Literacy instruction: Are Mississippians too nice?

Today we began the third installment of the Daily Journal’s year-long State of Our Schools series. The entire series can be found here.

During my reporting for this week’s series, I spoke with former State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham, who now leads the Principal Corps program based at the University of Mississippi.

Much information from those interviews is included in our package. But Burnham also raised an interesting point about school culture that did not fit into those stories. Perhaps Mississippi is too nice, to its own detriment.

Burnham, who has worked as a school district superintendent in both Mississippi and North Carolina, said he noticed a difference in school culture between the two states.

When he first went to North Carolina after his first tenure as Mississippi’s State Superintendent, Burnham said he noticed there, “a deep rooted belief (in classrooms) that I’m going to teach a child to read.”

“This child is not going to go through my classroom and not learn how to read,” he said. “They will continually recycle that child back into extended day, they’ll recycle that child into extended year and so they’re constantly doing what it takes so that child is keeping up with other children.

“It doesn’t mean that every child that goes through school in North Carolina is going to read, but a much greater percentage of the children who go through the schools there will be readers.”

I asked him if it is part of a culture up there.

“Absolutely,” Burnham said. “It is a culture among the teachers, it is part of a culture of the school community and it is part of the culture of the greater community.

“The one thing you realize very quickly when you go to work as an administrator in North Carolina, if you don’t get it done, they are going to send you on down the road, there is not a great deal of hesitation, particularly at the superintendent’s level to move people along if progress is not made.”

So, I asked the obvious follow-up question. Does he not see that same emphasis in Mississippi?

“Not as much emphasis on that,” he said. “We are much more, and I think it goes back to who we are as a people. We are much nicer and much more gracious professionally than my experience was there. They are very nice and very gracious, but if the job is not getting done there is not going to be a great deal of acceptance of you staying.”

So what do you think? Is Mississippi too nice? Will it take a greater sense or urgency for the state to improve its literacy levels?

  • Becky Glover

    Excellent post, Chris! I’m beginning to think that our detriment is a combination of being “too nice/gracious,” coupled with a real failure, by many, to recognize the indispensable value of literacy . . . either for an individual child, our collective children, our schools, our communities, or our society, as a whole.

    Yes, it WILL absolutely take a greater sense of urgency for our state to improve its literacy levels. That’s something that is at the very core of what Parents for Public Schools (national organization) does every day. As part of PPS’ Schoolhouse to Statehouse initiative, five Parent Coaches (across MS), including your own priceless Sally Gray, look for ways to educate, motivate, and support parents, schools, and communities to improve public schools for all children. We do this by continuously striking a balance between creating a sense of urgency to improve education in our public schools without attacking public schools or . . . each other. It’s a delicate, yet absolutely essential, action we engage in that involves showing parents, schools, and/or communities their own student achievement data, helping them understand their data, and then supporting them in working together to change their own data for the betterment of more children in their community.

    It’s important for them to understand the truth of what their own data reveals to them, and we find that this process can and does create a sense of urgency. We really strive to help people understand what the data says and, equally important, what it does not say.

    Once their eyes are opened, we work with them to increase their capacity to bring about the improvements they say they want. Our work is the work of and with the people of MS . . . to connect them with tools and knowledge and, most importantly, their own motivation to improve education.

    Your great blog post reminds me of a New York times article my husband recently shared with me: What Data Can’t Do, by David Brooks.

    Tom Burnham’s point about school culture is hard to find in data for many reasons, mainly due to the difficulty in capturing, collecting, and tracking that type of data. The NYT article states several things that big data does poorly, but I think these are the three that stand out the most for me:

    1. Data struggles with the social
    2. Data struggles with context
    3. Data obscures values

    To quote David Brooks, “The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through . . . ”

    I greatly appreciate your value choice to include this part of your interview with Tom Burnham in your stories.