Children at a child care center in Mississippi.

Fifteen percent of Mississippi children didn’t pass the state’s reading test by third grade, and a new report examines one reason why that may be: Many of the state’s early grade teachers don’t know enough about teaching kids how to read.

Mississippi’s teacher preparation programs are failing to adequately prepare teachers in reading instruction according to a new report by the nonprofit Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI). The group reviewed 15 traditional teacher preparation programs at 23 different sites in Mississippi and found that the content taught in classes and the hours spent on instruction vary greatly among programs, but that new teachers often learn strategies to teach literacy that aren’t research-based.

While overall, the amount of time teacher preparation programs spend on the five components of early literacy (phonological/phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) has increased since 2003, the number of instructional hours and the amount of time programs require aspiring teachers to spend in classrooms varies greatly. For one early literacy course that is offered by all programs, the hours spent in class ranged from 14 to 40 among the prep programs, and the hours of fieldwork required ranged from zero to 20.

The inconsistency in literacy instruction for Mississippi’s teachers means educators vary greatly in their ability to effectively teach reading. Some new teachers may enter the classroom with little to no experience in certain literacy skills depending on which institution they attended. For example, eleven teacher prep programs do not teach letter formation, and four programs spend less than an hour teaching candidates about vocabulary.

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Mississippi has long lagged the rest of the country on national reading exams. In 2015, only 31 percent of the state’s fourth-grade students scored proficient or advanced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to the national average of 35 percent. Only 21 percent of the state’s eighth-grade students were proficient or advanced.

In 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Literacy-based Promotion Act, which holds back most students who are reading behind grade level at the end of third-grade. Last year, nearly 15 percent of third graders failed to pass the third-grade exam on the first try. After two retests, 92 percent of students had passed the exam. Individual school districts were then left to decide which students would receive an exemption and move on to fourth grade.

The authors of the report spoke to aspiring educators in Mississippi’s teacher prep programs and found “very limited and conflicting knowledge” about how to teach early literacy skills. Some teacher prep students said their assignments failed to prepare them to teach reading, and for example, instead of being graded on the content of their work or given meaningful assignments, they were graded on the organization of their notebooks and were given tasks like reading 100 children’s books. Overall, research-based practices for teaching reading were found to be missing throughout teacher preparation programs in the state.

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“Generally, there is awareness among [teacher] candidates of the importance of applying scientific research to the teaching of reading,” wrote the authors of the report. “But they have little knowledge about the research or how to apply the research to instruction.”

Faculty members reported that certain literacy courses were “overwhelming” and were often taught at the wrong time during the program, which led to candidates forgetting the material by the time they graduated.

The authors of the report recommended several policy changes to boost literacy instruction in the state, including adding standards to the state’s accreditation of teacher preparation programs that require research-based methods in early literacy classes. The report also recommended the creation of K-3 “laboratory classrooms” throughout the state where teachers can observe quality literacy instruction, as well as a requirement that aspiring teachers show they are able to teach literacy before they can graduate from a program.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.