Part I: Mississippi children shouldn’t have to wait another year to read

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What is failure? The older I get, the more I seem to ask myself this question. For years, I’ve worked with children, on behalf of children, and I am a mother to a wonderful little girl. And every day I ask myself, “Am I succeeding or failing?”

If I am preparing these children to be the best they can be, seize opportunities, and ready themselves for life’s high expectations, then I’m succeeding.

So when I saw a recent comment in The Clarion Ledger predicting that “we are setting these kids up for failure,” I was taken aback. The idea was that holding struggling readers back a year in elementary school – to prevent them from eventually dropping out of high school – was somehow setting kids up for failure.

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As a former Mississippi classroom teacher, I wanted my students to be ready for life’s expectations. As a native Mississippian, I want Mississippi’s youngest generation to outdo their parents.

None of that will happen, though, if our children cannot read. Study after study shows that children who cannot read on grade level by fourth grade begin a cycle of falling behind, often dropping out of high school and too frequently spending time in the criminal justice system.

Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. This is the first year that Mississippi’s third-graders are expected to demonstrate sufficient reading skills for promotion to fourth grade. They will have three chances to show they are ready for the more rigorous fourth-grade coursework. This is not a one-test-on-one-day promotion decision. Since the law was passed, Mississippians have spent thousands of hours preparing for implementation. Millions of dollars have been and will continue to be spent on literacy coaches, teacher training, and educating parents.

Right now, Governor Bryant and legislative leaders are working for additional millions of dollars in support of the law. Senator Gray Tollison and Representative John Moore are also advancing legislation to get better prepared teachers into classrooms and to better identify students who need the greatest supports.

Yet there is a push to delay implementation. Mississippi’s superintendents have said that roughly 11,000 third graders may not pass the reading proficiency test. Research shows that if those kids are promoted to fourth grade, roughly 9,700 will drop out of high school. Talk about setting kids up for failure. I wish the conversation from the school districts was more along the lines of “What a catastrophe. We have somehow failed to teach 11,000 third graders how to read – and we’ve had at least three years to do it!”

Mary Laura Bragg

Vice President of Advocacy, Foundation for Excellence in Education

Mississippi native and former educator