LLOYD GRAY: State headed in right direction on school reform

Anyone who has followed Mississippi’s K-12 education policy debates in recent years knows that the system is changing in fundamental ways.
Standards have been raised. There’s greater accountability, not just for school districts but for individual schools, administrators and teachers.
We’ve agreed to stop kidding ourselves through low standards and inflated ratings that a disproportionate number of our schools are above average. No longer are we comparing Mississippi schools only with each other and not with the rest of the nation.
Tolerance at the state level is now close to zero for dysfunctional school districts, their school boards and superintendents. The state is finally serious about righting those dire situations where children are denied the chance to begin their lives on a level playing field.
The Children First Act of 2009 passed by the Mississippi Legislature states clearly in its title a priority that hasn’t always ruled.
Yet all this change – the seeds of meaningful reform and increased rigor – weren’t enough to impress the U.S. Department of Education to include Mississippi among the 18 states chosen as finalists last week in the second round of funding for the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” school reform effort. The prize for Mississippi would have been $175 million in federal stimulus money to use in advancing reforms that improve educational performance.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham and his staff had worked with education officials in Tennessee, one of only two states chosen in the first round, and Louisiana, which was among the second round finalists, in preparing Mississippi’s application. Back in June, Burnham told the Daily Journal editorial board he was optimistic about the state’s chances, especially since the Legislature this year had adopted a limited charter school program, a component used in the formula for deciding “Race to the Top” winners.
Interestingly, education is the one area where the Obama administration is pursuing a path with which Republicans have historically agreed: higher standards, a results-oriented focus, increased accountability for teachers and administrators and an element of competition for traditional public schools. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have defied the status-quo protectiveness of the teachers’ unions and some civil rights organizations, a stance that has gotten little attention among all the other big issues in Washington.
Just last week, the president defended Race to the Top in a speech to the National Urban League, which has vigorously opposed it. He told the civil rights organization that what’s not working for minorities in education is the status quo. Student performance must figure into teacher evaluations, the president said, and that’s a major component of Race to the Top.
“So even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure we’re seeing results in the classroom,” Obama said. “If they’re not seeing results in the classroom, let’s work with teachers to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.”
A Republican president wouldn’t have said it any differently.
Mississippi is headed in the direction of meaningful reform around which Race to the Top is built. It’s not all the way there yet, but it’s way ahead of where it was just a few years ago.
An affirmation from Race to the Top would have been a big boost for the state, not to mention an infusion of much-needed money for cash-strapped schools. But the process of applying was surely instructive, and Mississippi’s education leaders have vowed to put the lessons to use – perhaps in the next round of applications, but certainly in executing the changes that are afoot.
For a long time, public education advocates in Mississippi were understandably reluctant to put high demands and significant pressure on schools that have always been underfunded and undersupported in communities that could barely scrape up the money to pay for the absolute minimum essentials. That thinking has now given way to the clear understanding that without higher expectations and greater accountability, schools will never significantly improve.
Status quo education in Mississippi is to no one’s benefit, least of all the children the system is supposed to serve. Even if shaking up the status quo never gets the big bucks from Washington, Mississippi mustn’t let up.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal