Jackson, Miss. — When Kristen Wells joined the staff at Emmalee Isable Elementary in West Jackson as literacy coach last August, she was hit with a host of challenges.
Less than 30 percent of third-graders were proficient or advanced on the state reading exam. The school, like many in Mississippi, was in the midst of transitioning to new, more challenging classroom standards.
And though her job was to coach teachers in reading instruction, Wells often found herself helping teachers cope with unruly students.
“If you can’t control them, you can’t teach,” Wells explained as she walked down a quiet school hallway on a recent morning.
Wells is one of 29 literacy coaches hired by the Mississippi Department of Education this year to improve instruction in the state’s most struggling schools. Their presence is widely seen as a potential solution in a state where intergenerational poverty and illiteracy leaves many students lacking basic reading skills.
Many students live in homes where parents aren’t reading well. Nearly 7 percent of adults have less than a ninth-grade education.
Statewide, abysmal test scores tell the story. Just 21 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced on a national reading exam last year; a little more than half of eighth graders scored proficient or advanced in the state’s language arts exam.
The lackluster performance prompted Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to sign a series of education reforms into law last year, including state-funded pre-K, charter schools and the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which places coaches in the lowest-performing elementary schools and calls for holding back third-graders reading below grade level.
More than a year later, the act is widely considered the reform most immediately helping students.
Most literacy coaches split their week between two schools, which is a constraint that Wells said is one of the biggest challenges. The two schools she coaches at are 40 minutes away from each other, which means she can only be at one school each day. At all assigned schools, coaches hold training sessions for teachers, observe classes and step in to teach lessons so teachers can watch and pick up new ideas.
Already this school year, 50 underperforming schools received help from literacy coaches for the entire school year. And nearly 4,000 elementary school teachers, assistants, and school employees were trained to teach reading, according to Kymyona Burk, literacy director for the state’s office of curriculum and instruction.
This spring, lawmakers increased funding by nearly $6 million, to $15 million. The funding will allow the state to hire and train 14 additional veteran educators with either a master’s degree in education or extensive experience as a reading expert.
Still, it’s still not nearly enough to tackle Mississippi’s massive literacy problem, which goes hand and hand with its high poverty rate. Some 35 percent of children live in poverty, and more than 70 percent of students in the state’s public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Poor reading skills plague some in the state for life. At least 16 percent of the state’s adults were found to be illiterate, according to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, with rates soaring as high as 30 percent in some of the most impoverished and rural counties,
And while a growing body of research shows that early childhood education is crucial to literacy development, only about 6 percent of Mississippi’s children will have access to state-funded high-quality preschool this fall, where they could learn early reading skills like letters and sounds.
They are often behind even before they walk into a classroom. Poor children hear fewer words and typically have less access to books and educational experiences. And kindergarten is not mandatory in Mississippi, where educators say more than 40 percent of children come to school unable to hold crayons or identify colors.
That means literacy coaches often face a race against time they can’t easily win. The outlook for students who don’t learn how to read by third grade is grim; children who are not reading by that point are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma, research shows.
“We have a time crunch,” said Theresa Schultz, who splits her time between training coaches and coaching teachers at Bogue Chitto School an hour south of Jackson, which serves nearly 700 students, K-12.
Schultz says the earliest years are the most critical for children learning how to read. If teachers can help struggling readers in early grades, she said, “then the world is open to them.”
Helping Struggling Readers
On a recent morning at Emmalee Isable Elementary, literacy coach Kristen Wells was showing a new teacher, Terrol McElroy, how to work with struggling readers in second grade.
McElroy directed students to different parts of the room where they were supposed to work quietly with partners. The class erupted into chatter. Wells took the opportunity to show McElroy how to curb the talking.
“If you’re talking to somebody, I shouldn’t hear your outside voice,” Wells said in a calm but assertive tone. “Use your inside voice like this,” she whispered.
The class fell silent.
This story is part of our ongoing series about the Mississippi’s dismal education outcomes and what can be done to turn the state’s fortunes.
Like nearly 18 percent of Mississippi’s aspiring teachers, McElroy entered the classroom through one of the state’s approved alternate routes at Mississippi College, and never went through a traditional teacher preparation program’s classes.
“I came in cold turkey,” McElroy said.
McElroy sat next to Wells in the back of the classroom and watched as she led a small group of students through a careful reading of a short story. After the lesson, Wells left him with a list of strategies, and scheduled a meeting to talk about what he had learned and how he will use it in his classroom.
“It’s more than literacy,” McElroy said. “She made me tough, she taught me how to control a classroom. She goes above and beyond.”
Principals in schools with literacy coaches say they see a difference.
Bogue Chitto principal Mickey Myers said the school became eligible for a coach after several years of low scores. Last year, about 64 percent of third-graders scored below proficient on the state reading exam.
By December, after Schultz had been working at Bogue Chitto only a few months, Myers said several classes had made more than average growth on a standardized reading assessment.
“We are seeing extraordinary progress,” Myers said as he looked over data from the school’s mid-year exam. And by training teachers on new methods, Myers added, “[Schultz] is setting us up for long-term success.”
Additional help for teachers is limited in a poor state with few resources for education. Only two state education staff members are available to train teachers in new Common Core standards in English language arts and math; the state often relies on online or recorded trainings in the most rural areas.
