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#AskExcelinEd: How can states ensure students are reading on grade-level?

• Kymyona Burk, Ed.D

You know the story of Dorothy from Kansas—how a young girl and her flawed companions set out on the yellow brick road to meet the wish-granting Wizard of Oz. Along the way, the travelers face their greatest fears and overcome issues with the road itself. But they persevere, and their journey on the yellow brick road reveals that together they have the strength, courage and intelligence necessary to reach their goals.

Like Dorothy, states are facing a similarly challenging journey, but this one could impact the futures of millions of children.

Since the U.S. Congress released the National Reading Panel Report in 2000, educators have fiercely debated between two ways to teach reading: scientifically-based instruction versus whole language instruction. Yet despite the best of intentions on both sides, states are facing a sad truth nearly 20 years later. Less than one-third of the nation’s fourth-grade students are proficient readers, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

Now, states have an important choice. Do they follow the “yellow brick road” paved with the research showing that most children, including those identified with reading difficulties, learn to read when teachers deliver explicit and systematic instruction aligned with the science of reading? Or do they follow the alternate path with research stating its methods are ineffective for most students, especially those with reading deficits?

Mississippi is one state that has chosen the science of reading. And the results are inspiring.

In 2013, Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA), which placed an emphasis on grade-level reading skills for K-3 students and ended social promotion for students who couldn’t read. The following year, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) identified a training system that would build the capacity of teachers to teach students to read. Since then, over 15,000 educators statewide—including K-4 general education teachers, K-8 special education teachers and elementary principals—have been and continue to be trained in the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). This method focuses on the science of reading and provides systematic ways to teach foundational skills to young students. MDE has also placed literacy coaches in the lowest performing schools to help teachers with transferring the science into classroom practice.

How has this paid off?

According to MDE’s analysis of 2019 NAEP performance:

    • For the first time, Mississippi fourth-graders scored higher than the nation’s public school average in mathematics and tied the nation in reading;
    • Mississippi ranks first in the nation for fourth-grade score gains in reading and mathematics; and
    • Mississippi students living in poverty are outperforming their peers nationally. Black, white and Hispanic students from low-income homes in Mississippi achieved higher scores than the national average in all four NAEP subjects.

Still, there was a critical ingredient to student success flying under the radar: teacher preparation.

In 2016, SB 2572 went into effect and focused on Initial Elementary Education Licensure in teacher preparation programs. The law requires prospective elementary teachers to pass a test on scientifically-based reading instruction, prompting teacher prep programs to teach this material. Since then MDE, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning and the Barksdale Reading Institute have partnered to strengthen teacher preparation in all colleges and universities through mandatory early literacy courses and training of reading faculty in LETRS.

Like Dorothy and her motley crew, Mississippi persevered even when things got tough. And through the journey, leaders, educators and students in the state have found that they have the strength, courage and intelligence necessary to make exiting, lifechanging progress. This work will not be complete until all students are reading on grade level. Yet, with collaborative efforts to build capacity at every level, Mississippi and other states using the science of reading may have found the “yellow brick road” that leads to reading success after all.

About the author

Kymyona Burk, Ed.D @kymyona_burk

In her role as Policy Director for Early Literacy, Kymyona Burk supports states pursuing a comprehensive approach to K-3 reading policy by assisting state leaders in building new or improving existing K-3 reading policies, with a heavy focus on supporting successful policy implementation. Kymyona most recently served in Mississippi as the Executive Director for the Jackson Public School District’s Office of Teaching and Learning and led all aspects of the district’s instructional programming. Prior to this role, Kymyona was the State Literacy Director at the Mississippi Department of Education where she led the implementation of Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act. She began her career as an elementary reading teacher and has also taught middle and high school English. At Jackson State University, Kymyona earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Master of Arts in Teaching English, Master of Science in Education Administration and Supervision, and a Doctor of Education in Early Child Education.