The Politics of Reading Crisis: From the FL Model to the MS “Miracle” and the TN Disaster

On August 16, 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson closed his speech at the Democratic National Convention with a refrain: “Stay out of the Bushes.”

Twenty-three years later, Jackson’s political message is just as relevant, but now in terms of the two decades of reading crisis that have been perpetuated since that address.

The Bushes, George W. and Jeb, built their political careers on crisis rhetoric about schools.

George W. Bush’s false Texas “miracle” was parlayed into the federal overreach and impossibly idealistic No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which mandated 100% of students would be proficient in reading by 2014.

Jeb Bush mirrored his brother’s pose as an education governor, in part by supporting draconian reading legislation that became known as the Florida Model:

Florida, which passed it’s Just Read, Florida! retention-based third-grade literacy policy in 2002, is largely considered the trailblazer of such policies (CCSSO, 2019). Florida’s policy includes several provisions designed to improve students’ literacy in grades K-3, including early identification of students who need additional supports, ongoing monitoring and communication with families, a range of literacy interventions, and third-grade retention for students who do not meet a certain score on the state assessment. By 2021, 19 states had adopted retention-based third-grade literacy policies that contained several elements of Florida’s policy.

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Changehttps://

Crying “crisis” and promising education “miracles” always fails. Here is FL NAEP reading data over the recent years since they adopted harsh grade retention policies, a story of flat scores:

Florida has not improved reading achievement but the state has retained a huge number of students, disproportionately minoritized children:

Unintentionally, FL has also established that inflated grades 3 and 4 test data are achievement mirages, according to a recent analysis: “a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s ‘learning rate’ was the worst in the country — by a wide margin,” and thus:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math. Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

However, the Florida Model mirage has maintained media and political momentum, laying the foundation for the next “miracle” that wasn’t, Mississippi. Starting in 2019 and continuing through 2023, MS is characterized as a “miracle” based on NAEP data—even though no research exists for why MS has had a steady increase in NAEP score for decades, well before “science of reading” or grade retention legislation:

Just like FL, MS has seen gains in early grades, but stagnant achievement by middle school:

8th grade reading trends

Yet, political propaganda continues to mislead by suggesting success where none really exists.

Especially in the South, and notably among Republican led states, the FL Model and MS “miracle” have inspired state reading policy and expanded grade retention, despite decades showing great harm for retention.

With the media uncritically spreading political propaganda—see Alabama and Louisiana compared to MS and FL—the damage is spreading to what should be dubbed the Tennessee Disaster:

More than half of Tennessee third graders fell short of a threshold required to move on to fourth grade unless they meet exemption standards, up their scores in a retake, attend summer school, undergo tutoring or file an appeal.

The state education department said in a news release Monday that 60% of third graders scored as “below” or “approaching” proficiency on the English language arts section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

Third grade reading scores: Tennessee reports 60% fall short on TCAP test

TN has learned the Republican play book, in fact.

First, create a false reading crisis; note that TN’s NAEP reading (like the rest of the nation) has been flat for decades:

Yet, as a next step, the FL Department of Education has proclaimed “Tennessee Makes Historic Gains in Third Grade Reading, Offers Strong Support for Students” even as the state data is underwhelming and, once again, flat:

The reality in TN is a snapshot of the entire nation; there is no reading crisis and the reform is mostly about political agendas:

So why do Lee and Schwinn want parents, taxpayers and legislators to think that two-thirds of Tennessee public school students can’t read? Why do they want you to think that your kids’ and grandkids’ teachers are not doing a good job teaching them to read when, in fact, almost 90% of Tennessee students are reading on grade level by the time they graduate?

It’s because they want to create a fake crisis to make it easier to continue the privatization of public schools through private school vouchers and privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools.

Don’t believe claims that Tennessee students can’t read

The current SOR movement has been fully integrated into the manufactured crisis machine of Republican efforts to dismantle public education with false charges of failure and simplistic reform that causes great harm to students.

Jackson’s rhetorical flurry, “Stay out of the Bushes,” hits a bit differently in 2023, but we still should heed the warning if we care about students, reading, and public schools.


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)