Educating Mississippi’s Children: Can We Really do it on Our Own?

Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carey Wright recently announced the Mississippi Department of Education will seek public comments for Common Core English and math standards. She said a committee of educators will then examine comments and issue proposals for possible deletions or changes to the Standards to the state Board of Education. Of course, Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves applauded her decision, but why shouldn’t they? In their eyes, Wright’s study panel constitutes a softening of her support for the Standards. That might not actually be the case, but Wright, who is caught between a rock and hard place due to her support for the Standards and her future as the State Superintendent of Education, has taken the only action available to allow her to “save face,” confront public conspiracy hysteria, and appease the Governor and Lieutenant Governor as well as the Republican dominated state house and senate. If the results of the study point negatively at the Standards, Wright will probably be given the opportunity to renounce her support and be welcomed by Bryant and Reeves as the long lost “prodigal son” who has finally come to her senses; however, if the study sheds favorable light on the Standards, Wright’s future as State Superintendent of Education could be in jeopardy. The only thing that is for certain with the study is that regardless of the results, Phil Bryant’s distrust of the Standards and Tate Reeves’ political aspirations will not be curbed.

In spite of its detractors, Common Core Standards represent a major step in the right direction for the education of Mississippi children who year after year rank nationally at or on the bottom in academic achievement. The Standards are not a threat to Mississippi children; the threats that hold potential disastrous consequences for Mississippi’s children are the lack of support for a curriculum (any curriculum) that dares step outside public and leadership comfort zones, lack of understanding or interest in the basic concepts of learning, and the inability of many in the public and in state leadership to comprehend the long term and unintended consequences of their failure to embrace a rigorous curriculum that teaches children to be critical thinkers rather than masters of simple recall of information. There are those in the public and state leadership who believe Mississippians do not need curriculum or even funding help when it comes to the education of our children; they believe we can do just fine on our own. If that is true, why haven’t we done so before now?  Instead, on our own, we have demonstrated year after year that when it comes to the education of ALL children in the state, we lack the motivation, resources, and maybe even the capacity to pull ourselves off the academic bottom.

When the facts are considered rationally without acerbic denials, bitter accusations, and acrimonious blame, the only plausible conclusion is that as a state, we have passed the point of “do it ourselves.” Decades of bad choices, bad leadership, bad men in important positions, quality of education dictated by geographical boundaries, and an embedded belief by state leaders that education is just another item that needs to be funded have led Mississippi to the brink of educational bankruptcy. Our children – we – do not deserve that! Unfortunately, too few in the public and leadership have any interest in understanding the facts or making the tough education choices required to end such malpractice. But, maybe, we are incapable of comprehending our dire circumstances or acting for the common good of Mississippi.

The only way Mississippi can prosper is if its people are knowledgeable, educated, individually responsible, self-reliant, capable of critical thinking and willing to accept the consequences of their actions. The plantation fiefdoms of the 19th Century are long behind us; we can no longer prosper as a state where the majority submits to the will and thought process of a few.  We can no longer afford a society where prosperity is often little more than a trickle down from the affluence of a few. The future of Mississippi is in the education of its children – an education that must be more than “good enough” – an education that must positively transcend to future generations. While there is a time for Mississippians to take pride in our “home grown” “we can do it better” heritage, such notions do not always translate effectively to the real world, especially in education. In nearly 200 years as a state, Mississippi has struggled to consistently get the education of its children right, so why would the public, educators, and leadership in a state that ranks regularly in the nation’s bottom two or three in academic performance believe we now have the capacity to do better without outside help? When it comes to education, we have had multiple decades of doing it on our own with little to show for our efforts. Do we want to continue banging our heads against the wall and in five or ten years still be trailing the rest of the nation academically, scratching our heads and asking the same questions, and still pointing fingers of blame?  If yes, then all we need do is continue on the path we are going.  If not, all of us need to stop treating our children’s education as a game, a political gambit, and a whipping boy for our fears and insecurities. We need to embrace a curriculum that takes us out of our comfort zones and into the 21st Century; we need to rally behind education and not against it.

JL

©Jack Linton, May 17, 2015

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