Have you heard of Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act? No? Well, maybe you know it as 3rd grade Reading Gate? If you are like most Mississippians, you know very little about this law. Beyond the fact that third graders not scoring satisfactorily on the year-end reading exam will not pass to the fourth grade, most people know little else. If you are the parent of one of the approximately 38,000 third graders who took the exam this year, you may be a little ahead of the pack. If you are the parent of one of the 5600+ who failed, you have probably learned more about “Reading Gate” than you want to know.
Yet, according to information from the Center for Education Innovation and the MS Department of Education itself, requirements call for schools to keep parents informed of their student’s progress, and provide immediate intervention to any K-3 student who is substantially deficient in reading skills. Parents should be receiving quarterly progress reports about the success (or lack thereof) of support currently being provided by the school, and information about what additional support will be provided to remedy continued deficits. They should be getting suggestions for ways to help at home, and they should have been notified that, if the deficiency is not corrected by the end of the third grade, or an exemption received, the child will be held back.
Let the political games begin
The Literacy-Based Promotion Act was passed by the MS legislature in 2013, and, no surprise to anyone,has received only minimal funding by that same group. Early this year, state representatives voted to delay implementation of the law, but the bill died in a senate committee. Which was fine, because the number of lawmakers openly wanting to change their votes made it likely the decision would be overturned anyway. “Pass the law, do not pass adequate funding, vote to delay the timetable when facing 6000 failures.” “Uh, no, I mean implement the timetable so it looks like I’m strong on education, but withhold funding because I’m also tough on the budget…” Confused? Run for a legislative seat, you will fit right in.
After the embarrassing success, then failure of the attempted end-around run on implementation, Governor Bryant said, “It is disappointing that 62 members of the House of Representatives would vote to socially promote children who cannot read. With votes like this, it is little wonder that Mississippi’s public education system has been an abysmal failure.” Really? We are not in the business of defending lawmakers, but, political posturing aside, does anyone really believe that a Republican governor in a Republican state couldn’t have made the funding happen to support the law’s clearly stated timetable?
MS Department of Education plays catch-up
Largely because of funding, it was late in the 2015 school year when the Mississippi Department of Education finally met its goal of having 75 reading coaches to assist teachers in 67 target schools. (Some recent figures from the MDOE show that they have surpassed their goal and now only need three additional coaches to be able to serve 125 schools next year.) Mississippi has over 450 elementary schools, so even if the new figures hold up, that still leaves the teachers in over 325 schools on their own. Though there has been some additional training for some teachers in those schools, they have a heavy burden, especially those responsible for third graders up against the deadline.
There are several “good cause exemptions” for students in certain circumstances, which are not going to be discuss here today, but, by and large, most third graders who fail to pass the exam before the 4th grade year begins will not go to the 4th grade. Students will have their last of three chances to pass the exam after summer school. Those who fail, and are held back, are supposed to receive specific and intensive intervention during that year, in order to improve their chances of passing the test next year. This question arises: where will the additional dollars come from next year to help those failed students who are to get “intensive” intervention and who are presumably scattered throughout the 450 elementary schools in the the state, which only has funding to assist, maybe, 125 schools. Oh, and these same schools must also prepare all the rising third graders for next year’s testing. We will take the “legislative” pathway, and leave that question for next year.
It’s always about the money
Though we certainly do not believe that money alone will fix the education problem in Mississippi, we do believe that it must be a major part of the solution. We need better teachers in many areas. Better teachers deserve better pay. Some districts need better, safer facilities; these will cost money. Many districts need more educational resources; again, more money. The list goes on. However, the governor and the legislature have chosen to engage in this particular battle at this particular time.
The Mississippi law was championed by Governor Phil Bryant, a presumably recovered dyslexic, who was, according to his own words, himself saved from a life of woe by having to repeat the third grade. The MS act is patterned after a similar law which met with success in Florida, where one billion dollars was invested the first year the law was in effect. Considering the approximate difference in enrollments between the states, Mississippi should have spent about $180 million in its first year to equal Florida’s committment to solving the problem. Mississippi has barely reached the $25 million mark in its second year of funding the law. There you have it; the math is fairly clear. We cannot quantify the effect on students of Mississippi’s two years of inadequate funding, but, regarding dollars eventually invested, we calculate that MS should be OK if our students are 7.2 times smarter, or our teachers are 7.2 times better, than those in Florida.
Which sets us to wondering whether our governor and legislators could pass a “math gate” review of their performance, should one be required to advance them to another year in their jobs.
If you have comments, experiences, or opinions on this subject, feel free to comment below, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.