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Mississippi universities must do better job preparing reading teachers

Bill Crawford
Bill Crawford

Reading matters. Perhaps no other accomplishment would improve Mississippi prosperity more than for all our children to read proficiently.

So believed Jim and Sally Barksdale 16 years ago when they invested $100 million to improve reading outcomes for Mississippi children. Millions of dollars and many initiatives later, the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) continues to push Mississippi to do better.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi legislators got on board in 2013 when they enacted Bryant's "third-grade reading gate" proposal.

Officially the Mississippi Literacy Based Promotion Act, the law requires third-graders to read at least on basic grade level before being promoted to fourth grade. The law also provides reading coaches and training for teachers.

"The key to teaching children how to read is the teacher," Barksdale said. "And the key to effective teachers is the professional training they receive."

You might think a state concerned about its consistently low rank in reading achievement would have insisted its universities put in place exemplary teacher training programs.

Well, they're trying.

In 2003, BRI worked with universities to revamp training systems for reading teachers. New programs and licensure changes for elementary education majors were adopted. Most importantly, six hours of instruction in the essential components of early literacy were mandated for certification in elementary education.

A new study published last week by BRI shows university programs made progress, but not enough to lift Mississippi reading scores off the bottom.

The study found that the 2003 changes have been inconsistently implemented, best practices have often been ignored, and insufficient practice opportunities have been provided for developing entry-level skills for teaching reading.

The good news is that deans and faculty at the 15 public and private universities studied are responding positively to the findings, according to BRI's Kelly Butler, who authored the study.

BRI cited Ann Blackwell, dean of the College of Education and Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, and IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce as welcoming the evaluation. The study should serve as a "catalyst for change," Boyce said.

"Given the low performance of Mississippi students and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining talented teachers, my desire is that the information from this study will prompt changes in pre-service and in-service programs to better meet the demands of teaching in our mostly rural and high-poverty state," Butler said.

The study recommends "three big ideas." These focus on implementing research-based best practices, bringing consistency to course content and delivery, and directly involving educators in development of policy and practice improvements.

The policy recommendations include designing a credentialing process for university reading instructors, developing a set of evidenced-based principles for literacy instruction, and revising the state's program accreditation process to ensure consistent application of high standards in elementary education.

"Just as children can't guess their way to reading well, teachers can't guess their way to teaching well," Barksdale said.

Implementing BRI's recommendations, plus strengthening Bryant's third-grade gate requirements, may finally lift our children's reading scores off the bottom.

Say "amen" Mississippi.

Write Bill Crawford, a syndicated columnist from Meridian, at crawfolk@gmail.com.