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Prioritizing reading yields remarkable results in Mississippi

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(NewsNation) — In an astonishing turnaround, Mississippi, often plagued by poverty and low education rankings, has defied expectations by achieving significant improvements in fourth-grade reading scores.

Rising from the 49th position to 21st in the country, the state’s success has garnered attention and sparked discussions about its approach.

Gov. Tate Reeves joined “On Balance With Leland Vittert” on Thursday to shed light on the factors behind this achievement and the underlying importance placed on literacy.

According to Reeves, Mississippi’s focus on reading stems from a fundamental belief that a child’s ability to comprehend texts directly impacts their academic progress and future success.

“The reason it’s so important to focus on is because we believe that fundamentally, when it comes to education, that if a kid is struggling reading, when they get out of the third grade and go into the fourth grade, the likelihood they’re going to be able to do their science homework, or their English homework, or even their math when they’re in the fifth and sixth and seventh grade is relatively low,” Reeves said.

Recognizing that struggling readers in fourth grade are likely to face challenges across various subjects, the state made a conscious effort to address this critical juncture in a student’s education.

“So if you focus your efforts on ensuring that those kids coming out of the third grade can read, then it’s going to lead to significantly higher performance in the out years, and it’s gonna lead to much higher graduation rates,” Reeves said. “And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Mississippi today.”

While this approach might seem straightforward, it faced opposition, especially during the early stages of implementing conservative education reforms in 2012 and 2013.

“We were steadfast in what we believed,” Reeves said. “We fought for it. And to their credit, we had support from our Board of Education, who helped implement the conservative reforms that we pass through legislation, and ultimately, the results speak for themselves.”

The Mississippi success story stands in stark contrast to other approaches observed in states such as Michigan, where the influence of teachers’ unions led to the abandonment of the A through F grading system.

According to Reeves, Mississippi has achieved the highest tenure growth ratings in the nation for the past three years, elevating fourth-grade reading and math scores to the 21st and 23rd positions, respectively.

Furthermore, the state’s high school graduation rates have surged from 72.5% to an impressive 88.9%, surpassing the national average, Reeves said.

Reeves says Mississippi’s achievements are primarily rooted in policy reforms, emphasizing accountability, raising the level of expectations and increased support for educators.

“And what’s happened is we have raised the level of expectations on our students on our teachers on our parents,” Reeves said. “And Mississippians have done what Mississippians do. They have risen up and they’ve met those increased expectations.”

The state invests billions of dollars in K-12 education annually, and when the state started its reading initiative, an additional $15 million a year was allocated.

It was “a relatively minuscule amount in the overall scheme of things,” Reeves said.

According to Reeves, the additional funds were utilized to hire reading coaches who worked alongside struggling students and teachers, aiming to enhance both student skills and teaching methodologies.

“It’s about policy and about priorities,” Reeves said, “much more so than it is about money.”

Mississippi’s innovative approach has garnered attention from neighboring Alabama, which seeks to replicate the state’s achievements.

“It is about changing the way in which you teach reading and making sure that your reading teachers are teaching it in a way where students can understand,” Reeves said. “And it’s also about prioritizing the importance of learning to read.”