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By Nicholas Kristof
This is the second in the series “How America Heals” in which Nicholas Kristof is examining the interwoven crises devastating parts of America and exploring paths to recovery.
JACKSON, Miss. — The refrain across much of the Deep South for decades was “Thank God for Mississippi!” That’s because however abysmally Arkansas or Alabama might perform in national comparisons, they could still bet that they wouldn’t be the worst in America. That spot was often reserved for Mississippi.
So it’s extraordinary to travel across this state today and find something dazzling: It is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings. With an all-out effort over the past decade to get all children to read by the end of third grade and by extensive reliance on research and metrics, Mississippi has shown that it is possible to raise standards even in a state ranked dead last in the country in child poverty and hunger and second highest in teen births.
In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of nationwide tests better known as NAEP, Mississippi has moved from near the bottom to the middle for most of the exams — and near the top when adjusted for demographics. Among just children in poverty, Mississippi fourth graders now are tied for best performers in the nation in NAEP reading tests and rank second in math.
The state has also lifted high school graduation rates. In 2011, 75 percent of students graduated, four percentage points below the national average; by 2020, the state had surpassed the national average of 87 percent by one point.
2011 graduating class
2011 graduating class
“Mississippi is a huge success story and very exciting,” David Deming, a Harvard economist and education expert, told me. What’s so significant, he said, is that while Mississippi hasn’t overcome poverty or racism, it still manages to get kids to read and excel.
“You cannot use poverty as an excuse. That’s the most important lesson,” Deming added. “It’s so important, I want to shout it from the mountaintop.” What Mississippi teaches, he said, is that “we shouldn’t be giving up on children.”
The revolution here in Mississippi is incomplete, and race gaps persist, but it’s thrilling to see the excitement and pride bubbling in the halls of de facto segregated Black schools in some of the nation’s poorest communities.
One of the reasons I became interested in writing this series about how we can help those whom America has left behind was the loss of an old school friend when she froze to death while homeless. Since then, I’ve lost too many friends I grew up with to drugs, alcohol and suicide, and as I think about what might have saved their lives, education is high on the list.
But an education system can save people only when it manages to educate them, and America too often falls short. I had heard Mississippi cited for its progress, but frankly, I was skeptical until I visited. On my second day in Jackson, where 98 percent of public school students are people of color, mostly from low-income families, I visited a second-grade classroom.
The class was reading a book, “The Vegetables We Eat.” The children read aloud and debated what vegetables were. Things that are green? Foods that don’t taste good? I was startled to see second graders read words like “vegetables” and “eggplant” fluently and still more astonished to see the entire class easily read the sentence “Where does nourishing food come from?”
Mississippi has achieved its gains despite ranking 46th in spending per pupil in grades K-12. Its low price tag is one reason Mississippi’s strategy might be replicable in other states. Another is that while education reforms around the country have often been ferociously contentious and involved battles with teachers’ unions, this education revolution in Mississippi unfolded with support from teachers and their union.
“This is something I’m proud of,” said Erica Jones, a second-grade teacher who is the president of the Mississippi affiliate of the National Education Association, the teachers’ union. “We definitely have something to teach the rest of the country.”
Mississippi’s success has no single origin moment, but one turning point was arguably when Jim Barksdale decided to retire in the state. A former C.E.O. of Netscape, he had grown up in Mississippi but was humiliated by its history of racism and underperformance.
“My home state was always held in a low regard,” he told me. “I always felt embarrassed by that.”
Barksdale cast about for ways to improve education in the state, and in 2000 he and his wife contributed $100 million to create a reading institute in Jackson that has proved very influential. Beyond the money, he brought to the table a good relationship with officials such as the governor, as well as an executive’s focus on measurement and bang for the buck — and these have characterized Mississippi’s push ever since.
With the support of Barksdale and many others, a crucial milestone came in 2013 when state Republicans pushed through a package of legislation focused on education and when Mississippi recruited a new state superintendent of education, Carey Wright, from the Washington, D.C., school system. Wright ran the school system brilliantly until her retirement last year, meticulously ensuring that all schools actually carried out new policies and improved outcomes.
One pillar of Mississippi’s new strategy was increasing reliance on phonics and a broader approach to literacy called the science of reading, which has been gaining ground around the country; Mississippi was at the forefront of this movement. Wright buttressed the curriculum with a major push for professional development, with the state dispatching coaches to work with teachers, especially at schools that lagged.
The 2013 legislative package also invested in pre-K programs, targeting low-income areas. Mississippi made the calculated decision to offer high-quality full-day programs, with qualified teachers paid at the same rate as elementary school staff members, rather than offer a second-rate program to more children.
The pre-Ks get children started on recognizing letters, numbers and sounds, and more important, they help kids adjust to classrooms. In one pre-K that I visited, a girl named Allyson was wreaking havoc as the teacher tried to talk to the class about light and shadow.
