The complexity of the issue doesn’t mean we can’t make progress, but every piece must be seen as part of the whole.
Mississippi has an inordinate number of children living in poverty – about one-third of the total. That by itself throws up hurdles to overcome, since such households generally lack the level of reading materials, enrichment experiences and vocabulary-expanding conversations of more affluent homes.
Our state also has no coordinated, high-quality, state-funded early childhood education system that could better prepare children from challenged home environments to be ready to learn to read when they enter kindergarten.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps sees first-hand the effects of these conditions. Fifty percent of state inmates didn’t finish high school, and since that’s self-reported, the percentage of dropouts in prison is likely higher. Epps says the average inmate reads on a sixth-grade level; Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson says locally it’s more like fourth grade.
Epps sees a direct connection between what happens to children who fall behind early and can’t succeed in school and our second-highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. If Mississippi wants to reduce crime and the inmate population, pre-K education is the most important step that can be taken, Epps believes.
All of this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in how reading is taught and in the overall quality and consistency of instruction. But the current policy emphasis on not promoting third graders who do poorly on state reading tests must be understood in the context of this web of complexity.
Florida, for example, provided literacy coaches and teacher training when it adopted the “third-gate” program of not promoting poor third-grade readers. It also made major investments in pre-K.
It appears likely at this point that a third-gate bill of some kind will make it out of the Legislature this session, but it’s not clear how much support it will provide for the effort. Merely demanding that children read better without adequate support systems won’t do the job; the effort must be seen as part of a greater whole.