A 2012 report from the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review found just 1 percent of state education staffers are “specifically tasked with improving classroom instruction in all of the state’s school districts.”
And schools in Mississippi have been underfunded by more than $1 billion in the past six years, which means teachers are dealing with larger class sizes and fewer resources at a time when state and national reforms are coming to a head.
In 2015, third-grade students who score at the lowest level on reading exams will be at risk for retention. The year is the first that students will take more challenging end-of-grade tests aligned with Common Core state standards, which Mississippi adopted in 2010 along with 45 other states and the District of Columbia.
That’s why literacy coaches are so valuable, says regional coordinator Schultz.
“Teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure…there’s a lot that’s new,” Schultz said.
One of the most beneficial aspects is the coaches’ ability to provide immediate feedback. If a teacher is struggling during a lesson, a coach can instantly provide assistance, watch the teacher try a new strategy, and let them know how it worked.
Helping, not evaluating
Unlike many administrators, coaches aren’t evaluating teachers. They are there just to help with instruction.
“Teaching is a difficult job…having someone there to help you put [change] in place, that doesn’t take place on a regular basis,” Schultz said.
But it can be hard for coaches to come in to schools, build trust, and establish a relationship as a partner, not an evaluator, educators say. Kymyona Burk said over the past year, she has seen many schools slowly transition from thinking “well, [the state] is in our building, it’s trouble,” to “this is a partnership.”
And Schultz said that a partnership isn’t needed just for struggling schools or to help new teachers.
“Professional football players have coaches,” Schultz said. “Even guys at the top of that field have coaches because they want to improve their game. Having someone there that’s going to help you is an asset in a school.”
Mississippi’s investment in literacy coaches, while significant, still falls short of states like Alabama and Florida. Alabama provides literacy coaches to every school for kindergarten through third grade classrooms, as well as about a dozen for secondary schools.
Nationwide, the use of literacy coaches has been found to improve a teacher’s ability to deliver reading instruction. A national study of 17 states that use literacy coaches concluded, “school-based coaching supports the national priority for improving teacher quality. Best of all, school-based coaching benefits students through providing high-quality instruction.”
Other studies find the use of coaches to train teachers leads to “substantial school-wide reading achievement.”
Florida has placed more than 2,000 reading coaches in schools in recent years while also cutting class sizes, which has made it hard to determine the impact of coaches. While results have been mixed, a majority of middle school teachers surveyed for a 2008 study said that literacy coaches “made them feel more confident in their ability to teach reading to students.”
Burk, the state’s literacy director, says Mississippi’s goal is similar to Alabama’s.
“What we would want to have is a coach at every elementary school,” Burk said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
For the upcoming school year, the state hopes to reach 74 schools with its additional coaches, up from 50 this year.
“We are meeting the needs of most of our ‘F’ and ‘D’ labeled districts,” Burk said referring to the upcoming school year.
The state is also trying to ramp up other assistance for teachers. This fall, Mississippi will place 27 teachers and administrators in school districts specifically to help improve teaching across subject areas.
Even so, the reforms may not solve the larger problem: Teachers too often enter the state’s classrooms without skills to help struggling readers, said Angela Rutherford, director of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction at the University of Mississippi.
Graduates of the school’s teacher preparation program may need literacy coaches because their training was lacking, Rutherford said.
“In an ideal world, our candidates would graduate, receive their license, and hit the ground running,’’ she said. But that does not always happen.
“I don’t think that they’re always getting what they need…that’s where literacy coaches are involved.”
Mississippi has come under criticism before for failing to prepare teachers adequately. A controversial 2013 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found “just 60 percent of evaluated elementary programs in Mississippi are preparing teacher candidates in effective, scientifically based reading instruction.”
Since 2006, the state has required that all programs teach six credit hours in early literacy instruction, including strategies to teach reading.
There is wide variation: one preparation program might require a student to teach a sample reading lesson; another could hand out a paper and pencil test to determine an aspiring teacher’s knowledge.
The two required classes in Mississippi’s elementary education teacher-preparation programs introduce students to literacy, but neither class focuses on struggling readers.
Unlike in states like California, aspiring teachers in Mississippi are not required to teach lessons or demonstrate an ability to teach before they receive a credential. The state also does not require elementary education teachers to be tested on their own knowledge of reading – something that will be required of graduates beginning in 2016.
Rutherford said the state’s requirement has potential to develop adequate teachers. “I think done well, the 15 hours should be sufficient,” Rutherford said. But, she added, Mississippi’s reading scores are consistently the lowest in the nation: “Which tells me we’re not doing it well.”
At the University of Mississippi — one of the two largest teacher preparation schools in the state — Rutherford said aspiring teachers are required to plan and teach several lessons in classrooms during their senior year.
They are not required to teach any specific subject, or even a variety of subjects. That means students could leave their senior year without ever teaching a reading lesson.
The state is trying to ensure that new teachers receive adequate literacy training. Burk said her department has trained about 75 educators at colleges and universities on the same techniques that current teachers are learning, and up to 300 aspiring teachers will take part in state trainings this year in addition to their teacher preparation program classes.
Burk agrees that the state’s training sessions, while meant for all teachers, target those with gaps in reading strategies even after graduating from teacher preparation programs.
“It’s really for teachers who went through a teacher education program,’’ Burk said. “They were licensed to teach, but they still did not get those explicit strategies for teaching struggling readers.’’