David Boyle: Mississippi shows Alaska that all kids can read

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By DAVID BOYLE

For years, Mississippi was near the bottom when it came to teaching its children how to read.

The other southern states would say, “Thank God for Mississippi,” because they could rely on the fact that no matter how bad their education systems were, Mississippi would always be at the bottom. 

At least they were not as bad as Mississippi when it came to reading.

Mississippi knew this and decided to transform its educational system. In the last 10 years, all its energy has been placed into getting all children to read at the third-grade level by the time they complete third grade. 

The results are astounding.  On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, Mississippi is soaring in national rankings.  In the 2022 NAEP tests its low-income 4th grade students ranked second in the Nation.

Meanwhile, Alaska was dead last.

Was this accomplished by lower classroom sizes? By social promotion?  After all, Mississippi had a lot to overcome. Mississippi ranks dead last in child poverty. It was near the bottom of the NAEP tests too.

No, it placed its energy into getting all children to read. 

Now among low-income students, Mississippi fourth-graders are tied for best in reading and rank second in math!  

Poverty isn’t the reason kids can’t learn.  Mississippi proves that. Poor kids can learn just as well as other kids!  

Here is how Mississippi improved its NAEP ranking for low-income 4th grade students since it implemented its reading program:

 20132015201720192022
Mississippi45382832
Alaska5151515151

Note that Alaska ranked dead last for low-income fourth-grade students for five consecutive years.

One of the most important elements of the program is the third-grade reading test. If a child does not pass this test, he/she is held back—no social promotion. 

Would this stigmatize children? No!  

It put accountability into the program–everyone, parents, teachers, and kids were energized.  

And about 9% of third-graders fail the test in their third and final attempt.

Here’s the very interesting part: Those held back did not have any negative outcomes. In fact, they did much better several years later on sixth-grade English tests compared with those who had just missed being held back. 

It seems as if they were incentivized to succeed.

The state did not reduce class sizes as many in the Alaska education community support.  Instead, it spent the money on teacher coaching and tutoring.

And it had nothing to do with the color of a student’s skin or a family’s income level.

In the 2018-19 school year, 48% of students in public schools were black and 44% were white. And 75% were low income.

So, regardless of race, ethnic group, and income level, Mississippi has shown the nation that all kids can learn.

Let’s not focus on diversity, equity, sexual orientation, and restorative justice.  Instead let’s focus on teaching kids how to read—at least by the fourth grade. 

It may take many years to note the success of Alaska’s new reading program. The Alaska Reads Act, modeled after the Mississippi program, has given us the tools. Now let’s get it done.

This is the core business of our K-12 education system. 

And Thank God for Mississippi!  It has shown us the way.

David Boyle is the Must Read Alaska education writer.

37 COMMENTS

  1. they must have had to raise taxes sky high to accomplish this.I imagine they must spend at least double what AK spends per student.

    • Actually far less than what Alaska spends. I believe we are the highest in the nation for per student combined revenue spending.

    • Or they found savings in other wasteful programs. You don’t need to raise taxes if there are useless bureaucracies you can gut. You just reallocated the funds to more appropriate areas.

  2. Grade levels were developed for crowd control (egg crate model). Kids learn and develop at different rates so the holding back as in Mississippi is just allowing them more time to mature cognitively and achieve what they need to achieve. I think it is better than tracking them into special remediation, ie ‘pullouts’ which are a bit stigmatized. We homeschooled and one of ours was a delayed reader, yet by age 10 reading far above grade level. We did no grade levels in grade school but used academic goals instead. Even for high school it was meeting curriculum and course requirements in prep for college so on a paper we had “grade levels” for transcript and graduation requirement purposes.

  3. And the teachers and union will blame it on the parents. Why do we need ro raise/ give the teachers union a boost from stolen pfd funds? Sounds like st o ak needs ro take a look at what Mississippi has implemented.

  4. David Boyle, I would love to speak with you about my early education in Meridian, MS, from 1951 to 1959. I know I’m elderly, but the Elementary and Jr. High education I received there prepared me as a child and still lasts with me. At 78 years old, I remember my teachers, their kindness, and expectations. I came to Alaska in 1959 at age 14, with a military family, and immediately picked up where I left off in Mississippi. The teachers here were generally of the same mind set – to give their students the best. Alaska had one of the best school systems in the nation at that time.

