EDITORIAL: Getting Better

Test scores from the 2009-2010 school year in Mississippi will be made public Friday and school ratings will follow next month.
The state’s new accountability system is weighted heavily toward improvement in student performance. It’s possible for a school to outperform another on test scores but still be ranked lower because its rate of improvement doesn’t meet goals. Conversely, a school that has been struggling but shows improvement can be ranked higher than the better-scoring school.
This puts pressure on adequate or higher-performing schools to avoid complacency, and it encourages those who have not done well to strive for improvement and be rewarded when they achieve it. The idea is for no school to be satisfied with where it is.
In education as well as in other areas of life, improvement usually doesn’t come by doing things the same way. Rethinking of old ways and habits is critical.
The Lee County School District has focused on improving its lower-performing schools in the last year, and in the case of Shannon Middle School the effort involves significant, innovative change. The district applied for a federal school improvement grant and didn’t get it, but the lessons learned are being put to use this school year, as education reporter Chris Kieffer detailed in the Sunday Journal.
For example, instruction time has been rearranged to provide an additional 90 minutes each day on language arts, a weak area. New grade configurations and changes that separate Shannon Middle more from the neighboring high school aim to create a stronger sense of unity and purpose at the school.
While the federal grant would have provided resources to reward teachers financially based on student performance and give more professional training, the school’s new leadership is using the momentum from the grant application to push ahead.
Clearly, shaking up the status quo will be necessary not only for low-performing schools to reach an acceptable level, but for all Mississippi schools to get where they need to be.
That will involve some experimentation to see what’s effective. Lawndale Elementary in Tupelo, for example, is trying out single-gender classrooms in the third and fourth grade as a pilot for the district. And this is the first full year for the district’s technology initiative that will put a laptop in the hands of all students in the upper grades.
The willingness to do things differently and see what works will be necessary to raise student performance across the board. Change is never easy, and change without a clearly defined purpose can be counterproductive. But without shaking up the status quo, improvement may be little more than a wish unfulfilled.

NEMS Daily Journal