LLOYD GRAY: A model in context

By Lloyd Gray

Having models is helpful. Emulating or imitating the best or most successful people, business practices or government programs can be, in addition to the sincerest form of flattery, a way to improve results.
But every model used must be adapted to particular circumstances, which among the emulators are seldom identical to where the model originally took root.
Mississippi’s political leaders have a model they’d like our state to embrace. It’s what Florida has done over the last decade and a half to improve its public education system.
There’s much to recommend that path. Florida has moved from a bottom-tier state in education rankings to a much higher rung on the ladder. It undertook broad and comprehensive changes in its education system over a period of years that produced measurable, substantive improvements in student achievement.
In the second monthly installment of the Daily Journal’s year-long series, “The State of our Schools,” education reporter Chris Kieffer traces the evolution of education reform in Florida and how Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi’s legislative leaders plan to bring Florida-style changes to this state. They’ve already introduced one – the A-F rating system for Mississippi schools in the past legislative session, and they plan several more this year.
Mississippi can learn much from Florida. Any state that improved educational achievement as much as Florida did merits a good, hard examination to determine what could work here.
Here’s the caveat: The model must be seen as a whole, not in isolated parts, and any attempt to transfer elements of the model to Mississippi must take into account this state’s unique circumstances.
For example, when we hear of Florida’s policy of not promoting third graders who don’t read on grade level, we can’t ignore – as lawmakers may be prone to do – the significant investment the state made in reading programs and “literacy coaches” leading up to that point. It wasn’t simply an order to schools to do better or else, a negative incentive that somehow produced a miracle.
Or when we hear of reading scores moving from below the national average to international competitiveness, we can’t lose sight of the statewide financial commitment made to pre-K education in Florida and Mississippi’s uniqueness in being the only state in the South that provides no state funding for pre-K.
When we hear of charter schools and other elements of expanded parental choice making a difference in Florida, we also need to be aware that this was only one component of many in the Florida model, and an element that produced mixed results. And any Mississippi adaptations must take into account the origins of most Mississippi private schools as havens for whites looking to avoid or minimize racial integration.
Mississippi’s political leadership has often been guilty of insular thinking, of refusing to look elsewhere for solutions to problems or to acknowledge that maybe most everyone else might be on to something. At times we have stubbornly insisted on keeping things as they are – i.e., elected school superintendents – when we are virtually the only place that does it the way we do.
So finding best-practice models and learning from them is a good thing to do, and in education, Florida is a good place to look. But in so doing, it’s critical to remember that 1) it was a lot of things, not one or two, that propelled Florida; 2) they weren’t free; and 3) Mississippi can learn from Florida, but that’s not the same thing as saying the states, and therefore the solutions, are identical.
Keep those points in mind, and the Florida model can be most useful for our state.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.