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News Update

Southern states make big strides in early literacy

Mississippi went from the second-to-last slot in literacy in 2013 to being ranked 21st in 2022. Louisiana and Alabama, meanwhile, were among only three states to see modest gains in fourth-grade reading during the pandemic, which saw massive learning setbacks in general, as the Washington Post reported.

The turnaround in these states has grabbed national attention, showing rapid progress is possible even in areas that have struggled for decades with poverty and dismal literacy rates. The states have passed laws adopting similar reforms that emphasize the tenets of structured literacy, including phonics and early screenings for struggling kids.

“In this region, we have decided to go big,” said Kymyona Burk, a key architect of the Mississippi reforms who is now a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd, a national advocacy group,  the Washington Post reported.

These Deep South states were not the first to pass major literacy laws. Much of Mississippi’s legislation was based on a 2002 law in Florida that saw the Sunshine State achieve some of the country’s highest reading scores. The states also still have far to go to make sure every child can read.

But the country has taken notice of what some have called the Mississippi miracle. Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia are among the states that have recently adopted similar policies. As Mississippi climbed the rankings, the Barksdale Institute, an influential organization in literacy policy in the state, got phone calls from about two dozen states.

The institute’s CEO, Kelly Butler, said she tells them there’s no secret to the strategy.

“We know how to teach reading,” she said. “We just have to do it everywhere.”