In 2001, Florida launched an Intensive Reading Initiative designed to improve dramatically the literacy of the state’s elementary students. With a $1-billion initial investment ($750-million in the first year), they implemented sweeping changes that touched every K-3 student and teacher:
$300-million six-year Reading First grant to retrain all K-3 teachers on appropriate reading techniques.
$700-million of repurposed state funding to place reading coaches in every K-3 classroom, to provide diagnostic reading assessments in K-2, to run summer reading camps for children at risk of retention, and to provide other reading supports required in statute.
Since its initial investment, Florida has continued to spend annually on the program ($130 million this year) to provide reading coaches in every K-3 classroom; individualized professional development for reading teachers; and diagnostic assessments and supports for retained students, including intervention teachers, extended school day, extended school year, and summer reading camp.
Click here to see Florida’s Literacy Act. It is important to note that this was not an unfunded mandate; this initiative was funded by the state.
What are Florida’s results?
The reading scores of Florida students rose by 13 points on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) from 2002 – 2009. From 2009 – 2011, their scores were almost level, dropping by one point. Florida’s fourth graders tied the children in Hong Kong, Finland, the Russian Federation, and Singapore for first place on the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment.
What is happening in Mississippi?
Governor Bryant proposes to spend $15-million on a reading initiative that would include mandatory retention of students not reading on grade level by the end of third grade and a similar policy for seventh grade students. Each chamber has passed a version of the literacy initiative. Both the House and Senate versions require the retention of children whose reading deficiencies are not remedied by the end of third grade, but there are key differences between the versions that will determine the success or failure of the initiative.
The House version includes the reading coaches and the retraining of teachers and principals that was the reason for the success of the Florida program. The House version also makes the bill subject to appropriation, an indication that they are serious about providing resources to make the program workable.
The Senate version has stripped the initiative of the reading coaches and teacher and principal training that are essential for success. Their bill was not made subject to appropriation, an indication that the Senate wants to do a literacy program “on the cheap.” This stripped-down effort will not yield results. Rather, it will simply force teachers to do more testing and reporting without providing them any assistance to improve instruction. Children will be retained but will not receive the additional supports needed to achieve reading proficiency.
In the fall of 2012, a representative from Florida presented information on the state’s literacy initiative to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees. Mary Laura Bragg stated, “Retention alone will not work.” She repeatedly made the point to Mississippi’s legislators that the reason for Florida’s success lies in the interventions, training, reading coaches, and other literacy supports included in Florida’s plan and that retaining third grade students without implementing the necessary interventions will not yield positive results. She also noted that Florida’s literacy initiative was not an unfunded mandate, explaining that local school districts were provided funding to successfully implement the interventions.
The Parents’ Campaign strongly supports the goal of improving literacy and moving students to reading proficiency by third grade. We recognize, too, the danger of immediate implementation of a stringent retention policy without first providing the supports necessary for schools and teachers to give students the best chance for reading proficiency by the end of third grade. To achieve broad changes similar to Florida’s, Mississippi would need to commit to a significant investment far beyond the $15-million included in the governor’s plan. Some positive results can likely be seen from a $15-million investment in a well-designed literacy initiative, but an unfunded mandate that does not provide funding for reading coaches and retraining of teachers and principals will not yield positive results and will likely do more harm than good.