83% Out of Luck

83% Out of Luck

83% Out of Luck


Is it possible that a rural school serving poor families in the middle of Mississippi is changing the way we look at curriculum and instruction in the early grades?

For decades, American schools have struggled to cram more content into the school day, a tendency that has accelerated with the addition of federally mandated tests from third grade on. There is a twisted rationale behind this pattern. Poor student learning outcomes inspired us to teach more, teach faster, and ask students to digest content at younger ages. We required teachers to use rigidly paced or scripted learning programs in an effort to show that they have “covered” every imaginable aspect of content. Then we added tests to more frequently monitor the failure of this instructional design.

I delivered it. They just didn’t get it. Not my fault.

The results aren’t pretty. According to a special report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 67% of American children are scoring below proficient reading levels at the beginning of 4th grade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. Of these, 34% read at the basic level and 33% read at the below basic level. One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time, four times the rate for children with proficient third grade reading skills. “These scores are profoundly disappointing to all of us who see school success and high school graduation as beacons in the battle against intergenerational poverty” (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).

At the beginning of fourth grade it is important for students to have achieved a solid foundation of early learning skills. Proficiency at this age is an alarmingly accurate predictor of learning success throughout school and life. And yet only one-third of our U.S. students reach levels of proficiency that predict successful lifelong learning.

The news is worse if you are poor. 83% of children in low-income families (Hernandez, 2011) have reading skills below the proficient level. Overall, 22% of children who have lived in poverty (for at least one year) do not graduate from high school on time, compared to 6% of those who have never been poor. For children who have lived more than half of their childhood in poverty, this rate rises to 32% (Hernandez, 2011). This rate is 16 times greater than the 2% dropout rate among proficient readers who have never been poor. If children do not gain the skills and habits necessary to succeed in school by age eight, they are more likely to struggle to perform well and be less motivated for future learning in middle and high schools.  They will also struggle to develop the higher order thinking, communication, analytic and social skills that are the essential for success in life (Foundation for Child Development, 2011).

Let’s be clear. Racing through non-viable curriculum is not working. Using rigidly paced learning programs is damaging large numbers of children. Teaching scripted programs which pretend all children are at the same level of readiness is cruel for both the struggling and the advanced students. The teaching practices which lead to these outcomes are malpractice. They do harm. In the information age, in which literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills really do make a difference, these practices are unethical. When we apply these practices to large numbers of poor children with predictably horrific outcomes, it is a crime.

Drive through some poor community in your state. Go into the neighborhoods. Roll down the windows and look at the beautiful children. Recognize that 83% of these children are S. O. L. in the information age, that by fourth grade most of them have decided they dislike learning, and most of them have already disengaged from the learning process available to them in schools.

There are special places and people who offer hope. In rural Mississippi, Simpson Central School is a K-8 school which serves poor children, many of whom come to school without the language, motor, and social skills associated with school readiness. It is a Title 1 school, with 77% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. The population is 52% Caucasian and 48% African American.

Since 2008-09 they have gradually developed their early learning success initiative, beginning with a focus on reducing the scope of content, teaching children at their level of readiness, giving some children more time to learn, and building a solid foundation of language, motor and social skills. In Kindergarten and First Grade, teachers have learned to keep track of the development of essential skills using a systematic measurement system (Essential Skills Inventory) and then teach responsively to try to help every child achieve proficiency in the skills which matter most. During 2012-13 the Second Grade will carefully track the development of Essential Skills, and Third Grade during the following year. The process of transforming from a curriculum driven instructional system to a system which at least in the early grades uses formative assessment and responsive instruction is not yet complete.

In May of 2012, the first class of students who benefitted from the Early Learning Success Initiative at Simpson Central School since Kindergarten took the MCT2 at the end of their third grade year.

Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, Grade 3 Language Arts, Simpson County Central School,

2008 to 2012, Percent of Students in Category


Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, Grade 3 Mathematics, Simpson County Central School,

2008 to 2012, Percent of Students in Category


Percentage of Grade 3SCS Students Proficient or Above, 2007-08 to 2011-12

The Simpson Central staff has accepted a goal of helping more than 90% of their students reach or exceed proficiency. The goal has not yet been reached. But at the third grade level they are close. Rates of proficiency on the MCT2 have risen by 222% in reading and 147% in math.

End of year reading scores were tracked using the Developmental Reading Assessment 2 (DRA2) throughout each school year to help ensure proper attention was paid to giving students practice reading time at the correct instructional level. End of year data is analyzed in the following charts, showing the changes in proficiency since 2007-08, which is the year before the Early Learning Success Initiative began at Simpson Central School.





DRA2 scores improved significantly from 2007-08 to 2011-12 at every grade level. Of special note are the 2011-12 Kindergarten DRA2 scores. In the first year of fidelity to the Essential Skill Inventory (Sornson, 2012) protocol for on-going data updates and reviews, 91% of Kindergarten students were at-level or above.

In rural Mississippi, during the early learning years, children are finding a level of success that defies normal expectations. Teachers cover less content. They teach more carefully, to the readiness and needs of their students. There is more joy in these classrooms. They are places where teachers love to teach and students love to learn.


Annie E. Casey Foundation (2010),Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. Baltimore, MD.

Foundation for Child Development (2011), http://www.fcd-us.org/our-work/prek-3rd-education.

Hernandez, Donald (2011) Double Jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Sornson, B. (2012). Essential Skills Inventories K-3, Brighton, MI: Early Learning Foundation.

Bob Sornson, Ph.D. was a classroom teacher and school administrator for over 30 years, and is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. He is the author of Fanatically Formative: Successful Learning During the Crucial K-3 Years, The Juice Box Bully, Creating Classrooms Where Teachers Love to Teach, and many other books on parenting and early learning success. Contact Bob@earlylearningfoundation.com.