    • That was then, this is now.
      AK needs to remove all social engineering, crt, die, climate bs, et al from all our entities, private and public.
      Keep your politics and social engineering out of schools, businesses and government entities.
      Govern does not mean rule.

        • Yeah, So right Maureen! I mean teaching that Boys are well, Boys and Girls are girls was so Damn repressive! Yes, lets keep that horrible social engineering far away from our schools.

        • Actually Maureen, that’s exactly what a lot of us have been saying for years. It’s not in the schools lane to teach about certain issues, especially at the lower grades. My personal view is that until the high school levels are reached, nothing but school subjects should be taught. As in reading/writing skills, math skills, and history (especially American history). Even at the high school level, subjects that will call for a social decision of right or wrong should be broadly explained with the added instruction of ‘talk to your parents’ for any further details. I see no place for, say, sex ed beyond the biological functions, being taught in the class room. For further info, ‘talk to your parents’.

          If find it a bit unbelievable that any parent regardless of social or economic class, political affiliations, or choice of sexual partner, would argue with the idea that each and every parent should have the right and responsibility to teach these subjects to their own kids on their own terms.

        • Respectfully, my reply was meant for Molly. The only “social engineering” in the Meridian, Mississippi schools in the 1950s when I was a child was when the students lined up to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America in front of the school and the Lord’s Prayer once inside the classroom. After that we got down to reading, writing, and arithmetic, later to become general science, algebra, geometry, world history, geography, and other lasting subjects of value. Meridian, Mississippi, in its best years, had quite a cultural history: A Carnegie library, opera house, and many other distinctions in its day. The architecture was beautiful. The City of Meridian website also has many details. (Note that my experience there was before the civil rights issues of the 60s.) I haven’t been back there in 30 years, but I understand it is declining like the rest of the cities we remember fondly.

  5. I have to disagree with the author of this article. I was held back in 3rd grade and it was devastating. I was teased relentlessly by classmates. This gave me an inferiority complex. Still to this day {60 years later} my self esteem is not as good as it should be.

    • Has the experience made you more sensitive to others same suffering you gone through because of others insensitivity and lacking understanding to you. If it did it went toward giving you a tender heart for those singled out by some who relentlessly spoke insensitive comments and jabs at others. But you are right third grade and older is quite late holding any child back. The time to hold a child back is no later than 1st grade. Developmentally they aren’t as aware to the difference. the involved and observant parents should know by this age by watching how quickly is the child developing and can he keep up with the more rigorous first grade work compared to pre-k and kindergarten work. We can’t change our upbringing like I wish was read to as much as I read to my child now nine and today she has no memory problems, loves to read, and reads at 7th grade level books. You Rene or readers you want to hear something out of my devotion “you try to escape the pain, yet God sees tender compassion for other sufferers finding birth in your soul, your heart winces a the pain of heavy grief, but God sees the sorrow deepening and enriching your life.” – L.B. Cowman

  6. That which you tolerate you get more of. Alaskans tolerate poor educational outcomes. I guess Alaskans are simply slow learners.

  7. Alaska is the new backwater state of lazy government workers, skalliwags, and illiterates. This is what happens when woke teachers and their unions cast LGBTQ, CRT, and colonialism spells on the children. It isn’t the kids’ fault. Alaska is the new incubator state of idiots in charge.

  8. If Alaskan kids wanted to learn to read, it would matter. The problem is that the kids, reflecting the views of their parents, do NOT want to learn how to read. Instead they are told that their “cultural values” – whatever that means – are most important and then we throw in a good measure of “oppressor/oppressed” thinking, entitlement, gender/identity studies and “free stuff” indoctrination. No one should be surprised at the results.

    My kids – of their own volition – self-selected out of the weak mainline program and into demanding academic programs. Most do not. Even my kids would have difficulty navigating the current cesspool of the ASD.

    • Wow. Guess it’s good your kids aren’t part of the 20% that have some form of dyslexia and can’t get to that academic track without changing how we teach reading. Your kids “self selected” ? how about their brain wiring also gave them a significant leg up over 20% of their peers who were being taught incorrectly. FYI dyslexic kids often are the victims of the current way we poorly teach reading but research shows their IQ is higher than non dyslexics but their grades and tests don’t always reflect that. Particularly if they aren’t tested and had interventions done early (and FYI the schools don’t push for that until 3rd grade if at all). Once they test they often don’t even get the intervention they need and it can be to little to late. Imagine you spend 3 years in school being taught something that your brain can’t make sense of. As a little kid you check out and often have behavior issues. I don’t think k-3 don’t want to learn. I think many are being taught incorrectly and it’s hard as a kiddo to maintain attention and then move onto written work when you haven’t learned to read. I don’t even know that good research has been done on how AK Natives kids need to learn to read. I’m so glad we are changing what we are doing because as Mississippi has shown, science based teaching of reading reaches 100% of kids. We should all support this change in reading and support the teachers who will have to learn a whole new way to teach. It may take a couple years to see results but this is a great step forward because kids who can read well have a whole different path open to them in life. Strong state statue around this is a good first step. Now we need to keep the finger pointing a bit less and focus on the well documented science of reading and hold the curriculum accountable to the science.

  9. Perhaps the most persuasive reason for Mississippi’s success and Alaska’s failure is revealed in this study: “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison”.
    (fordhaminstitute.org/national/research/how-strong-are-us-teacher-unions-state-state-comparison)
    .
    The study analyzed union membership, revenue, state bargaining laws, campaign contributions, alignment between specific state policies and traditional union interests, and included a stakeholder survey.
    .
    Results are categorized into five “tiers” of teachers union strength.
    .
    Alaska is rated #15 in Tier Two “Strong” category.
    .
    Mississippi is rated #46 in Tier Five “Weakest” category.
    .
    How can children be expected to progress beyond functional illiteracy while Alaska’s education industry is allowed to bully their way into sabotaging public education, and be rewarded with more tax money for doing it?
    .
    How, David, will the Alaska Reads Act bring a strong, virulent teachers union to heel, forcing them to do their damned jobs properly, i.e. conduct the core business of education starting right now, or be fired on the spot?
    .
    How will the Alaska Reads Act force corrupt, child-grooming school boards and librarians to clean up their acts right now, remove their smutty filth from libraries and classrooms right now, or be fired on the spot?
    .
    Problem, David, is that the Mississippi program was designed to work in a weak-union environment, where conservative culture, traditional American values and public policy are more the norm than the exception.
    .
    In Alaska, where the inmates seem to be running the asylum, it seems reasonable to expect reforming Alaska’s education industry will need something stronger than an impotent imitation of public policy created in a state where teachers unions aren’t considered problematic because they’re not running the show.

  10. Time for School Choice, Charter School children are rating well above public school children in Math and Reading.14 other states have school choice, not in Alaska where it is almost
    $18.000 to educate each student.
    You can bet the union educators, including Margo Bellamy and ASD Board of Education will be crying for more money sooner than later. Pathetic we are at the bottom of 50 states since the Governor is an Educator.

  11. Sounds like Mississippi figured out that getting teachers to teach the three R’s really works! We need to find a system that rewards teachers for doing well and fires the ones that can’t or won’t.

  12. In China the parents buy the books and workbooks for their children even the children affected by birth traumas, fetal alcohol syndrome, or other mental limits. The parents “know” when the kid is not making progress; no curriculum materials are purchased. The kids attend school year around and are expected to master higher math by eighth grade even if retarded.

  13. I love that our Mat-Su school district has filled our elementary school building with reading tutors. To hear 1st graders reading gives me hope for the future. I take every opportunity to encourage reading.

    • I have to share this: My first grade teacher (1951) in Meridian, MS taught a class of about 30 five to six year old students to read, including me. Mrs. Robel McGraven was her name. After advancing to second grade, I was checking books out of the library downtown. She was a kind disciplinarian, but she got the job done. She had a heart of gold.

  14. The industrial public education cartel in Alaska has no interest in improving reading and math abilities of children, as their goal is to fleece as much money out of the public so as to reward all the mostly low intellect adults that their union represents. It was never “about the children”! It has always been about preserving the grift.

    • Fishing, Very Profound! The evidence of this abounds, we spend as much as $950,000 to educate one child from K-12 and yet… don’t believe my numbers, tear into an annual budget of an Alaska School System and “do the math”

  15. I remember going to elementary school in Fairbanks in the 50’s and everyone was proud of the standards our schools were held up to and a sex scandal was two dogs fornicating on the playground.

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