June 9, 2023

Nancy Bailey: Can a State Reading Program Be a Success if Students are Segregated and Hungry?

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Nancy Bailey looks at Mississippi and its reading program. Reposted with permission.

Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times opinion piece, Mississippi Is Offering Lessons for America on Education, showcases a troubling disregard for segregated schooling and the poverty in which children find themselves.

Mississippi’s Segregated Public Schools

His article also begs questioning due to its focus on the agenda of ExcelinEd, former governor Jeb Bush’s education lobbying group, which has sway in directing the course of public schools.

ExcelinEd has an agenda for vouchers and online instruction. Once told vouchers would only be for the poor, we now learn they’re meant for the wealthy.

According to The Washington Post:

. . . for the first time in Florida, the vouchers will be available to children from wealthy families, even those who are home-schooled or who already attend private or religious schools.

Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. Education has never been well-funded, and according to NBC News, 32 school districts in Mississippi still need federal desegregation orders.

Jessica Washington for The Root, in What Year is this? In Mississippi, The Fight for School Desegregation Continues, notes:

So in case anyone was curious, it’s not a good sign to be under a desegregation order, and Mississippi is a pretty bad offender.

Retention and the Science of Reading

Kristof writes about how retention and the Science of Reading have created young readers in Mississippi who bumped up test scores. However, this deserves scrutiny.

He links to a Boston University study promoting retention, sponsored by ExcelinEd.

Jeb Bush has bulldozed retention into states besides Florida, including Mississippi, even though research is heavily against it.

The problem is that it’s well established that when students are held back in third grade, fourth graders test well. Students show progress for a while, but they eventually slide. Socially promoted students have been found to do as well as those who are retained.

Massive third-grade retention based on a test is a huge concern. Students may need support to learn to read, but there are kinder alternatives to holding them back. *See below.

Bush also promotes the controversial Science of Reading (SoR).

The Reading First (RF) program of his brother, former President George W. Bush, was mismanaged and had conflicts of interest, but it found that children who participated could sound out letters and words. Still, they didn’t comprehend what they read and did no better than students without the RF programs.

Yet Reading First was called “scientifically based.” The Science of Reading (SoR) is Reading First reincarnated.

“No Excuses” is Back

The longtime-held troubling belief that getting tough on poor children especially in poor charter schools closes the achievement gap seemed to have disappeared, as noted by Joanne W. Golann in this 2021 Hechinger Report, Why are no-excuses schools moving beyond no excuses?

Golann writes:

Loosening tight controls to give students more voice and autonomy is not a death knell for school culture but can deepen learning.

Even discipline-focused KIPP charters dropped their motto Work Hard. Be Nice.  

But Kristof’s piece reflects the no excuses essence. He writes:

“Mississippi is a huge success story and very exciting,” David Deming, a Harvard economist and education expert, told me. What’s so significant, he said, is that while Mississippi hasn’t overcome poverty or racism, it still manages to get kids to read and excel.

“You cannot use poverty as an excuse. That’s the most important lesson,” Deming added. “It’s so important; I want to shout it from the mountaintop.” What Mississippi teaches, he said, is that “we shouldn’t be giving up on children.”

The revolution here in Mississippi is incomplete, and race gaps persist, but it’s thrilling to see the excitement and pride bubbling in the halls of de facto segregated Black schools in some of the nation’s poorest communities.

If you’ve never worked in a poor school, it might seem like learning to read is the only gateway to a better life. And no one can say that reading isn’t essential; it is, and children who read will hopefully be able to do better in school and life.

But poor children have many needs and Kristof seems to promote success with the reform ideas that have failed children for years.

For example, children who test well get bikes in Mississippi. How does this work for children who cannot help having problems learning?

Kristof brags:

Mississippi has achieved its gains despite ranking 46th in spending per pupil in grades K-12. Its low price tag is one reason Mississippi’s strategy might be replicable in other states.

Large class sizes it’s implied are fine if test scores show improvement, showing little understanding about why smaller class sizes are important for children to address the many problems that might face in their lives.

The reading programs in Mississippi classrooms described in Kristof’s piece also seem age-inappropriate, where a student can’t sit still in class. And they lack warmth and personalization.

In classrooms, I saw charts on the wall showing how each child — identified by a number rather than a name — ranks in reading words per minute. Another line showed which children, also noted by number, were green (on track to pass) and which were yellow (in jeopardy). Then there were some numbers representing children who were red and urgently needed additional tutoring and practice. 

This and no excuses and looking to deny schools funding that will lift children out of poverty is troubling.

It has always been challenging for teachers who work in poor schools, who know and understand that children have serious reasons aside from academics that must be addressed in order to freely learn.


Kristof has co-written several books about the poor, so he should know better. The lessons he describes in this opinion piece aren’t good. In the article he kindly discusses his homeless friend who died. I sadly wondered, did they know how to read?


Kristof, N. (2023: May 31). Mississippi is offering lessons for America on education. The New York Times, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/31/opinion/mississippi-education-poverty.html.

Alvarez, L. (2023, June 5). In DeSantis’s Florida, it’s vouchers-for-all, even the wealthy. The Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/06/05/desantis-florida-school-voucher-program-costs/ 

Alternatives to Retention

Instead of retention, there are other ways to help children without lowering their self-esteem or stressing them out. Here is an example of what could be done, and it would be less costly probably too.

  • Lower class size in K-3rd grade. If policymakers don’t want to lower class size in every class, they should, at the very least, look at lowering class sizes in just K-3rd grade. One of the best studies ever done in education was Tennessee Project STAR which showed lowering K-3 class sizes as beneficial. That study should be revisited.
  • Looping. Looping keeps young students with the same teacher for two years. The teacher can assist a student who works slower without making them stand out as failing in a repeat class.
  • Multiage grouping. Multiage grouping can help younger children grow with older children. It is reminiscent of the one room schoolhouse. Here, it can be done with just a couple of grades.
  • Resource Rooms. Children often fail in one weak area and that drags them down in general. A resource class where they get more individual assistance or remediation for their area of difficulty might help them boost their ability all around!
  • Individualization. This is most important. Looking more closely at the strengths and weaknesses of all children, and providing interventions for the weak areas, would be a plus. Why not provide an individual plan for every child?
  • Tutoring. Not tutoring to replace teachers and stick children on screens, but schools could provide tutoring by older students for service credit.
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