Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation, the highest percentage of children born to unmarried mothers and is in a virtual tie with Arkansas for the highest rate of births to teenagers.
While we’ve made some progress, Mississippi is also last in most educational performance measures.
These dual realities are closely intertwined.
Poverty affects educational achievement. Educational achievement is the most effective way to escape poverty, yet teenage pregnancy and births to unmarried mothers help perpetuate a cycle of low educational attainment and, therefore, poverty.
If you don’t believe it, just look at the bar graph on Page 6A in today’s paper. It’s striking.
When Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer showed me the data he had compiled, we were both blown away. We knew poverty and family structure affected education; we had no idea that income, births to unmarried mothers and teen births would be so precisely correlated with school district performance as is reflected by state rankings.
The averages are stark and stunning: “A” districts have the highest income and the lowest teen birth and unmarried mother rates; “F” districts have the lowest income and the highest of the other two. And B, C, and D districts following in exact order in all three categories.
It confirmed the decision we had made earlier to tackle these issues as the latest installment of the Daily Journal’s year-long “State of our Schools” series.
It’s easy to look at these statistics and say, “Well, there you go.” Demography is destiny.
Too easy. Mississippi’s history and current trends in these areas will doom us if we let them.
While the week-long “State of Our Schools” installment that starts today acknowledges these harsh realities, it’s not our purpose to suggest that 1) they excuse poor educational performance, or that 2) nothing can be done about academic achievement until these long-standing realities and accelerating trends are corrected and reversed.
We need to work on further reducing teen pregnancy, which has actually been trending downward, and reversing an alarmingly accelerating trend of births to unmarried mothers, teens and older. But in the meantime we need to make a stronger commitment to educating children who come from family circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage from the start.
In this series installment, we’ll be looking not only at the data but at the people behind the statistics. We’ll explore the obstacles people living in poverty, teen mothers and single-parent households face in getting the most out of education for their children and themselves. We’ll look at ways schools can address the cultural differences of students in poverty to improve their academic achievement.
We’ll report on efforts to curb teen pregnancy, including the debate about approaches to sex education in the schools, as well as looking at the programs and organizations that are working to keep kids on track in their schooling and in making the choices that will give them a fighting chance in life.
Chris Kieffer and five other reporters – Robbie Ward, Scott Morris, Michaela Morris, JB Clark and Riley Manning – have contributed to this project, and they along with photographers Lauren Wood and Thomas Wells all have come away with a deeper understanding of both the daunting nature of this challenge and the necessity of meeting it.
Mississippi’s legacy of poverty will never be overcome and its economy will never fully take off as long as we fail to effectively educate such a large share of our population. We simply can’t write off those children and their futures. It would be bad for our state, and morally indefensible.
The answers aren’t easy. We hope after reading our series this week, you’ll at least have a better understanding of the questions.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.