Improving literacy

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the first installment of a five-day look at the state of literacy education in Mississippi. Today’s story looks at challenges faced, Monday’s at a past program that has fallen short of its statewide goals and a current effort that is having success on a small scale. The next three days will look at adult literacy, the link between illiteracy and incarceration and efforts to prepare educators to teach reading.
Click here to view the entire series

Mississippi’s school children are failing a critical test.
Nearly half of the state’s third-grade students scored below grade level on last year’s state language arts exam. That statistic is particularly biting given that most experts cite third-grade reading level as a vital predictor of future academic success.
“It is critical,” said Tom Burnham, former state superintendent of education. “We say this over and over. If a child is not reading on grade level by the time they leave third grade, that child is going to have a very, very difficult progression.”
More than 17,000 third-graders, or 46.5 percent of test- takers, scored below proficient on that test. Their shortcoming has spurred Gov. Phil Bryant to advocate legislation that would prevent students from exiting third-grade until they pass a state reading test. The proposal appears to be on a fast track to becoming law.
The hope is that the “third-gate” proposal will increase the stakes and force schools to put a greater emphasis on literacy instruction.
“Setting that bar and saying you can’t go forward if you are not reading by third grade is certainly raising the awareness and raising the standards of expectation for everyone,” said Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House.
Yet the effort will not be the first major attempt to combat low literacy levels in the Magnolia State. Experts cite a range of factors – from poverty to teacher capacity to adult illiteracy to lack of oversight – for sinking past attempts.
Those same pitfalls must again be considered if the home of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and John Grisham is ever to become known as much for its readers as for its writers.
The reason Mississippi has failed, said Claiborne Barksdale, is that “fundamental changes have not occurred.”
Those changes include attracting the state’s best and brightest students to be teachers and principals, said Barksdale, the leader of the Oxford-based Barksdale Reading Institute.
“As long as I’ve lived in Mississippi and been halfway cognizant, we’ve always been at a crossroads and a crisis,” Barksdale said. “So, I don’t think that is anything different.”
During the summer of 1990, Mississippi appeared to be gaining momentum in its literacy education efforts.
A California philanthropist and a New York City businessman gave the state $7 million to participate in Writing to Read, a computer program for all kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Using phonics techniques, the program was designed for students to write the words they knew and then read the words they wrote.
A January 1990 article in the New York Times said the program’s goal was to have students reading at the end of first grade.
It didn’t happen.
That same year, Gov. Ray Mabus unveiled a program that would have spent $13.5 million on adult literacy over three years. Its announcement prompted the August 1990 issued of the Atlantic magazine to carry the headline, “Mississippi: Literate at Last.”
“Mississippi under the Mabus administration has launched the most ambitious initiative in the nation to combat adult illiteracy,” the article proclaimed.
The program was not funded.
Instead, it joined Writing to Read on a long list of programs that carried promise, but not results.
The problem, said Burnham and fellow former state Superintendent Richard Boyd, is that efforts were often not coordinated.
“I think it goes back to always chasing the easy fix, always chasing the silver bullet, if you will, instead of what it is going to take to fix it,” said Burnham, who moved to Oxford after retiring from his second tenure leading the state’s schools on June 30. “…There are many good programs out there, so all of these people haven’t been wrong. When they came around and said this is a really good way to do this, they were probably right.
“The failure usually comes about in terms of fidelity.”
The list includes the Reading Aide program that showed great results in Lee County during the late 1970s after receiving a $1.1 million gift from former Daily Journal Publisher George McLean.
The program was spread to the rest of the state when it was included in Mississippi’s landmark 1982 Education Reform Act. Once that happened, however, its implementation changed. Reading aides that were designed to provide small-group instruction began to be used for more clerical classroom tasks.
The program did not have the same impact on the state level.
“Programs within themselves are not bad,” said Angela Rutherford, director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction. “I think it is how we implement.
“So if we want them implemented with fidelity in ways that impact student achievement, we have to have teachers who have the capacity to make those decisions versus just following the plan or the script or the program. States that have been successful in moving the needle on literacy instruction, they have invested resources in changing teacher practice. And you change teacher practice by building capacity.”
Building capacity, Burnham said, includes increasing entry-level standards for teachers, something he began doing during his time at the Mississippi Department of Education. Additionally, the Legislature is considering requiring teacher candidates to have a 21 ACT score and 3.0 grade-point-average as part of a package endorsed by Bryant.
Doing so also includes intensive training for teachers already in the field. To be effective, Burnham said, that training must include master teachers modeling examples of the best teaching practices.
That was the example followed by Florida when it implemented its own “third-gate” program, which also included literacy coaches for all elementary schools. The coaches are experienced teachers with expertise who model lessons for school staff and discuss ways they can improve their craft.
Alabama has also implemented a highly effective reading program that also utilizes literacy coaches in all elementary schools.
Such a setting requires precise statewide training, Rutherford said, something that doesn’t always harmonize with the large amount of local control given to Mississippi schools.
