Lessons Learned for Improving Early Reading Skills

Once again, we got some bad news about the reading proficiency of young students in Louisiana. Since the pandemic, the number of third graders struggling to read has risen precipitously. Today, 41% of them are not reading at grade level, according to the most recent LEAP scores. While not surprising, given the disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic, it exacerbates a problem that had already reached critical levels in Louisiana.  

This is the story of how one state changed the trajectory of early reading scores and how Louisiana is seeking to follow suit.

In 2003, Louisiana and Mississippi were both tied for 49th in fourth grade reading on a national assessment commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. For the next 10 years there was little movement by either state. In 2013 Mississippi was 49th and Louisiana ranked 48th.  Neither of us was making any progress.

But that year Mississippi did something that Louisiana did not. It passed legislation dubbed the Literacy Based Promotion Act.

The new law was the culmination of an effort that had actually begun a decade earlier. In 2000, Jim Barksdale, a Mississippi native and former CEO of the browser company Netscape, was concerned about the state’s reading scores. That year he and his wife donated $100 million to found the Barksdale Reading Institute in Jackson.

As its name implied, its goal was to improve literacy in the state. It focused on how teachers were teaching students to read and became a champion of a method called “the science of reading” which had shown some positive successes with certain student populations. That method does what others do by emphasizing both reading comprehension and what is commonly referred to as phonics.

But unlike some of the other methods that seemed to downplay the phonics piece, the science of reading elevates it, while also incorporating additional evidence-based approaches. Because of the work of Barksdale and various state leaders, it became the technique that was used to teach reading in schools across Mississippi. Hopes were high, but after a few years in place, the change in teaching wasn’t showing the improvements that had been expected. Something seemed wrong.

Going back to the drawing board they realized that while they were now teaching kids to read through the science of reading, they had not done a good enough job of teaching teachers how it should be taught.

So, in 2013 they passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act. It basically did three significant things:

  • It beefed up teacher training in the science of reading.
  • It required teachers to pass a test showing they were properly prepared to teach the science of reading.
  • And it required that third grade students who were not reading at grade level be held back from fourth grade.

What happened? Over a six-year period Mississippi moved from 48th in the country in reading to 30th By 2019 Mississippi had the fastest growth in reading in the country and they had actually reached the national average. How did Louisiana fare over that same time period? We moved from 46th to 48th. But this story has a hopeful ending for us.

Over the last two years, the Department of Education, the Legislature, and BESE have placed a strong focus on early literacy. Like Mississippi, lawmakers passed legislation to ensure that all elementary school teachers are instructed in how to teach the science of reading and required new teachers to pass a test before they are certified showing they are proficient in the science of reading.

Louisiana did not choose to follow Mississippi by holding back third graders who couldn’t read well, but it did something that might be more powerful. It required that students in grades K-3 take multiple reading screenings each year to track how their reading skills are progressing and allow for early interventions if there are signs kids are falling behind. CABL supported all of these efforts

Of course, COVID has added to our reading problems over the last couple of years, and it’s too early to see any of the results of these most recent efforts. But the Mississippi story is still important to us for a couple of reasons.

One is that it shows policy matters. Things like this can seem boring and they rarely make the 6 o’clock news, but the right changes in policy can make a difference in the lives of children.

The second is that the Mississippi story is a story of hope. People in Louisiana have long repeated the mantra, “Thank God for Mississippi,” because we were usually able to edge them out at the bottom of so many lists. But the truth is, we are actually much like Mississippi, constantly struggling to get out of the cellar when it comes to national rankings.

Mississippi put its mind to it and, in this case, it moved from the bottom to the national average. What that tells us is that Louisiana, with all of our challenges, can do the same thing in this and other areas where we lag.

We can do it, if we make the commitment.

Return to Post Archive