OUR OPINION: Higher expectations a start for schools

By NEMS Daily Journal

Education Week’s annual ranking of state school systems, released last week, wasn’t kind to Mississippi. The state got a C-minus rating, ahead of only three states – Idaho, Nevada and South Dakota – in the publication’s Quality Counts survey. But there’s good news in the survey as well. Mississippi received an A and ranked 10th in the nation in the area of standards, assessment and accountability. That doesn’t make up for the F the state got in K-12 achievement, but it suggests Mississippi’s education leaders understand that without higher expectations there will be little chance for significant improvement.
Higher standards are critical, but they alone can’t achieve the progress in student achievement that Mississippi seeks. There’s momentum in the Legislature, for example, to adopt a policy pioneered in Florida in which students who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade aren’t promoted. That’s a higher expectation, but in Florida it came with more than a simple mandate.
Florida pumped considerable resources into pre-K programs – an area where Mississippi falls abysmally short – and in reading coaches in the lower grades. Mississippi leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant, are at least beginning to talk about those needs, but action will speak louder than words.
Mississippi is also just coming to the recognition of the absolute primacy of excellent teaching in achieving student success. The state has challenges in that area, in large measure because it hasn’t done enough to attract top-flight students into teaching and hasn’t paid them sufficiently when they enter the profession. Upgrading both the expectations and the rewards of being a Mississippi teacher must be high on policymakers’ education reform priority list, and it’s not there yet.
All of this eventually relates to funding as a necessary component. Mississippi passed a law defining adequate school funding, put it fully into effect 11 years ago and then ignored its requirements in all but two of those years. Financial challenges got in the way, no doubt, as state revenues went south with the economy. But a billion dollars over a decade or so – the shortage in full funding, as defined by the law – is a lot to overcome.
Quality Counts’ F grade to Mississippi on K-12 achievement is representative of what motivates the current wide-ranging discussion about the most effective ways to improve.
The problem is complex and the solutions aren’t simple. But acknowledgment that we aren’t where we need to be is the necessary first step. Mississippi’s highest ranked educational component – its accountability system – says we’re at last being honest with ourselves about where we are.