 districts have a 10 percent lower rate of students passing the third-grade “gate” on their first attempt compared to the state average. This challenge can be attributed to various factors, such as high teacher turnover rates and limited resources in low-income communities. Teachers and policy experts have identified these issues as major hurdles in promoting reading proficiency among students.

According to Kelly Butler, former CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, the Literacy-Based Promotion Act was successful in demonstrating that Black kids and low-income kids have the capacity to learn how to read just like any other student. Butler believes that the persisting low performance in certain districts can be attributed to the challenge of attracting educators to these difficult-to-serve schools.

Citchens, the West Tallahatchie teacher, has noticed from the data that a significant number of her seventh- and eighth-grade students consistently lag behind their grade level. She believes that this is primarily due to the inconsistent reading instruction they receive and the unequal distribution of resources.

Citchens emphasized that the teaching coaching she received has been incredibly impactful in her career. It not only provided her with valuable resources and best practices but also taught her how to effectively implement them in her classroom. However, she pointed out that the benefits of these trainings may be diminished when teachers frequently leave a district.

According to the speaker, it is important for teachers to not only receive coaching and support but to also stay in their positions long enough to fully implement and refine the practices they learn. This way, students can truly benefit from these practices and not be left at a disadvantage.

According to a recent analysis conducted by Mississippi First, districts with higher rates of teacher turnover during the 2022-23 school year were more likely to have low proficiency rates on state tests. Although this analysis does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, it aligns with previous research highlighting the detrimental effects of teacher attrition on student learning.

Rosemary Collins, a reading interventionist in Leland, has also noticed this trend. She explains that some districts have more resources, expertise, and support in place to effectively implement new educational tools. On the other hand, there are districts that face the challenge of having to accomplish more with limited resources.

Collins collaborates with third-grade students who are expected to struggle with the reading assessment, commonly referred to as the “third-grade gate.” She expresses her desire for the adoption of a comprehensive literacy curriculum for all students, not exclusively those she assists, as she firmly believes it would reduce the necessity for extensive intervention. Furthermore, she emphasizes the importance of providing effective and fair teaching training to facilitate this implementation, which is hindered by high staff turnover.

Collins believes that in order to retain teachers in the classroom, there needs to be a shift in mindset regarding the role and importance of educators within the community. It is crucial for teachers to feel respected and valued as individuals in order to cultivate a desire to remain in the educational environment.

Both Citchens and Collins have noticed a surge in parental involvement in preparing their children for the third-grade test following the widespread discussion and positive media coverage surrounding Mississippi’s “reading miracle.”

Citchens observed that with the increase in student achievement and the positive attention it has received, parents in her community are now more inclined to play a more active role in their child’s education. This is because they not only feel proud of their child’s accomplishments, but also take pride in their own involvement in their child’s academic journey.

‘The gains aren’t zero-sum’

Reading Roadmap, a program that originated in Kansas, made its way to the Mississippi Delta in 2017. This interactive program is designed to group students according to their skill level and utilizes instructional materials that align with the principles of the “science of reading” endorsed by the state education board.

According to Taurean Morton, Mississippi state director with Reading Roadmap, the goal of their efforts in this area is to bring equity and shed a positive light on a marginalized and stigmatized community. Mississippi as a whole has successfully implemented similar initiatives, and now they aim to replicate that success in this specific region.

Clarksdale Municipal Superintendent Toya Harrell-Matthews acknowledges the positive impact of Reading Roadmap on her district, sparking enthusiasm and investment in reading. Despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19, she is determined to reignite the energy and ensure the program’s continued success.

Harrell-Matthews expressed her desire to return to the initial phase of training when teachers gathered in the small boardroom nearby. The atmosphere was filled with excitement as they delved into a new approach and learned about the scientific principles behind their upcoming work.

Morton, who serves as the state director for Reading Roadmap, explained that the program utilizes the benchmark testing results from the local district to categorize students into different skill groups. This allows for effective tracking of their progress and ensures that they receive the necessary interventions. The activities at each skill level are designed to be interactive and gamified, providing students and teachers with a refreshing break from their typical school day.

According to him, there is a noticeable gap in teacher training programs for higher education when it comes to phonics and the science of reading. Morton expresses his hope that by demonstrating the effectiveness of these strategies in their work, it will bring about a shift in post-secondary education.

According to Butler, the previous CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, one of her main priorities is to enhance Mississippi’s teacher training programs. She acknowledges that there have been some improvements in these programs, but emphasizes the need for greater accountability in higher education programs.

According to Butler, teachers will continue to be retrained as long as there is a need for them to change their practices.

In an effort to tackle this issue, the Mississippi Department of Education took steps in 2016 by implementing a requirement for candidates to pass the Foundations of Reading assessment in order to obtain an elementary education license. This initiative aimed to ensure that educators possess the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively teach reading to their students.

Caption: Elizabeth Streeter, a teacher with Reading Roadmap, helps students practice sounding out words on Oct. 10, 2023 in Clarksdale. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

Morton is enthusiastic about the progress that students in the program are making. Some of the schools they work with in Clarksdale have even seen improvements in their accountability grades. Even in years when the program hasn’t seen significant advancements, Morton’s team still considers it a successful endeavor.

“Every year, we witness progress and development,” expressed Becky Nider, the director of programs for Reading Roadmap, reflecting on the positive outcomes. “While a child may not transition from the red zone to the green as we hope, we observe them making strides from the red zone. These small victories are worth celebrating, as they hold immense value for each individual child.”

Teachers are advocating for a shift in the way we discuss the concept of a “miracle.” They believe that it is important to emphasize the mindset of incremental progress rather than solely focusing on extraordinary events.

Langly Dunn, an elementary librarian in the West Tallahatchie School District, believes that her district should maintain a positive and celebratory attitude while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done. In her opinion, politicians should refrain from using the reading gains as a tool for their own benefit and instead focus on supporting and improving the education system.

According to her, reading is not a zero-sum game. It is not a situation where we have either solved all the problems and perfected the way reading is taught in every district, school, and classroom in Mississippi, or the results are completely unreliable. It doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other. We can acknowledge the progress we have made while also recognizing that there is still more to be done.

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