Knowing Better, Doing Better: Mississippi’s Story In Literacy Success

Having grown up in a small town in south Mississippi, I often heard the phrase “at least we’re not Mississippi.” By the numbers, Mississippi is commonly ranked at the bottom across education and economic measure.

But when it comes to literacy, the narrative is changing. In the fall of 2019, Mississippi posted the highest growth of all states on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP). These gains were particularly strong in reading, where Mississippi was the only state to show improvement on the fourth-grade reading assessment.

What is the secret to Mississippi’s success? In February 2020, the SCORE team visited Mississippi for a learning trip. Hosted by the Barksdale Reading Institute, we had an opportunity to learn from state legislators, policymakers, Department of Education literacy staff, and advocacy groups about the policies and practices that have supported Mississippi’s remarkable success over the last decade. 

Stakeholders Critical to Early Successes

The Barksdale Reading Institute, now led by President and CEO Kelly Butler, has been integral to the state’s momentous progress. When sharing the long view of Mississippi’s success story, she begins with a story about institute founder, Jim Barksdale.

Founder of Netscape and former FedEx employee Jim Barksdale invested $100 million to improve Mississippi’s literacy rates in 2000. Above all, Barksdale believed in the state’s possibilities and in the science of reading, saying:

“If FedEx can get a package from the middle of Manhattan to the middle of Tokyo in 48 hours, track it along the way, and guarantee its timely delivery, then we ought to be able to teach every child in Mississippi to read.”

The secret? Do what we know works and do it the same way every time.

Knowing What Works

Mississippi’s story begins with something called the simple view of reading. In the early 2000s, state leaders and advocates began to support school districts in research-supported literacy instruction, which can be described as:

Under the simple view of reading,

  • Students comprehend texts when they are taught to decode words, a process that results from systematic phonics instruction.
  • Language comprehension is equally important and works best when exposing students to high-quality, engaging instructional materials.

Prior to legislation and state investment, influential stakeholders — including the Barksdale Reading Institute — advocated for literacy instruction rooted in foundational reading skills, including phonemic awareness, phonics instruction, reading fluency, and vocabulary. These actions in the early 2000s created a strong foundation for the significant changes to come in reading instruction in the following decade.

Ensuring Teachers Are Ready On Day One

Alongside early efforts to embed the simple view of reading into Mississippi’s schools, the Barksdale Reading Institute noted another component of reading instruction: educator preparation.

The Institute conducted two studies to learn more, captured here:

To ensure teachers are ready on day one, the institute, the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction, and other partners provide cohort-based mentoring to faculty members in the science of reading through a project called Mississippi Momentum.

Providing Strong State Investment And Supports

The SCORE team learned about the following changes that occurred after the passage of key legislation in 2013:

  • The state provided an initial fund of $9.5 million to provide professional development to current teachers in the science of reading, with the investment eventually increasing to $15 million recurring
  • Schools identified in need of intensive intervention were eligible for additional state supports, including a well-equipped literacy coach to provide instructional support to K-3 classroom teachers
  • The department of education was given latitude to provide wraparound support and guidance to school districts

And the outstanding, critical question: Has it worked for kids? Mississippi’s students now score at or above the national average on the Nation’s Report Card. Between 2013 and 2019, the state moved from 39th to 2nd in the fourth-grade reading score rankings.

Mississippi knew better, and they did better.

Bryce Warden is senior postsecondary policy analyst at SCORE.