Most of the class was sitting on the floor and enthusiastically answering the teacher’s questions. Meanwhile, Allyson was running around the classroom, trying to see if she could run faster than her shadow.
“Every classroom has an Allyson,” another teacher said with a sigh. All the early-grade teachers I spoke to said that the Allysons of Mississippi are less disruptive and more ready to learn after attending pre-K.
Perhaps the most important single element of the 2013 legislative package was a test informally called the third-grade gate: Any child who does not pass a reading test at the end of third grade is held back and has to redo the year.
This was controversial. Would this mean holding back a disproportionate share of Black and brown children from low-income families, leaving them demoralized and stigmatized? What about children with learning disabilities?
In fact, the third-grade gate lit a fire under Mississippi. It injected accountability: Principals, teachers, parents and children themselves were galvanized to ensure that kids actually learned to read. Each child’s progress in reading is carefully monitored, and those who lag — as early as kindergarten and ramping up in second and third grades — are given additional tutoring.
In classrooms, I saw charts on the wall showing how each child — identified by a number rather than a name — ranks in reading words per minute. Another line showed which children, also noted by number, were green (on track to pass) and which were yellow (in jeopardy). Then there were some numbers representing children who were red and urgently needed additional tutoring and practice.
As third grade progresses in Mississippi, there is an all-consuming focus on ensuring that every child can read well enough to make it through the third-grade gate. School walls fill with posters offering encouragement from teachers, parents and students alike.
“Blow this test out of the water,” wrote Torranecia, a fifth grader, in a typical comment.
In the town of Leland in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest parts of America, parents and family members come early on the day of the big exam and line a hallway at the elementary school, cheering madly as the kids walk through to take the test — like champion football players taking the field. And when I visited, 35 new bicycles were on display in the school gym, donated by the community to be awarded by lottery to those who passed.
Those who did not pass would get a second chance at the end of the school year. Children who fail this second try are urged to enroll in summer school as a last desperate effort to raise reading levels. Those who fail a third time are held back — about 9 percent of third graders — although there is a chance for a good-cause exemption if, for example, a child has a learning disability or speaks limited English.
What happens to the children forced to repeat third grade? A Boston University study this year found that those held back did not have any negative outcomes such as increased absences or placement in special education programs. On the contrary, they did much better several years later in sixth-grade English tests compared with those who just missed being held back. Gains from being held back were particularly large for Black and Hispanic students.
With such a focus on learning to read, one of the surprises has been that Mississippi fourth graders have also improved significantly in math. One possible explanation is that some math problems require reading; another is that children try harder in all subjects when they enjoy school.
The state and the Barksdale Reading Institute also partnered in experimenting with approaches that failed; in those cases, they measured the results and dropped methods that didn’t show gains. They tried to lure family members into visiting schools through drop-in centers, and few showed up. They tried to introduce approaches through teacher training in universities, and this proved expensive and much less successful than dispatching coaches to offer guidance in the classrooms.
Mississippi is also striking for what it didn’t do. For example, it didn’t reduce class sizes: Officials weighed the evidence and concluded that while smaller classes would improve outcomes, spending the money on teacher coaching and student tutoring would help even more.
Nothing worked quite as expected, and everything was harder than it looked. But Mississippi kept testing and tweaking its model, following the evidence where it led. And now second graders can read “nourishing.”
Many white families fled the Mississippi public school system around the time courts forced integration in 1970, so 48 percent of public school students were Black in 2018-19 and 44 percent white — with three-quarters of all pupils labeled economically disadvantaged.
One challenge is that while Mississippi has made enormous gains in early grades, the improvement has been more modest in eighth-grade NAEP scores. Still, the state has made progress in several areas that help upper grades: getting parents more involved and promoting vocational education, in addition to raising high school graduation rates.
The school superintendent in the town of Hollandale, Mario Willis, told me his high school graduation rate was 97 percent, and he explained how his school fights to keep kids. The other day, he said, he had a call from the high school principal about an 18-year-old senior who was dropping out.
The student lived in poverty and had a single mom who was unemployed, so the family’s economic situation was desperate. Not seeing a way out, the young woman left school and took a restaurant job.
That’s when the school went all out to bring the student back. School officials repeatedly visited the young woman at home. They spoke to her mother, and they talked her employer into arranging work hours for her after school.
So now she is back in school, on track to graduate.
Other states, particularly Alabama, have adopted elements of Mississippi’s approach and have improved outcomes — but not nearly as much as Mississippi has. Perhaps that’s because those states’ leaders didn’t work as hard or because Alabama until recently didn’t have a must-pass third-grade reading test, but it’s also true that Mississippi has been guided by a visionary leadership team that may be difficult to recreate elsewhere.
Barksdale recruited Kelly Butler, a former teacher, to run his reading institute, and she provided much of the vision for the state. Two Teach for America veterans, Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson, in 2008 founded an organization called Mississippi First that has been a tireless advocate of raising standards.
