Last month Carey Wright was named Superintendent of Education in my home state of Mississippi. With a long list of qualifications, including a consulting gig with the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University, Wright brings a lot of expertise and knowledge to a state whose school system consistently ranks as one of the lowest in the nation. Before being named to this newest position, Wright worked in high-level educational positions in Maryland and the District of Columbia -- both areas with different educational struggles and demographics than Mississippi.
So what will Wright have in front of her in this new position?
Where Mississippi is Now
Though statistics only tell a surface story of K-12 education in Mississippi, they are certainly a starting point. Wright faces an uphill battle when it comes to educational achievement for K-12 students in Mississippi that includes these facts:
• Mississippi has the highest poverty rate and the lowest income in the nation. Clearly these numbers impact the level of education K-12 students achieve and their attitudes toward learning.
• Single-parent families account for 46 percent of the households in Mississippi. As a result, schools serve as a place for learning beyond what is found in a textbook.
• Mississippi is the only Southern state with no pre-Kindergarten program. It is one of only 11 states lacking this helpful early childhood stepping stone.
• The majority of Mississippi residents are white, but only 44 percent of public students are white. Many of the white K-12 students in the state attend private schools that were put in place when desegregation began.
• The high school dropout rate for Mississippi sits at 26 percent. Of those, 32 percent are black students and 25 percent are Hispanic students. White students account for just 18 percent of the dropout rate in the state.
• Over one-third of the jobs in Mississippi are considered “low wage.” To raise the economic bar for this generation of K-12 students the state will need to vastly improve its educational achievements to feed a skilled workforce.
To succeed, Wright will need to understand how all of the academic statistics interact with the domestic numbers and find solutions that work better for all K-12 students in the state.
In early 2013, Mississippi lawmakers made history by passing charter school legislation that allows for the approval of up to 15 new charters in the state every year. The law followed intense lobbying by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who is the chairman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group that pushes for more school choice options and heightened accountability. The new legislation is the first of its kind in Mississippi and proponents hope that it tears down the color barrier in classrooms that continues to plague the state almost 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation by law. Wright will need to navigate the waters of new legislation and ensure accountability on the part of charter schools to insist that they serve their intended purpose in the state.
Wright certainly has her work cut out for her. To reform the public K-12 in Mississippi, she will need to break down walls in classrooms that have existed since the earliest days of public schools in the state. There is no reason that Mississippi should be viewed as a lost cause when it comes to K-12 achievement and I say that partially out of loyalty but also from a practical standpoint. The first step toward change is recognition that it needs to take place. Recent legislation and the appointment of Wright encourage me that the state of K-12 education in Mississippi today will look much differently in another decade, and for the better.
Do you think Mississippi has a legitimate chance to vastly improve K-12 achievement on Wright’s watch?
Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.
The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.