As a teacher, principal and superintendent, I found that students and staff alike will rise or fall to meet expectations. When you expect excellence, you achieve excellent results.
When you set the bar lower, excellence will seldom be achieved. Mississippi’s consistent appearance on the bottom of the state-to-state comparisons of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is due in large part to a culture of low expectations that has permeated this state for far too long. Making the changes necessary to improve education in Mississippi is a long and winding road that begins with increasing expectations for everyone: students, teachers, school leaders and communities.
We began increasing expectations by increasing the rigor of our curriculum. Within days of beginning my tenure as state superintendent, I received a call from then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings who informed me that our curriculum was not going to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education because our expectations were far too low.
Our students need to be learning the same information at each grade level that students in Massachusetts, Maine and Missouri are learning. Our students must be prepared to compete against students from other states and countries for college and career opportunities when they complete their education, so our students must be learning the same information at each step along the way. We have revised our mathematics and language arts curricula for each grade level and now have one of the strongest in the country. We require students to demonstrate a much greater depth of knowledge than ever before.
Of course, we need to measure student progress to ensure that they are mastering the more rigorous course content. The Mississippi Curriculum Test, Second Edition (MCT2) represents a proportional increase in rigor to reflect the more advanced coursework. The MCT2 was first administered in May of 2008 and will be administered again this May. Once we have data from two years of testing, we will use those test scores to determine how well all schools and districts are performing.
The Commission on School Accreditation and a special task force have worked very hard over the past few months to develop a rating system that appropriately reflects student achievement and will clearly demonstrate which schools are achieving truly excellent results and those schools that are not growing their students. A correlation to the national average has been drawn so that communities will know if their schools are performing at, above or below the national average. The Commission on School Accreditation recently approved the draft rating system, which will now go the State Board of Education for them to consider sending out for public comment at their meeting this month.
Now that we have appropriate rigor in the curriculum and assessment system and a way of translating scores into clearly defined levels of performance, we must have strong accountability measures for school leaders. The Children First Act of 2009 provides the kind of strong accountability that is needed to ensure that superintendents and board members find a way to get the job done. The Children First Act cleared a major hurdle last week. It has been passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but with slightly different versions. Each chamber will now consider the legislation passed by their fellow legislators as it continues to work its way through the process.
The curriculum, assessment and accountability measures all represent crucial pieces of the education puzzle and are coming together as never before. I believe 2009 will be remembered as a year of convergence for education in Mississippi, when school leaders, the State Board and lawmakers came together to put children first and set the stage for dramatic improvement in education in the years to come.
Contact state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds through Pete Smith, his press secretary, at PSmith@mde.k12.ms.us.