OUR OPINION: Third-gate will need more serious support

Mississippi legislators hoping to improve the state’s educational performance over the last couple of years took a look at Florida and liked what they saw. Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, that state initiated a number of school reforms that resulted in significant gains on test scores over time.

Gov. Phil Bryant was a leading proponent of emulating the Florida model in Mississippi. One of the key Florida initiatives which Bryant advocated and the 2013 Legislature adopted was what’s called the third-grade reading gate, or third-gate. Simply put, it’s designed to have all third-graders reading at grade level or they don’t get promoted to fourth grade. Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, Mississippi schools will be held to that standard.

In Florida, which implemented the third-grade reading gate in 2003, fourth-grade reading scores went from well below to above the national average and, on one test, to a level of strong international competitiveness. Seeing these results, Mississippi lawmakers adopted a similar program, and as the Daily Journal’s Chris Kieffer reported in Sunday’s edition, school districts are getting ready for its implementation.

But Mississippi hasn’t put anywhere near the resources into the effort as Florida, which placed a literacy coach in every school in the state. The Mississippi Legislature, by contrast, appropriated just $9.5 million for literacy coaches and there are only 24 of them for the entire state.

The third-grade reading gate wasn’t instituted in isolation, either. It was accompanied by a vast investment of resources in a statewide pre-K initiative, which subsidized parents placing their children in childcare centers that met established state criteria. Telling the schools that all children had to be reading on grade level by the end of third grade wasn’t just a directive with a negative incentive; it involved a massive effort to shore up instruction and quality at all levels.

Mississippi schools now preparing for this state’s implementation of the third-gate next year don’t have anywhere close to the investment of resources Florida had, and the overall results should be judged accordingly.

Nevertheless, improved literacy is an absolute necessity for Mississippi schoolchildren, who are at or near the bottom of the nation on reading indicators. Reading is the foundation for all learning, and children who fall behind in reading skills steadily lose academic ground to their peers and are more likely to drop out of school. The focus is essential.

But Mississippi still has invested only minimal resources in pre-K. Its $9.5 million investment in literacy coaches is only a very modest start. If we want the success Florida saw, it will take much more.