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The Mississippi Miracle

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

California is the world’s 5th largest economy and the richest state in America, yet our K-12 students score in the bottom quartile in both reading and math. Our goal at the 21st Century Alliance is to move our students to the top quartile by 2035.

It might seem insurmountable, given that California's students have languished near the bottom nationally for decades - except that one of the poorest states in the country, Mississippi, has nearly done it.

Mississippi’s 4th grade reading performance in 2013 looked a lot like California’s, but worse: 49th in the nation, where they had been mired for at least two decades.

Over the last 9 years, Mississippi’s fourth grade reading scores have risen 28 spots, to 21st in the nation this year. If California had improved at the same rate since 2013, our 4th graders would be in the 18th spot nationally today. Instead, we’re 32nd. Mississippi’s secret: Common sense public policy.

In 2013, Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, intended to help identify young children having difficulty reading and provide appropriate interventions to get them to grade level by third grade. Key components of the Mississippi approach included:

  • Robust teacher training and coaching with scientifically-based reading instruction;

  • Individualized reading plans for students who were struggling;

  • Retention for 3rd graders who did not meet reading goals, with appropriate exemption provisions and targeted resources for retained students; and

  • A focus on those students scoring in the bottom 25% in early reading assessments.

The 21st Century Alliance is about providing political support for best practices – solutions to our greatest problems that we’ve seen work in other states and nations. We will have to adjust what has worked in other states, because each state is different. But those adjustments should be driven by data, not politics. If we’re concerned about our kids, it’s time to follow Mississippi’s lead. The results in Mississippi, the New York Times concludes, “speak for themselves.”

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