Often ranked last in the nation on many educational surveys, Mississippi has struggled with its education system for decades.
For example, on the recent Science and Engineering Readiness Index, Mississippi ranked 50th for high school students on their performance in physics and calculus. The Magnolia State also came in last on the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey earlier this year. It often rates last on high school graduation rates; some surveys have found that nearly 30 percent of Mississippi high school students drop out.
Mississippi is also a state that, at various times, has had the highest percentage of low birth-weight babies, the highest percentage of children living in poverty and the highest percentage of children in single-parent families. All of these affect education in the Southern state. So does the severe budget cuts that the state has suffered in recent years.
Last week, the Department of Justice reported a “School-to-Prison pipeline” in the state. Teachers and principals ship off children into the criminal justice system for minor infractions. It was another unwelcome black eye on the state’s educational system.
Experts often visit Mississippi to suggest how the state’s leaders can improve education. Dr. Marc Tucker, CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said in a forum hosted by the State Department of Education last year that Mississippi students must compete internationally or face further decline.
The state is aware of what it faces with low student performance in a system that doesn’t have enough quality teachers and administrators. Now, Mississippi’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant wants to mirror his state after Florida’s education system. So much so, that he invited former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, to speak last week in the state.
The legislature has already started an A-to-F grading system for schools and districts and adopted the national common core academic standards.
The previous grading system worked on a seven point scale where an A ranged from 93-100. Now the state prefers the more popular 10-point system. The change helps make students more competitive for scholarships.
Last month, the Mississippi Board of Education voted to drop requirements that at least 80 percent of students must graduate for schools to earn the top “star” rating for one year. Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First, told local media, “It is the obligation of a K-12 system that kids graduate from high school prepared for college or career. There's no reason to beat around the bush on this other than people don't want to look bad.”
It is time we make fundamental changes to education in Mississippi.
Bryant wants to do more than shift numbers. In mirroring Florida, he wants to adopt charter schools, a measure that failed in 2011 in the legislature. He also wants to offer tax credit-financed scholarships, essentially vouchers, to private schools for poor students. That, too, has not been popular in the past in Mississippi.
A merit pay system for teachers, who are facing a new evaluation system, is another goal of Bryant’s. Currently, teachers receive raises based on seniority. The Mississippi House and Senate are both currently Republican controlled and are supportive of this measure.
For students, Bryant wants to possibly hold back third graders who haven’t mastered their reading on that grade level and possibly the same for eighth graders. Florida has done so since the 2002-03 school year with mixed results.
“My education agenda is aggressive but failure is not an option,” Bryant said in his first state of the state address last January. “It is time we make fundamental changes to education in Mississippi.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com