Is the Mississippi Miracle real despite the state continuing to rank low in education?

Click on any list ranking states by education quality, and Mississippi will most likely appear dead last or close to last.

Mississippi, a state facing financial and other barriers, has historically been branded as a low-education region.

However, some experts believe the typical ranking methods are not a good indicator of education in Mississippi.

The Mississippi Miracle

Supporters mingle after the press conference held by the Mississippi Association of Educators to promote their Raise Mississippi initiative near the Mississippi Supreme Court in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.
Supporters mingle after the press conference held by the Mississippi Association of Educators to promote their Raise Mississippi initiative near the Mississippi Supreme Court in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

State leaders including Gov. Tate Reeves often tout the “Mississippi Miracle,” a name given to the rise in literacy scores in Mississippi in recent decades.

The idea of the Mississippi Miracle seems undermined by data presented in many rankings and studies.

A recent study conducted by Smart Teacher, ranked Mississippi 35th out of states with the best education systems. The study gave each state a score from one to 100 based on several different factors, all of which used data from nationalreportcard.gov.

Mississippi earned 36.27 out of 100. The same study concluded that the average Mississippian visits a library only twice a year and determined the average yearly high school dropout rate is 6.8%.

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What experts say

Jeff Gagne, director of policy analysis for the Southern Regional Education Board, believes other states should actually look to Mississippi as an example.

"They are leaders in the nation on early grades literacy," Gagne said.

Gagne said researchers and analysts in the SREB often don't look at state test scores since the scores are not easily comparable across state lines.

Instead, Gagne pointed to National Association of Educational Procurement scores, since those tests are federally regulated.

The NAEP places test takers into three categories: below basic, basic and proficient and advanced.

In 2017, the SREB went back to look at NAEP data starting in 2007.

Gagne, who has done extensive research on Mississippi education, said what the data shows is a steady increase.

"(Mississippi was) pushing all performance categories up," Gagne said. "You see the percentage of students in 'below basic' decreasing while you see the percentage in 'proficient' increasing."

In addition, Gagne said the word “miracle” is not entirely accurate. Instead, the uptick in test numbers and proficiency rates is the result of a carefully planned and effort-driven method put in place nearly three decades ago.

"You've got to have data to inform policy and practice and you've got to pay attention to that data," Gagne said. "If it goes on the report and sits on a shelf, it's not doing anybody any good. And, Mississippi did a great job of using their data to continue to inform how they needed to change things."

Gagne credits the steady rise to the Barksdale Reading Institute which partnered with the state in 1998 and to the work of former Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright.

"Mississippi is the first state in the nation back in '98 to require their colleges of (education) to include a second early grades prep reading course for prospective teachers," Gagne said.

In addition, Gagne pointed to Wright's accomplishments including how she "set about hiring contractors to provide professional learning to every veteran teacher out in a classroom in the state of Mississippi."

SREB President Stephen L. Pruitt shared similar sentiments, saying analyzing state and local data in important to understand progress, not just rankings.

“Mississippi has made great gains and drawn national recognition in the area of reading and genuinely serves as a model for other states. This is about continual growth and progress, and all states, including Mississippi, have more work to do,” Pruitt said. “This is not like ranking sports teams. Education rankings make choices about what they measure, and it’s important to know what you’re counting."

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Will Mississippi start rising through the ranks?

If Mississippi is indeed improving steadily, will the state place better in national studies in the years to come?

It's not that clear cut.

Gagne said if the current progress continues, Mississippi might shed the stereotype. However, it all depends on the decisions made in the years to come, especially when it comes to early education.

"We keep telling states, 'Don't reinvent the wheel,'" Gagne said. "We know what works. We know what the research says. When I hear a policy maker say, 'If we only knew what works.' No. We know what works for a lot of things. The problem is we don't have the political will or the wisdom to do what the research tells us."

Got a news tip? Contact Mary Boyte at mboyte@jackson.gannett.com

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: What is literacy? Is Mississippi Miracle real despite low rank in education?