“Thank God for Mississippi.”
For many years, that saying captured New Mexico’s unsavory rivalry with Mississippi, a state that often seemed to save New Mexico from coming in last when rating students’ academic proficiency levels.
But these days, it isn’t used much anymore. Over the past several years, Mississippi’s elementary scores on The Nation’s Report Card have steadily gone up, with the Magnolia State now ranking around the mid-30s in fourth grade proficiency levels.
New Mexico, on the other hand, seemed to hit a wall, and the state has lingered around the bottom of the country’s proficiency rates on even the most recent national report card.
For some, the two states’ differing educational trajectories over the years pose simple questions: Why can Mississippi improve, when New Mexico can’t seem to? And what are they doing that we aren’t?
But it’s not quite as simple as exactly following a Mississippi blueprint — and even though New Mexico has been working on some of the things they did for years, change doesn’t happen overnight.
“They rolled out their initiative in 2014, and in 2019 is when Mississippi actually saw their academic gains,” said Severo Martinez, director of New Mexico’s Public Education Department’s Literacy and Humanities. “It took that five years to get teachers trained up, where students actually had an educator that was equipped.”
To be sure, Mississippi hasn’t completely turned the ship around. In eighth-grade achievement, the state still hovers around 48th and 49th in the nation.
But in fourth grade reading — a critical juncture where experts say students stop learning to read and start reading to learn — Mississippi has soared to the 33rd spot in reading proficiency, and 37th in math.
A big part of that, former Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told the Journal, has been a concerted effort to indoctrinate teachers in the science of reading.
“What we were finding is that not everybody was coming out of our universities knowing how to teach the science of reading,” Wright, who retired in June, said. “So our professional development, year after year after year after year, really focused on exactly that — what are the skill sets that teachers need to know, be able to do, in order to get children to read?”
That’s a strategy New Mexico has already worked with Mississippi to copy.
In 2019, lawmakers passed legislation mandating all elementary school teachers be trained in structured literacy, which often comes in the form of professional development that breaks down how people learn to read.
The flagship training in New Mexico is known as Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), and it’s already in the process of being rolled out.
So far, about 800 educators have fully completed the LETRS training, Martinez said, pointing out that it takes about two years to do so.
But about 6,000 educators are enrolled — including all kindergarten through third grade teachers, Martinez said. Eventually, all elementary educators will participate.
While New Mexico has spread LETRS to many of its educators, it’s still early to tell whether it’s working, Martinez said.
“It does take time,” he said, pointing to an implementation chart that indicates first graders should begin seeing outcomes next school year.
But Wright also said that’s how it played out in Mississippi, saying it took several years for their results to start rolling in.
“You’ve got to stick to it,” she said. “It’s got to be something that’s done again, and again, and again and again, because you keep getting new crops of kids, and you keep getting new crops of teachers.”
The Mississippi Department of Education, Wright said, also put literacy coaches in place throughout the state to help schools with the lowest reading scores get on track. Martinez said New Mexico is doing the same thing.
Currently, there are 23 literacy coaches deployed throughout the state, but Martinez said the PED plans to double the number of schools receiving such specialized support over the coming year.
Wright also highlighted Mississippi’s investments in early childhood education, saying that helped better prepare children to learn how to read. New Mexico is also emphasizing that, with a recent annual report from the Early Childhood Education and Care Department indicating some 66% of 4-year-olds are “accomplished” in literacy.
In the most recent iteration of the state House’s spending bill, which was passed on Thursday, $8 million would be set aside to help districts and charter schools implement LETRS, and another $13.5 million would be set aside for early literacy and reading support, like reading coaches.
There are always other considerations when comparing two states.
For example, New Mexico and Mississippi students and their families face similar rates of poverty; around 79% and 75%, respectively, are Title I. But there are more English learners in the Land of Enchantment — almost 18% of New Mexico students — meaning there are arguably different hurdles to jump.
Adding to the differences between the two states is that most students in New Mexico are Hispanic, whereas there are more Black or African American pupils in Mississippi than any other ethnicity.
And there are vastly more Indigenous students in New Mexico, meaning that they face their own sets of challenges, including less access to educational amenities close to home and scarcity in Native-language teachers.
Pueblos have consistently advocated for more resources to teach their own students their own Native languages, arguing it’s important in preserving heritage and pointing out that Indigenous instructors are the ones with the expertise in the cultural backgrounds of Native American English learners as well as in English proficiency.
“Pueblos and tribes have been forced to integrate into Western systems of education for … over 50 years,” All Pueblo Council of Governors Executive Director Teran Villa said. “It has had a devastating impact (on) Pueblos’ languages.”
That’s one of many factors that make some question the value of comparing such different states.
“We’ve always wondered whether the comparison with Mississippi is really that appropriate,” Anja Rudiger, a member of the Tribal Education Alliance, said. “There’s really not all that much in common — poverty rates, obviously — but as regard to the specific assets that children bring to learning and all the cultural richness … I don’t know if these comparisons buy us that much.”
