Questions hang over details of Miss. reading plan

March 30, 2013 5:20:27 PM



JACKSON -- One of many ambitious education plans being considered by Mississippi lawmakers is a focus on reading in early grades, including holding back third-graders if they can't read on at least a basic level. 


Thus far, lawmakers haven't appropriated any money, and it's doubtful that the $15 million Gov. Phil Bryant proposes is enough for an effort equal to ones praised in Florida and Alabama, which are spending several times that amount. Without enough money, Mississippi could begin flunking a lot of students who didn't get enough help. 


And many education studies have found forcing a student to repeat a grade has little long-term benefit -- and a lot of harm. 


"You feel like you're doing something really tough, but it doesn't improve their achievement and it has very negative effects," said Lorrie Shepherd, education dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Shepherd's research, confirmed by other studies, finds a child who repeats a grade is more likely to eventually drop out. 


Bryant, a Republican, often says children will rise to the challenge of high expectations, but Shepherd said there's more to it than that. "Yes, high expectations are important, but you have to be moment-to-moment, constantly, supporting kids and taking steps to get there," she said. 


Defenders of forcing a student to repeat a grade say the threat focuses the effort of principals and teachers. 


"If you don't have this policy, people are likely to pass kids on and it gets to the point where it's too late to do anything," said Barbara Foorman, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research. 


The idea that third graders should be forced to repeat if they can't hit a certain standard comes from Florida, where it was part of a package pushed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. His Foundation for Excellence in Education has been influential in spreading the idea to Mississippi and other states.  


Last year, 13 states adopted such a standard, and others besides Mississippi are debating it this year. 


Few experts disagree that children who don't learn to read well will always be behind and are likely to drop out. To combat the problem, the federal government sent hundreds of millions to a group of states in its Reading First program last decade, focusing on reading coaches who work with teachers in early grades. 


Florida combined the coach with strict laws and rules. For example, it mandates K-3 students must get 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction each day. Parents of students who fall behind on periodic assessments must be notified that their children could be flunked in third grade and the students must get extra instruction above the 90 minutes. 


Today, Florida initially flunks 7 percent of third graders, but only holds back 1.5 percent after allowing exemptions. Others catch up in summer school. Many students who are retained are placed in "acceleration" classes, and some jump up to fourth grade after a semester. 


Mississippi would decide who flunks based on its third-grade reading test, which has four scoring levels -- minimal, basic, proficient and advanced. Bryant originally proposed to hold back any student scoring below proficient, which was 47 percent of all third graders in 2012. Lawmakers instead want those who score below basic to repeat third grade. That was 14 percent last year, more than 5,000 of 37,000 students tested. 


Having something different for retained students is key, according to the Florida experts and Nancy Loome, executive director of Mississippi's Parents Campaign. 


"If you retain kids and give them the same old lousy thing, you have nothing," Loome said. 


Reading coaches also typically help teachers implement new teaching approaches. They're usually veteran teachers good at helping adults learn. 


"In order to get grown-ups to change their practice and do something really hard, you kind of have to see it can happen," said Judy Stone, the program coordinator for the Alabama Reading Initiative. That homegrown program also relies on reading coaches, but doesn't require holding back third graders. 


"We believe that until we can really ensure that a student has had high quality instruction in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, it's a little unfair to punish the student," Stone said of flunking children. 


Bryant has proposed $15 million, saying that would be enough to hire a reading staffer for each of the state's 151 public school districts. But that would be a drop in the bucket in big districts such as DeSoto County or Jackson. 


Both Florida and Alabama have pushed toward one coach in every elementary school. 


Alabama spent $59.8 million on its program in 2012, while Florida is spending $130 million this year. Both states have more students than Mississippi, but those figures suggest Mississippi would have to spend $25 million to duplicate Florida or $40 million to duplicate Alabama. 


Mississippi lawmakers are involved in last-minute haggling over how much to spend and what to write into law. Senate and House budget writers say money will be committed, although it might not be what Bryant seeks. Bryant and lawmakers are also looking to the Mississippi Department of Education to divert federal aid for support. Federal money is limited, though. For example, the state gets only $33.6 million to support teacher training in grades K-12.