Marylanders Hope New Interim Superintendent Can Replicate Mississippi’s ‘Miracle’ Literacy Turnaround

This article brought to you by Informed Carroll County.

Nearly a decade ago, Mississippi was in the midst of an educational crisis, ranking as the second-worst state in fourth-grade reading when Dr. Carey Wright assumed her role as the state’s superintendent. However, by 2022, Mississippi climbed to 21st in the country for fourth-grade reading, and was one of only three states alongside Louisiana and Alabama to achieve gains in literacy rates during the pandemic.

Under Dr. Wright’s leadership, the state’s Quality Counts grade surged from an F to a C-, and its national ranking leaped from 50th to 35th. Moreover, the graduation rate soared to an impressive 88.4%, surpassing the national average. These achievements are even more extraordinary considering Mississippi’s limited financial resources, with education spending per pupil ranked 40th in the country

The remarkable turnaround in literacy rates has captured the attention of educators nationwide who have dubbed the state’s turnaround the Mississippi “miracle”.

The driving force behind this transformation was “science of reading,” a research-backed approach that utilizes various methods from developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience to help children learn to read. Mississippi deployed literacy coaches across the state to train thousands of teachers in the approach, especially in low-performing schools. Their success story has inspired 23 other states to adopt similar strategies.

The success that Mississippi and other states have experienced with science of reading has also garnered widespread support from both educators and parents. The International Literacy Association, an organization representing over 300,000 literacy educators, fully endorses the science of reading approach. Additionally, Moms for Liberty, a national parental rights organization, supports science of reading as part of a broader initiative to “get back to basics.”

Now, as Maryland’s new interim state superintendent, Dr. Wright faces the daunting task of revitalizing the state’s public school system. One that once led the nation in fourth-grade reading scores, but has since plummeted to the 40th position among states.

Widely regarded as a leading authority in implementing the science of reading, Dr. Wright’s appointment as Maryland’s interim superintendent offers a glimmer of hope for educators and parents looking to ignite Maryland’s own literacy “miracle”.  

The concept of science of reading is not new to Maryland. Baltimore City adopted it in 2013,  simultaneously with Mississippi. However, literacy rates in the city have remained dismal and unchanged from a decade ago.

Despite the program’s popularity among educators and parents, the rest of the state has been slower to adopt science of reading. Teacher unions, which hold considerable political influence over Maryland’s education policy, have been hesitant to fully support the initiative. They cite a lack of resources and extensive training requirements as significant obstacles to its implementation.

But critics argue that if the union were genuinely supportive of science of reading, they would actively seek solutions to these alleged problems. They point to the union’s emphasis on initiatives that divert attention from core academics, like Social Emotional Learning, a teaching method incorporating social justice into the entire curriculum. It is noteworthy that the National Education Association offers 15 hours of professional development training and encourages teachers to spend an hour a day on SEL, yet provides minimal resources dedicated to science of reading.

Undeterred by the union’s lack of enthusiasm, the Maryland State Department of Education pressed forward with $53 million in federal pandemic relief funds to provide science of reading resources to local school systems.  So far, 22 of Maryland’s 24 counties have received money through the grant, with Anne Arundel county currently in the application process and Harford piloting a science of reading program.

The Maryland Accountability and Implementation Board, responsible for implementing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a massive state-led overhaul of public education, has called for local districts to implement plans aligned with science of reading by June 2024.  Mohammed Choudhury, the recently ousted superintendent who now holds a high-paying “advisory role” with the state board of education, recently stated in the left-leaning Baltimore Banner article that the state should go even further and pass legislation that enforces compliance.

However, critics fear that science of reading could be used as another attempt by the state to justify top-down control of local school systems. They point to Choudhury’s legislative attempt earlier this year aimed at mandating gender queer theory curriculum, but ultimately morphed into a complete state takeover of local education. His attempt met widespread resistance from public school systems and parents across the state, leading to a statewide movement for his removal.

To Dr. Carey Wright’s credit, she has signaled a less combative approach and has promised to foster a more collaborative partnership with local school districts. “I am confident that by establishing strong relationships and partnerships across the state, we will witness robust and equitable educational outcomes for our students. I welcome the opportunity to be an active participant in this endeavor.”

With the substantial investments from the Maryland State Department of Education, Dr. Wright’s commitment to partner with local school systems, and her successful track record, Maryland’s education system might just stand a chance to have its own literacy miracle.

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