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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Is Mississippi Shifting to Online Teacher Education with Reading Universe?

Switching from face-to-face, in-person public education to computer screens is concerning. It’s happening in K12 and appears to be driving privatization with teacher education at the university level.

The Science of Reading lends itself to this, but there’s little proof online instruction makes better students or teachers. So far, research supporting this is hard to find.

In Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times opinion piece, he credits the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) for Mississippi’s reading success.

There’s controversy surrounding Mississippi’s reading improvement, but if the BRI succeeded, why are they ending the current program and continuing their investment in an online unproven teacher training program called Reading Universe?

The BRI will join WETA (PBS) along with Reading Rockets and First Book, which includes funding from two anonymous donors to put Science of Reading instruction for teachers online.

Reading Universe will debut in 2024.

Most of the Institute’s educational assets will live on in BRI’s Reading Universe through its partnership with two nationally recognized organizations: WETA, the flagship PBS station in Washington, D.C. and First Book, an international organization focused on building a pathway out of poverty through education equity. As BRI closes the book next summer on its Mississippi operations, WETA and First Book will launch the initial prototype of BRI’s Reading Universe, which aims to be the premier source of information about teaching reading and writing to students in grades pre-K through 6th grade.

The BRI also received a grant from the Bezos Family Foundation. They say they will develop, market, test, and refine a prototype of The Reading Universe interactive website for teacher development in the science of reading.

Like K12, when university teacher education is underfunded, universities and school districts will turn to alternative teaching programs and online instruction to make teachers.

University changes like this have been happening for years and needs to be factored into the conversation about school test results.

For example, according to Artiles (2021), fewer investments in teacher preparation programs like special education, researchers, and teacher education faculty, have led to fewer well-prepared special education teachers. This is when more students need increased assistance, and educational inequalities are high for students of color.

Outside corporations or foundations may partner with schools and dictate how and what teachers should learn, usually for a business agenda.

Jim Barksdale, a former COO of FedEx and Netscape CEOgenerously donated to the University of Mississippi and has given students scholarships.

In 2000, the Barksdales donated $100 million to the university to establish the BRI. They partner with Teach for America and others who promote the Science of Reading. Teach for America involvement is troubling since the corps members get only five weeks of training, which is not enough preparation to be teachers.

The Barksdales funded early education Building Blocks and asked the state to support the program.

In The Hechinger Report (2012), Barksdale states:

These children are better prepared for kindergarten which means they’re better prepared to go on to school life ahead of them. They’re better prepared to be contributing citizens of this state.

And in a PBS interview, he also claims:

I had gotten involved in a major initiative in California as the co-chair of a technology network, which is made up of approximately 300 CEOs from high tech companies in America. Our biggest problem, the thing holding the industry back the most, is the lack of qualified workers; and the problem holding that back is America’s public school system. We’re just not feeding the industry. 

Barksdale put a team together to teach professors to teach teachers how to teach reading which also seems strange. Aren’t professors the experts?

BRI involved outside involvement of other companies. The Foundations of Reading is by Pearson. They also promote LTRS Training also delivered virtually.

Responding to inquiries from more than 20 states about its work in pre-service teacher preparation, BRI initiated The Path Forward, a multi-state project in collaboration with The Belk Foundation (NC) and The Hunt Institute (NC). Six state teams were selected for Cohort 1 in 2021, including Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Former governor Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd showcases the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI), Hunt Institute, and Belk Foundation for teacher preparation. Bush and many other corporate reformers have promoted online instruction for children anytime, anywhere for years. How much profit will be made with an online program to train teachers?

Science of Reading promoter and businessperson Kareem Weaver is a parent and adviser to Reading Universe and a vocal supporter of the Science of Reading. He’s not a teacher.

Weaver states,

Reading Universe will give every teacher, every school, and every district free, instant access to authoritative, engaging, and video-rich information about what it takes to teach reading well.

Weaver used to lead New Leaders Western Division, and his teaching credentials are unclear. New Leaders is like Teach for America only for principals. He is now co-founder and runs the Fulcrum Group about reading.

Education blogger Thomas Ultican’s “The Right to Read” is Horse Manure, describes a movie Weaver helped sponsor promoting the Science of Reading and he connects Weaver to various companies that will lead to school privatization and profitmaking.

As more corporations and foundations take over funding of university education programs along with K12 public education, watch for changes made in how teachers and students are provided instruction.

Wait for more online programs like Reading Universe to train teachers how to teach reading and other subjects.

It seems too simple and inadequate and focused on profitmaking for what real teachers should understand about teaching children how to read.


Kristof, N. (2023: May 31). Mississippi is offering lessons for America on education. The New York Times, Retrieved from…

Artiles, A. J. (2021). The future of special education: Emerging visions on the preparation of leaders. Stanford Graduate School of Education, Equity Alliance.


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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...