That all being said, Martinez insisted that LETRS training accounts for all students, including those who don’t speak English as a first language. The PED website includes a course geared toward “English Learners and all culturally and linguistically diverse learners.”
“There should be no obstacle,” Martinez said. “If it’s a bilingual student, if it’s a student that comes from a low socioeconomic background … if we’re teaching the science of reading, this can impact literacy proficiency in any students.”
Wright agreed literacy programs can be universally helpful, pointing out that educational outcomes in her state didn’t just improve for the traditionally top-performing students. Average scores on The Nation’s Report Card show students who are economically disadvantaged and those who aren’t both generally improved over the years, though those who are economically disadvantaged still generally achieved lower average scores than the others.
“That was just proof positive — it’s not your top kids getting better, it’s everybody getting better,” she said.
In 2014, as part of the act that established literacy supports, Mississippi also began requiring that third graders be held back if they aren’t proficient in reading — a measure Wright pointed to as a contributing factor in her state’s fourth-grade meteoric rise.
“People expected a lot more kids to be retained than were,” Wright said. “That’s a real tribute to the teachers, because I think that once the teachers were trained in the science of reading and knew how to teach reading, each year our kids just kept getting stronger and stronger.”
Wright pointed to research from Boston University finding that early cohorts of students who were held back after Mississippi’s retention law was passed in 2013, in fact improved their academic outcomes, and didn’t see an impact on their absences.
But requiring that students be held back isn’t likely to happen here.
Currently, New Mexico first through seventh graders who aren’t academically proficient by the end of the school year aren’t required to be held back if their parents or guardians say they want their child to move on to the next grade, unless a student has moved on to the next grade despite not being proficient and remains that way during the second year.
For years, some lawmakers and members of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration pushed bills and rules that would have mandatorily held back third graders who, by the end of the school year, weren’t reading at grade level.
But year after year, those proposals failed or were repealed.
Historically, opponents of the measure have argued that it’s not fair to hold students back based on one test in one subject, that it isn’t as effective in catching students up as other practices and that it increases dropout rates.
“Adults can take steps that make sense to them that don’t make so much sense to kids,” said Mary Parr-Sánchez, president of the National Education Association New Mexico union. “Yes, it may help them to be able to score proficient the next year or the year after that,” but “we don’t know, long-term.”
Wright acknowledged that students who were held back needed more support during their second go-around to make sure that it did help them, including specialized one-on-one time with teachers.
“The children that were retained, what we did do with the third grade teachers was provide them with a different form of professional development, because the last thing children that were retained need … was just another year in third grade,” Wright said. “They needed something different, they needed a stronger instructional program.”
Still, Parr-Sánchez pointed out that holding students back carries the risk that they will internalize that they’re a failure and disconnect from school altogether, and said it’s more important to create a system that helps them succeed.
“We just need to look at a holistic system,” Parr-Sánchez said. “We need to put (resources) into it and support people, rather than punish them.”
In a written statement to the Journal, interim Education Secretary Mariana Padilla pointed out that sometimes, students aren’t meeting grade-level standards because of situations beyond their control — homelessness, moving around a lot, and the like.
“Research shows that grade retention can do more harm than good, including negatively impacting students’ self-esteem, peer relationships, school belonging and educational outcomes,” she said. “Having one-size-fits-all policies about mandatory retention only punishes students because their holistic needs were not met.”
She pointed to the state’s structured literacy initiatives as the way forward in actually helping the students who struggle the most.
But of course, that’ll take time to happen.
“Mississippi achievement in reading … it goes up, and so because of that, we are copying their strategy to get the science of reading in elementary schools,” Padilla’s predecessor, former Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus, told the Journal last year. “We’re maybe 10 years behind, but we are on our third year now.”
“We’re getting there.”
LETRS, by the numbers
Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) is New Mexico’s main way of imparting the science of reading to educators. It does so by arming them with the skills to teach reading — including phonics and vocabulary — while also informing them about the brain science behind it. Here’s a look at LETRS, by the numbers.
- $42 MILLION: What the state has invested in literacy initiatives up to this year
- $21.5 MILLION: What the state plans to spend over the coming fiscal year
- 6,000: The number of educators enrolled
- 800: Educators have completed LETRS
- 145 hours: The hours it takes to complete the training
- ?: Individual school districts decide how to compensate teachers for the training, though the PED provides guidance on how to spend some of the money
Literacy crisis in NM
The Albuquerque Journal, along with KOAT-TV and KKOB radio, continue to highlight the literacy crisis in New Mexico, which continues to rank at the bottom in fourth-graders’ proficiency rates. KOAT is featuring its own report on Mississippi on the 6 p.m. news program Wednesday, Feb. 22., and both KOAT and Journal reporters will be guests this week on KKOB to speak about what they’ve learned.
More stories in the series: