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Mississippi is climbing the education...

Mississippi is climbing the education rankings

By: Jeremy Pittari - September 5, 2023

Students at Eastlawn Elementary School in Pascagoula, MS (Photo from school's Facebook page, Sept. 1, 2022)

Former State Supt. Wright, Tupelo Supt. Picou note educational gains are the result of team effort.

When people from outside the Magnolia State think about Mississippi, they may perceive it as the place where everything is ranked last in the United States. 

Increasingly, that’s not the case any longer.

For the past decade, educators across the state have been putting in the work to create noticeable gains. Back in 2021, the last time nationwide rankings were released by Education Week as part of the organization’s Quality Counts report, Mississippi ranked 35th out of 50 states. A report for 2022 has not been issued as of press time. 

The Quality Counts report focuses on pre-K to 12th grade school achievements along with adult success as it relates to socioeconomic factors.

That year, the report gave Mississippi a grade of C-, or a numerical grade of 70.8 out of a possible 100, enough to bring the state’s ranking in the report up to 35th. Mississippi was one of a handful of states to see a four point or more gain that year. 

The Anne E. Casey Foundation gave Mississippi’s education system a total grade of 32nd. 

There has also been a decrease in high school dropout rates and increase in graduation rates statewide, said former State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright. 

Dr. Robert Picou, Superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District, attributed the gains to putting more focus on the individual student. Instead of preparing them for state tests, the focus is on ensuring each student makes gains. He said the goal began with a focus on the tier 1 curriculum, then implementation of tiers two and three interventions follow. 

The most crucial component to student success? “Teachers,” Picou said. 

“You got to give the credit for the success where it belongs, they are where the rubber meets the road,” Picou said.

Establishing a system of accountability and adjusting instruction to meet each child’s needs were also instrumental. Picou feels allowing teachers to be creative and express their expertise helps them reach each child. For the past two years his district received an A assessment from the Mississippi Department of Education, and last year was the first time in quite some time the district’s high school earned that grade. 

After the implementation of Chromebooks during the height of the pandemic, this year Picou said he added 100 new physical books to libraries. He agrees technology has a place in education, but he wants children to still be able to pick up a physical book and read it for fun. None of those books are geared toward test preparation. 

Training to help the teachers learn to build effective relationships and capture the hearts of students is also essential. 

“When they think you really care about them, they will perform,” Picou said. 

Wright, who retired in June 2022, is proud of the educational gains the state has seen. During her more than nine years as the State Superintendent, she said she focused on literacy. To that end, she hired a talented team at the state department, brought in coaches to help train teachers and ensured all teachers had access to the tools they needed. All teachers were provided with professional development because Wright and her staff raised the standards in English and math to the highest level in years in 2016.

Professional development, high quality instructional materials and access to a website that provided lesson materials organized by grade level helped the teachers reach the new standards. Wright gives credit to the efforts of each and every teacher in the state, whose talent and hard work provided the foundation for those gains. 

“You don’t just do this in one year and expect amazing results,” Wright said. 

Dr. Wright is especially proud of those gains considering the state has the highest poverty rate. She said poverty creates an educational hurdle for children nationwide. 

“That’s a huge message, that our children in poverty outperform their counterparts,” Wright said.

While she has stepped away from the State Superintendent role, she would like to see the gains continue so that Mississippi makes it to the top 10, or even top five, in educational rankings. She continues her educational career as a consultant and by performing individual coaching. 

One hurdle she sees is the teacher shortages affecting every state’s education system. Wright said there has been a 40 percent drop in people entering college with the intention of earning an education degree nationwide. With no reduction in the number of students, Wright said the state’s teacher residency program is addressing that problem and is expected to produce about 225 new teachers. The program pays the tuition and covers the cost of books so those interested in teaching, but lack the necessary credits, can receive their education degree from a university. 

Another way Wright feels the state can battle the reduction in teachers is to use technology to create virtual teaching programs, connecting top tier teachers with schools who need certain classes. 

Wright said she would like to commend the work of the state’s leaders, teachers and the Legislature and Governor Tate Reeves, who were all instrumental in reaching the educational gains. She hopes their continued support will help the state earn even better rankings.  

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics. Email Jeremy: