Mississippi still deeply feels the effects from the days when the state had a feudal economy and nearly half its population was consigned to field hand or menial labor status.
Those days are over now, but the legacy lingers. Nearly two centuries of undervaluing education because it was considered by officialdom to be of little or no use to virtually all black and many white Mississippians is hard to overcome in a few years’ or even a few decades’ time.
Undervaluing education and legally enforced racial discrimination went hand-in-hand. We are still paying the price.
But history’s burden is no excuse to throw up our hands, as the “State of Our Schools” stories in the Daily Journal this week emphasize. Mississippi’s always present and still stubbornly entrenched poverty won’t be overcome anytime soon. But it will never be overcome, and little progress will be made, if the state, its communities and its public schools don’t make a stronger commitment to educate all children well, not just the children who come from homes where a good foundation has already been laid for learning before they show up at the schoolhouse door.
Children who grow up in poverty can learn. That’s the first inalterable premise we must embrace. There’s no place, in the words of former President George W. Bush, for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” when it comes to the educational performance of low-income Mississippians, whether black, white, Hispanic or Asian.
Yet the data tells the story of a school system statewide whose performance is in virtual lockstep with its demographics. The highest-performing school systems are in the places with the highest income and fewest births to single and teen mothers. The worst have the lowest income and the highest number of children born to teens and unmarried mothers of any age. The teen and unmarried births, as much as any other factor, help keep the cycle of poverty going.
The data is unacceptable.
Mississippi needs its higher-socioeconomic school systems to do even better than they’re doing. And it needs a wholesale redirection in its poverty-stricken areas.
But even within the better-performing school districts, economic and racial achievement gaps are vast. We need to do more to ensure that the fewer-in-number at-risk students get the kind of attention they need to be successful.
High expectations for all students is at the core, and adjusting teaching strategies where necessary is hard but essential.
Education is the way out of poverty. But if education fails the impoverished, there’s nowhere to go.