When we think of a crisis situation in public education, we often think of decaying urban neighborhoods plagued by crime, unemployment, and drug use. Such areas are the sights of problems in education, but there is a strikingly similar phenomenon occurring in a vastly different location. Rural America, particularly in the South, has a colossal problem on its hands. This is evident in Mississippi. In other areas, Mississippi seems to be doing well. A number of high-tech and engineering companies have expanded in the state. Rolls Royce, for example, has opened an airplane engine plant in the state. Borg Warner recently made a sizable investment as well. This aerospace development spurred the creation of a saying in Mississippi: man will walk on the moon but first he’ll walk through Mississippi. However, good economic news cannot hide the fact that the state’s schools are a mess. One half of all third graders are not proficient in reading. The state as a whole has a 17% drop out rate in high school. Mississippi is continually ranked near the bottom in rankings on subjects from reading to math to history. A paltry 11% of Mississippi students who took the ACT met all it’s college readiness standards.
Governor Phil Bryant has made a push for action on this. “We must make reforms now; so that our citizens can be productive contributors to our communities and less reliant on social welfare programs”, he said in his State of the State Address. It’s been this way for decades. An old adage in Arkansas used when Bill Clinton was just a candidate for governor stated “Thank God for Mississippi,” as Arkansas was often ranked 49th in various rankings (often concerning education), beating only its neighbor to the Southeast. It really is a shame that Mississippi’s education system is in such a state of disarray. The state could have a bright future: the economy is on the upswing; it has year round good weather, and has ready access to both its namesake river and the Gulf of Mexico. Yet it is constantly held back. The education mess is a likely culprit. Bryant introduced a series of “Education Works” policies to try to turn around this system.
One of these has been termed the third grade gate. This idea has be implemented elsewhere in the country (including here in Ohio). It would end a phenomenon termed “social promotion,” where a student who from a strictly academic standpoint should repeat a grade is promoted to the next to prevent them from feeling that they have failed. Social promotion fits nicely with the self esteem movement, which is now being widely discredited as actually having a negative impact on young people’s self esteem. Under the new system, third graders would be held back a year if they are unable to read. This is an important step. As educators say, in the first years of schooling you learn to read, after that you read to learn. If a child cannot read, how can they be expected to thrive in forth grade and beyond?
Bryant has put the state’s money where his mouth is, asking the legislature to appropriate fifteen million dollars to assist in literacy programs for public schools. Spending this money is a wise move, because it will reduce the increasing cost of remedial education in a student’s later years.
Merit Based Pay is an idea that has been often talked about by proponents of education reform. Despite this, it has rarely been implemented. Where it has it has often met fierce resistance from teachers, many of whom lose their salary. Bryant has taken a different and more effective approach. Firstly he has dictated that no teacher will see a salary cut as a result of this program, which has quelled a fear often expressed by educators. The Merit Pay reform plan has been implemented in four districts to test its effectiveness. If it succeeds, Bryant plans to implement it statewide. The standards for new teachers has been raised to at least a 21 ACT score and a 3.0 GPA. Even this raised standard seems relatively easy for any capable aspiring teacher to achieve, and raises the rather disconcerting question of what the standards were previously.
The state is also introducing a scholarship program with an innovative way to attract good teachers to their state. The state will give full ride scholarships to 200 high school seniors who want to be schoolteachers if they will commit to teaching in the states public schools for five years. Many often talk about attracting bright minds to education – here’s a way to do it.
In the same State of the State Address, Bryant announced a new plan allowing districts to accept students from other schools if they wanted to in a ploy to help students in failing school districts get a better education. He spoke of a wall keeping students from better schools and said “Mississippi legislatures – let’s tear down those walls.”
Bryant didn’t stop there. He announced a series of “opportunity scholarships” for underprivileged students and directed 3 million to early childhood education. The legislature is doing their part as well as they are making an effort on charter school legislation. There’s a new program for dropout prevention and another one for workforce training. Bryant quoted Ronald Reagan, saying that the parents who work hard to give their kids a better life are the quiet heroes of America. “It is for these quiet heroes we strive,” said the governor in his notable Southern accent. He may be on his way to being something of a quiet hero on his own. Many governors strive to be “The Education Governor”. Few, aside from Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindahl, have been successful. But without much fanfare, Phil Bryant, a man few people outside of Mississippi have ever heard of, is putting together a fairly amazing package of education reforms. Every idea that’s gained widespread support: third grade gates, merit based pay, attracting the brightest students to teaching, charter schools, school choice, early childhood education – has been recently implemented or is on the verge of being implemented in Mississippi (the plans for charter schools, third grade reading standards, and teaching scholarships were signed in 2013). So while the current state of the state’s education system is dismal, the future just might be brighter than ever before.