LLOYD GRAY: Literacy is the foundation

By Lloyd Gray

Mississippi is a state full of contradictions, but none stands out more than this state’s extraordinary literary heritage and its high illiteracy rate.
We’ve produced some of the world’s most critically acclaimed and best-selling authors while always being at or near the bottom in the functional literacy of our people.
We produce great writers, but on the whole, we’re not good readers. And today our schoolchildren’s reading scores reflect that reality.
Our legacy of entrenched poverty, a byproduct of a feudal economic system that for most of our state’s history discouraged both educational achievement and personal initiative, haunts efforts to improve our literacy. Yet nothing is more important in overcoming that legacy than improving the reading comprehension skills of our children – and of the adults who fell through the cracks early in life and still struggle with a literacy handicap.
When Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer first envisioned the project we’re calling “The State of Our Schools,” he saw it as focused on the whole question of literacy, broadly defined. We branched out as it became clear that while the ability to read and to understand what is read is the foundation for all learning, so many factors come into play in affecting that ability. We decided our year-long education series should be a broader examination of those factors and historical realities.
But no monthly installment of “The State of Our Schools” will be as expansive as the one on literacy that we begin today. That’s because improved literacy is so basic to any hope of educational advancement in Mississippi.
Today’s story is an overview that looks at where we are in Mississippi, which is what we’re trying to do in this series that began in December: provide an honest assessment of where our state stands in educating its children. Only in clearly acknowledging our weaknesses can we begin the long process of overcoming them.
There will be four additional days of stories, with this installment of “The State of Our Schools” concluding Thursday.
Efforts to improve reading in Mississippi schools are nothing new. Yet none of them have been sustained over time, and nothing has moved the needle on a large scale.
Monday we’ll examine small-scale but encouraging successes in the Mississippi Delta and other poor and underperforming areas. We’ll also look back at a program funded by this newspaper that made a huge difference four decades ago in Lee County schools but that couldn’t replicate that success when it went statewide and veered from its original course.
On Tuesday, we’ll see how teachers teach reading is changing and what the Legislature and governor are poised to do to require reading at grade level before third and seventh graders are promoted.
Wednesday’s stories will examine a harsh reality of our literacy and educational underachievement problem: crime and incarceration. Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps gives us a candid assessment of the role that low levels of literacy play in filling our prisons, and we’ll visit with former inmates who got their lives back on track by returning to school.
Thursday we’ll look at adults who never went to prison but who struggled through life without the literacy skills they needed, and who are now giving it another go.
As with other portions of this series, we don’t suggest we’ve got all the answers, and no one we’ve interviewed claims there are any easy solutions. But elevating awareness is a necessary step to committing, for the long haul, to finding what can work and then sticking with it.
We haven’t done that yet in Mississippi. It’s time.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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