scorecardresearch Skip to main content

In states where lawmakers step up, reading scores rise

Kymyona Burk, who led Mississippi’s literacy transformation, gave a legislative briefing on literacy bills at the State House.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Wide-scale changes to improve early literacy are coming fast — in states other than Massachusetts.

Across the country, states are reforming literacy laws to align with the “science of reading,” a wide body of research on how the brain learns to read.

By next fall, all schools in Georgia must use evidence-based reading materials, and schools in Virginia have to give extra instruction to K-8 students who are behind in reading. Minnesota, meanwhile, is mandating training in evidence-based reading instruction for teachers at all grade levels by 2027. North Carolina has spent $28.6 million on reading specialists; Ohio has earmarked $18 million.


It’s a national reckoning, one the Massachusetts Legislature has been conspicuously absent from. And the results in states issuing evidence-based literacy mandates cannot be denied. The more comprehensive the law, the bigger the impact on student achievement, according to Michigan State University researchers.

Mississippi has one of the most sweeping laws in the country. The state, which began the shift in 2013, requires evidence-based literacy strategies and trains teachers to use them in their classrooms. Crucially, the state also has invested heavily in literacy coaches, who provide practical, on-the-ground training for working teachers, giving them feedback, helping plan lessons, and even demonstrating how to work with students.

These coaches have been a driving force in Mississippi, which at one point deployed about 80 of these highly-trained experts to the state’s lowest-performing schools, a former state official there said. Massachusetts doesn’t directly fund structured literacy coaches.

Since its reading revolution began, Mississippi has outperformed the nation in fourth grade reading growth. Poor students there have catapulted from 42nd to second in the nation since 2011, even as disadvantaged students in Massachusetts have slipped from first to fifth. Florida, longtime science of reading state, is tops in the country for poor kids.


“In schools and classrooms, we should be seeing people make decisions based on evidence, because there really is no need to guess at this point,” said Nicole Patton Terry, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research. “There’s no reason why we can’t teach most children to read.”

Both Mississippi and Florida have also taken the controversial additional step of holding back third-graders who don’t pass state reading exams — a move that’s made their literacy laws more effective than other states’, the Michigan State study found.

Kymyona Burk, Mississippi literacy director from 2013 to 2019, said her state’s progress wouldn’t have been possible without strong state intervention.

“Leadership also has to ensure that these things are being done,” she said.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to

Mandy McLaren can be reached at Follow her @mandy_mclaren.