'Mississippi Miracle': Kids' Reading Scores Have Soared in Deep South States

. After passing a series of similar literacy reforms, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana have seen a promising turnaround in their student reading scores.

NEW ORLEANS, LA (AP) - It's a cliche Kymyona burk has heard a lot: 'Thank God For Mississippi'

She knew that other politicians would say the same thing when their scores on reading tests were low -- at least they weren’t as bad as Mississippi. Or Louisiana. Or Alabama.

Recently, people have started changing the way they talk about these states. They no longer look down on the Gulf South but rather see it as an example.

Mississippi went from ranking as the second worst state for fourth-grade literacy in 2013 to 21st place in 2022. Louisiana and Alabama were two of only three states that saw modest gains in fourth grade reading during the pandemic.

Teachers across the country have been inspired by these three states' turnaround, which shows that rapid progress can be made anywhere, including in areas with low literacy rates and poverty. These states have adopted laws that focus on phonics, early screenings, and other reforms.

Burk, who is now a senior fellow for ExcelinEd - a national advocacy organization - said, "In this region, it's time to go big."

The Deep South states weren't the first to pass literacy laws. In fact, much Mississippi's legislation is based on Florida's 2002 law that helped the Sunshine State earn some of the highest reading scores in the nation. These states still have a long way to go before they can ensure that every child is able to read.

The Mississippi Miracle has been dubbed by some as a miracle of the United States. Tennessee, North Carolina Georgia, Kentucky, and Virginia have all recently adopted similar policies. The Barksdale Institute in Mississippi, an influential literacy policy organization, received phone calls from around two dozen other states as Mississippi rose in the rankings.

Kelly Butler, the institute's CEO said that there is no secret strategy.

She said, "We know how we can teach reading." "We have to do this everywhere."

The three states have all trained thousands of teachers on the "science of reading", which is the best-researched method of teaching reading. Literacy coaches have been sent to schools with low performance in order to assist teachers.

Also, they want to detect problems early. This means screening for dyslexia or reading problems as early as kindergarten. Parents will be informed if there is a problem and the child will receive extra support.

States have consequences if they don't teach children to read. They also provide help to keep them on track.

Mississippi, for example, gives students multiple chances to pass the reading test after intensive tutoring or summer literacy camps. Alabama will adopt the same retention policy for next year's school year. Last year, it sent more than 30,000 struggling students to literacy camps. By the end of summer, half of these students had reached grade level.

The new training at schools such as Schaumburg Elementary in New Orleans has helped teachers pinpoint what students need in order to improve their reading. In the charter network, the percentage of kindergarteners who read at grade-level increased from 38% to 55% in spring 2021; for first-graders it grew to 43%.

State law requires that every K-3 teacher and elementary principal, as well as assistant principals, complete a 55-hour course on the science of literacy. According to Assistant Principal Erika, she says it's worth the time. She said in college, she learned nothing about teaching children to read.

She said, "I was just winging it" in her early teaching years.

Brown asked the girls to spell "crib" and then ask, "What sounds do you hear?"

They chanted four sounds back, counting with their fingers, like a choir: 'crrri-buh' It was one of Brown's techniques that she had learned during her training. Counting four phonemes or sounds gave students an idea that a word contained four letters. The school was able to identify the girls who needed extra help through increased screening.

Are you ready for the challenge word? Brown asked and the girls shouted "Yeah!" Brown said the word bedbug, and their faces fell. The girls had no clue what the word meant. Brown gently guided the girls to break down the word's six phonemes. The girls were ready to take on another challenge.

Can we spell cockaroach? One of the girls inquired.

Joshua Lastie is a second-grader at the school. He likes that his teacher will help him when he stumbles over difficult words, such as 'happened,' or'suddenly.

Joshua, 7, said that the school was trying to make words easier for children.

The scheduling and staffing issues that arise from the focus on small-group interventions are a challenge. The state's literacy coaches are helping the Charter Network strategize how to reach every student. Lisa Giarratano is the dean of ReNEW's academic instruction. She says that time is one resource the state cannot provide.

In an environment where education debates can be polarizing in the United States, three Gulf states have passed their education reforms, beginning with Mississippi, with bipartisan support. Richard Nelson, Louisiana's state representative and Republican, who is a champion of literacy reforms, says that pointing out laws passed by other Deep South States made it easier to introduce legislation.

Nelson said, "Every time I introduce a bill, every time I explain it, I tell people that Mississippi faces very similar problems to Louisiana and that they have been able make this work."

Even with the recent disruptions in schooling caused by the pandemic, hurricanes, and tornadoes the Gulf South still has a long way to go. After making great gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress in 2019, Mississippi saw its reading scores fall in 2022. However, they still remain at the national level. Louisiana's third-graders, an age group that was particularly hard hit, were unable to read grade-level at the end last year. Over one-fifth third-graders from Alabama are in the same boat.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that these states have made significant gains in the area of low-income children. Alabama was 49th for NAEP reading scores in fourth-grade students with low income in 2019. In 2022, Alabama will be 27th. Louisiana rose from 42nd place to 11th during the pandemic, which saw many states losing ground. Mississippi is the second highest in the nation, behind Florida.

Eric Mackey, the state superintendent of Alabama's education, is confident in reforms, in part because previous reforms have worked. In the early 2000s Alabama invested heavily on training in the science of reading (then known as phonics), and scores improved. After the Great Recession, the state's gains were lost. Teachers and literacy coaches were laid off.

Mackey, a Mackey spokesperson, said that Alabama has learned from its mistakes.

We must break the cycle of generational poor. Mackey stated that one of the best methods to achieve this is by ensuring multiple generations are readers. Mackey said that this is a long-term project.