OPINION: Communities must convey high expectations for schools

By Tom Burnham

As I begin my second tenure as state superintendent of education, this is an appropriate time to reflect on the great progress that the state has made and look to the future of education in Mississippi.
Over the past several years, the Department of Education has benefited from the dynamic leadership of board members and superintendents who have led this department and have introduced many progressive ideas to help move Mississippi’s educational system to the next level.
Having had the opportunity to serve as an educator in another state and more recently preparing future teachers and administrators, I bring a different experience to this position. I know that the students, teachers and administrators in Mississippi work as diligently as their counterparts in any other region. However, we need to continue the upward climb in getting the value of education deeply embedded in every community across the state.
Mississippi communities need to challenge their students, teachers and leaders to strive for excellence and provide extremely high levels of support not only in terms of financial resources, but also in terms of commitment of time and active engagement. In short, over a long period of time the level of expectation should fall nothing short of excellence.
In Mississippi, we have areas of success but lack statewide accomplishment. Just recently, the department released the new accountability ratings that, for the first time, reflect accurately where our schools and districts stand academically as compared to the rest of the nation.
A small percentage of our schools and districts reached “Star” status, the highest rating this year. The model is built so that it will be increasingly challenging for schools and districts to remain at or to reach the “Star” level over the next three years. How will our schools perform at the highest level? In my view, it will be the high level of expectations that our communities will demand and the commitment these communities demonstrate toward our students, teachers and leaders to achieve success.
While our state has had many different accountability models through the years, I believe we are now on the right path to setting and achieving high expectations for our boys and girls. The state Board of Education has an aggressive and bold set of goals, which we will work hard to ensure are achieved. It is not going to be easy. We all know that in this present economic environment, when state revenues continue to lag and cuts to budgets are reaching double digits in some cases, tremendous challenges will impact our efforts to attain our highest levels of achievement.
However, we cannot sit idly by and let this positive groundswell of momentum be stymied in the face of these challenges. In fact, we have a strategic opportunity to move ahead. We are a strong and resilient people. Hurricanes Camille and Katrina proved it and there are many more examples of our perseverance.
I pledge to you that the Department of Education will continue to improve its efforts to effectively and efficiently deliver the kinds of services needed by students, teachers, administrators and other school leaders. We cannot wait! We must prepare the next generation of Mississippians so that they have the knowledge to take advantage of the opportunities our state will afford them in the future.
I feel that every community in this state has the passion, drive and will to make their schools be the absolute best that they can be. The Board of Education supports our communities 100 percent. As education and community leaders, we must assist our communities in expecting success and excellence from their schools.
It is not going to happen overnight but I believe now is the time. We stand to gain the most in greater prosperity in the future by investing in higher expectations today. Conversely, we have the most to lose in terms of economic decline if we continue to accept the status quo.
I look forward to working with the Legislature, educators, business leaders and communities to achieve greater success in education and build a brighter future for all Mississippians.

Contact Superintendent Tom Burnham through PSmith@mde.k12.ms.us.