Burnham has ambitions for literacy program

OXFORD – When Tom Burnham takes over as new state superintendent of education in January, he’ll quickly be tied up by legislative sessions, battles for funding and efforts to improve failing schools.
But Burnham has other issues he wants to tackle early in his second stint as state superintendent.
Chief among them is developing a statewide literacy initiative, which Burnham says he hopes to roll out during his first 18 months on the job.
A big part of the plan would be working with teachers to help them learn better strategies for teaching students how to read.
“Programs don’t make a difference,” Burnham said in an interview this week. “People do.”
Though a plan for the program has not yet been developed, Burnham cited the success of Alabama’s statewide reading initiative, which provides incentives for schools that use reading programs and materials recommended from scientifically based reading research.
Schools participating in the program receive funds to hire a full-time reading coach.
The goal is to have all children reading on grade level by the time they reach third grade, Burnham said. Until that age, they can effectively be taught reading by phonetic techniques.
But that window of opportunity closes after third grade, Burnham said, and it becomes more difficult to teach literacy using other methods.
Burnham will officially take over his job in January after serving as dean of the University of Mississippi education school. It will be his second turn as superintendent, having served from 1992 to 1997 before taking a job on the Mississippi Coast.
Among the big issues facing Burnham from the beginning will be improving failing schools through the Mississippi Children First Act, which allows the state to take over failing school districts and to dissolve local school boards.
Burnham said former state Superintendent Dick Boyd will work with him as an adviser on this issue.
Boyd will form a committee of stakeholders in Mississippi education to study the issue. That committee will review the work that already has been done by the Underperforming Schools Task Force.
“We’re not going to disrupt the work that has been done,” Burnham said. “It will be more about vetting the work that has been done and improving it and narrowing the focus.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

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