Carey Wright recently finished overseeing Mississippi’s public education system during one of its most transformative decades.
As state superintendent of education from 2013 to 2022, Wright led the Mississippi Department of Education as schools in the nation’s poorest state caught up to the national average in 4th grade reading and math after long lagging the rest of the country. Between 2013 and 2019, Mississippi posted the second largest gains in the nation in those subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only schools in Washington, D.C., improved more quickly.
During Wright’s tenure as one of the longest-serving state superintendents in the nation, she oversaw implementation of the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, a controversial measure that required 3rd graders to pass an annual reading exam to be promoted to 4th grade, as well as the first state investment in pre-K.
Wright stepped down as Mississippi’s state superintendent last June. On Tuesday, she announced she will join the board of DreamBox Learning, an education technology company that provides online K-12 math and reading lessons. She also serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, and has held leadership roles for the public school systems in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Md.
Wright last week spoke with Education Week about her experience in Mississippi and the current state of American education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How can education technology help address the chief challenges schools face right now?
During the middle of COVID, you could tell that a lot of teachers were just in a panic because many of them did not know how to set up Google Classrooms or didn’t know how to set up a Zoom call. So schools invested a lot in professional development and people were starting to get the hang of it. When we started returning to in-person classes, I pushed teachers to use all of the tools side by side.
Technology will never take the place of a teacher, but high-quality digital content can definitely supplement what the teachers provide in terms of instruction.
It can give the teacher feedback about how the children are and where they are so when she’s getting ready to teach her lesson, she can glean from that information and then craft her instruction.
You’ve got a great teacher, and then if you’ve got a great instructional program that can supplement what that teacher is trying to get accomplished, you can really have some magic.
What is the top thing education leaders need to focus on now to get students back on track?
When you look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that came out in 2022, that should have been a wake-up call for everyone, because not only was there a decline in reading, but for the first time ever, there was a decline in math that was rather sharp.
I think we need to be thinking about what the instructional day looks like. We’re leaning very heavily on high dosage tutoring, but we need to make sure all students have access to that, wherever they are.
The other thing that came out of the pandemic that was loud and clear, were the issues around mental health and the emotional well-being of both teachers and students. One of the things that we did in Mississippi was we put out a [request for proposals] and we expanded telehealth and teletherapy throughout the entire state of Mississippi, even in the most rural parts of the state.
It’s more than just looking at the academic side of a child. If a child is struggling and is not feeling mentally well, learning really doesn’t happen the way it needs to. So I think as a nation, we need to be thinking about the emotional needs of our children.
I think this is time for us to really be looking at, how are we using the instructional day? How are we ensuring that children are cared for in their instruction, as well as the other interventions that they need?
What was the primary driver of students’ academic progress during your tenure in Mississippi?
I think it was a comprehensive approach, and I just don’t think we’d have seen the success we had without all of the different things we did working together.
We adopted the science of reading, and we ensured that all of our teachers in kindergarten through 3rd grade and special education were trained, and provided resources for valuable professional development, hired coaches to be in the classrooms with teachers to model lessons and provide feedback.
We adopted high standards and we did not back down from those high standards.
We had a strong accountability system that I think really focused largely on those students in the bottom 25 percent.
I’ve often said behind every data point is a face and you’ve got to know who that face is. That really caused our schools to step back and ask, who are those children, and how we’re going to meet the needs of all children.
We just continued to listen to our teachers, provide the professional development that we felt that they needed, and as the scores started to rise we weren’t satisfied with that and kept asking, what else can we do, or what other access and opportunities do students need?
It’s proof if you do the right things and keep that laser focus on children, no matter how tough it is, or if you fall short a few times, or whatever the case may be, that you can really make a difference.
Are states focusing enough on building up early-childhood education as a long-term academic improvement strategy?
I think we’re seeing a lot more states investing in early childhood.
Mississippi leaned in on that with the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013.
It was the first time we’ve ever had public money in early childhood. But what we started seeing by using our data was what our children actually needed headed into kindergarten.
I changed our kindergarten enrollment form so that parents would have to tell us where their children were before, like if they were at home or a public pre-K, or within one of our collaboratives, and we found those kids in our collaboratives were consistently outperforming their peers on the kindergarten readiness assessment.
So then we really knew what quality early-childhood education looked like, and what our students needed, so we started investing in our early-childhood programs in the areas that needed them the most based on our data, because there’s so much research around the power of early childhood, not just in the short term, but in students’ long-term success.
If you follow some of the longitudinal studies, those who participate have higher high school graduation rates, are less likely to be involved in drugs and the police.
It’s a workforce development strategy at an early age, and I think people are really recognizing that and how important expanding access to those high quality programs truly is.