What will it take to reform K-12 education in Mississippi?

By Matthew Lynch

Year after year, it breaks my heart to see the public education system in my home state of Mississippi repeatedly scoring so low in education rankings, particularly when it comes to students in a viscous cycle of underachievement. As an educator, it makes me disheartened to know that as a whole, public schools are not winning the battle against low-incomes and poverty and their negative impact on learning.

I do not doubt that there are exceptional schools in Mississippi. In fact, I have worked for several of them. However, this is the exception to the rule, rather than the norm. We all know what happens to students who leave high school without basic skills. More often than not, they fall prey to a cycle of generational poverty, underachievement and possibly incarceration.

My critiques are not meant to bash my home state and its K-12 educational system; my aim is to issue it a no holds barred wake up call. Collectively, our educational system cannot get any worse, so why deny charter schools the right to come in and mix things up a bit? Or to put dollars beyond aggressive social work programs that extend beyond academic constraints? I do not endorse making rash decisions, but I also do not condone sitting idly by and expecting for our system to magically get better.

So what can be done about this? There is obviously a problem that exists but observation alone will not get us very far. Then the question shifts to whether anyone even cares. Realistically, the parents of most Mississippi public school students cannot be relied upon to change this near-failing trend. Many of these parents were students in the same seats in their own K-12 generation so they do not know anything different. The children certainly cannot change the course of their educations. Even if they understood that the learning process around them needed to improve, they have no power to change it.

The responsibility then lies on the shoulders of educators – from the public school classroom teacher to the state superintendent of education, Dr. Carey Wright.

Increased equity

One way to improve the achievement of Mississippi public schools is to consolidate high and low-poverty districts to increase equity in school funding and reduce racial or socioeconomic segregation. I’d say that is a start – but simple consolidation will not solve the underlying problems. With low incomes and poverty come students with more baggage than their mid- to high-income peers and if those accompanying issues are not accounted for and addressed, the learning process will always be fruitless.

Life skills

Along with learning teaching methods, educators in Mississippi need to have social work training, of sorts, to accomplish their goals of reaching children academically and emotionally. Without public school programs that reach beyond the constraints of academics alone, Mississippi will continue to suffer low scores on annual education rankings. The bigger problem, of course, is that these numbers reflect public school student underachievement and that is an issue that impacts every citizen in my home state.

Urgency needed

The risks have never been greater: the future of Mississippi and its children is at stake. Mississippians cannot continue to allow the educational system to operate in its current condition. While there is no magic formula or configuration to solve the problems our schools face, we must engender change, and we must do it now!

On the surface, the concept of creating and sustaining school reform is an oxymoron, simply because change is inevitable. In many ways, what is needed is sustainable change. In other words, schools must change to meet the current needs of children and youth in order to support their development into contributing and productive adults.

As the needs of our society shift, our education system must adapt to ensure that it prepares an educated populous to meet society’s needs. Education reform is possible, but it depends on what the state is willing to do to achieve its educational goals. Will Mississippi develop and pass effective educational legislation aimed at creating viable solutions to the problems at hand?

Lasting and beneficial change in our schools will require hard work from a committed group of stakeholders — teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and community members alike. Ultimately, it is the children who matter most. At the end of the day, they are the reasons why we must champion the cause of education reform in Mississippi and throughout our great nation.

I hope to be writing a very different column in the near future about Mississippi’s public school ratings but that can only happen when better management of the poverty-classroom relationship takes place.


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