“In Alabama, there is a standard training that everybody participates,” she said. “Not only the literacy coaches, but every school. Everybody heard the same message.
“We do not have that continuity and consistency in our state. We are so tied to local control to the detriment of children, in my opinion.”
Mississippi has improved student achievement in math, reading and science since 1992 at a faster rate than the national average, according to a recent Harvard University report. However, the state still has much room to grow.
Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress ranked lower than 45 states/jurisdictions. Known as the “The Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP test is the most reliable measure used to compare students in different states.
Compounding Mississippi’s efforts to teach children to read is the large number of adults who struggle to do so themselves.
About 16 percent of Mississippi adults lack basic prose literacy skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The estimate is based on results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which was last conducted in 2003.
The figure was as high as 25 percent of adults in 13 of Mississippi’s 82 counties.
If a parent is a child’s first reading teacher, too many children are growing up in homes where parents have a hard time teaching them how to do something they don’t do well themselves.
Most likely, those adults are also living in poverty. The state’s median household income of $38,718 ranks last in the country, and its percentage of adults (21.6) and children (30.7) living in poverty is the most in America.
In those households, priorities for food and clothing likely prevent allowances for large libraries of children’s books.
“The level of poverty is going to indicate in most cases, not all, but in most cases, what is happening in the home,” Burnham said. “With high levels of poverty, you are going to find not a great deal of print material, you are probably going to find situations where children have not been read to.
“That is that interaction and feedback that is critical to the learning process and that is happening both at school and at home. If none of that is happening before the child ever gets to the school and if none of it happens after the child gets to school, then that child has a gap, a barrier that almost is impossible to overcome.”
Beginning during the 1960s, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley led a study that observed 42 families for one hour per week over 21⁄2 years.
They analyzed every utterance spoken in those homes during that period and published their results in the 1995 book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.”
The researchers discovered that by age 4, children of professional parents had heard about 50 million words, about 40 million more than those of parents who were on welfare. In professional households, the majority of words were encouraging ones, while in the lowest-income families, those words tended to be discouraging.
By the age of 4, researchers said, “patterns of vocabulary growth were already established… and intractable.”
“People ask is poverty caused by illiteracy or does illiteracy cause poverty and the answer is yes,” Barksdale said. “It is absolutely cyclical, and I think one of the keys to breaking that is pre-K and working with children as early as possible.”
Among the many educational measures being considered by Mississippi’s Legislature this year are three that could all improve early-childhood education in the only Southern state that currently provides no state funds for pre-K.
Experts say funding them would be an important step in Mississippi’s efforts to become more literate.
“You don’t accept excuses,” Rutherford said. “The kids are going to be in our state so we better do something because we will continue to have the cycles of poverty and our state will continue to be on the bottom if we don’t.”
The stakes are only going to get higher in the near future. Mississippi is among 46 states in the country that have agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards, national curriculum guidelines designed to better prepare students for college and the workforce.
The new standards cover fewer topics but go much more in-depth. They also highly emphasize literacy skills in every grade and every subject. At their core, students will need to think critically, to analyze and critique texts and to draw references between multiple documents.
“There are literacy standards for history, social studies, science and technical subjects, so that teachers in those other content areas can’t just say it is the English teacher’s responsibility,” Rutherford said.
Ole Miss’ Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction currently has two major projects. It is working with Willie Price Lab School, a pre-kindergarten on the university’s campus, to discover ways to better teach 3- and 4-year-old children how to read.
It is also working with low-performing schools with limited resources to coach their teachers in better literacy instruction.
Its greatest success story came in 2011 when Dundee Elementary in Tunica County became a Star school based on student results on state tests.
CELI staff had been working for three years with the school when it became one of 65 in the state to earn Mississippi’s highest ranking given to schools, an A. This year, Dundee, which has a poverty rate greater than 90 percent, was ranked B, the second-highest level.
CELI staff members made frequent visits to Dundee, showing the school’s teachers more effective methods to deliver instruction and answering questions.
The Barksdale Reading Institute also has had success providing literacy coaches to schools to help teachers improve their craft.
The 13-year-old institute had its greatest impact when it funded several of those coaches to teach individual reading classes. The problem, Barksdale said, is that method was far too costly to be expanded.
Now, BRI is working with four schools, funding top-tier principals it believes can alter the school climate.
“We know what it takes to teach children to read,” Burnham said. “We know how to improve the quality of reading instruction in schools.
“But you come back to the same thing, how do you take that knowledge to scale?”
Doing so, said Boyd, will take a continuity of effort.
“Look at what is happening now,” he said of current statewide efforts. “It is like baking a cake from 12 different recipes.”

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