All of these education leaders, along with Superintendent Wright, reinforced one another and brought in others with fresh ideas who were utterly committed to lifting Mississippi standards — and as state test results improved, politicians responded with pride and allocated more funds to the cause. Last year, Mississippi passed a major increase in teacher pay.
Since so much of the debate about K-12 education is about teachers’ unions and whether they prevent improvement, let me make the point that the states with arguably the best public schools (such as Massachusetts and New Jersey) have strong teachers’ unions while the state with some of the most-improved schools (Mississippi) has weak teachers’ unions. We needn’t get bogged down by debates over unions.
The education reform movement that for decades captured the imagination of tech executives, documentary makers and presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama and Donald Trump has fizzled. We no longer hear presidents and opinion makers regularly describe education as the civil rights issue of our time. Many people seem to have given up and moved on.
Mississippi is one answer to that sense of exhaustion and futility. And other states are noticing. Education Week reported that 31 states have passed legislation on evidence-based reading instruction. Many school systems, most recently New York City’s, are adopting the science of reading, based partly on the success in Mississippi and elsewhere.
Education reformers have often thought it hopeless to tackle state public school systems directly and so have pursued the equivalent of bank shots: Run effective charter schools, for example, and public schools can adopt lessons learned. Mississippi raises the question of whether we truly need bank shots. Or maybe for the United States, the whole state of Mississippi is the ultimate bank shot.
The Barksdale Reading Institute is developing a free online tool, Reading Universe, to make the state’s approach to reading available to all schools in America and around the world. The idea is that kids everywhere should have the same opportunities to learn and graduate as, say, students in high-poverty schools in the Delta.
Thank God for Mississippi.
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001.He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.You can follow him onInstagramand Facebook.His latest bookis “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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All kids living in the United States have the right to a free public education. And the Constitution requires that all kids be given equal educational opportunity no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen.Does Mississippi have a good education system? ›
Public education in Mississippi is ranked last in the nation year after year. Public education in Mississippi ranked last, yet again, on Education Week's Quality Counts report . The state received an “F” grade for academic achievement, and a “D” for the chance of success for students.What is Mississippi ranked in education 2023? ›
Mississippi is the #34 largest school system in the United States, serving 444,347 students across the 1,050 public schools for the 2023 school year (there are 237 private schools, serving 50,827 students). 90% of all K-12 students in Mississippi are educated in public schools (compared to national average of 90%).Who runs the public education system in Mississippi? ›
The Mississippi Department of Education, which operates under the direction and supervision of the State Superintendent of Education, implements a system-wide plan of performance, policy and direction for public education in Mississippi.How can we make education more equal? ›
- Start with yourself. ...
- Model equity for your students. ...
- Be flexible with online learning. ...
- Address inappropriate remarks. ...
- Create an equitable classroom environment. ...
- Accommodate different learning styles. ...
- Examine your teaching materials. ...
- Give students a voice.
Children growing up in disenfranchised communities lack access to resources and opportunities and attend schools that are not equipped to meet all their needs. This is known as educational inequity.Which state education is best in USA? ›
1. Massachusetts. Massachusetts has the best-ranked public schools in the United States and is the second-most educated state, just behind the District of Columbia. About 90.40% of Massachusetts adults have a high school diploma, and 42.90% have a Bachelor's degree or higher.What state has the top education system? ›
1. Massachusetts. Massachusetts has the highest rank for public schools across the country. The quality of education is exceptional, and safety is also high.What US state has the highest education rate? ›
New Hampshire has the highest literacy rate in the US, with a rate of 88.5%. Alaska has the second highest literacy rate, at 87.3%, and Vermont is the third state with the highest literacy rate, at 87.2%.Where do Mississippi schools rank nationally? ›
Quality of public schools — Mississippi ranked 45th, ahead of Oklahoma, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico. Early education systems — Mississippi ranked 35th.
|Crime & Corrections||#34|
Mississippi's most improved ranking was based on the state's gains on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Mississippi achieved the No. 1 spot in the nation for gains on the NAEP, known as the Nation's Report Card. NAEP measures student proficiency in 4th and 8th grade reading and mathematics.What curriculum does Mississippi use? ›
In Mississippi, every Career and Technical Education (CTE) program follows a standardized, state-wide curriculum. Each curriculum is revised every four years by a team of program area instructors. Revisions are based on field research and survey results from program area instructors and related personnel.What is the Education level in Mississippi? ›
|High school graduate or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2017-2021||85.6%|
|Bachelor's degree or higher, percent of persons age 25 years+, 2017-2021||23.2%|
The U.S. Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress.How can we fix education inequality? ›
Stop the expansion of charter and private schools as it is not affordable for all students and creates segregation. Deprioritize test based funding because it discriminates against disadvantaged students. Support teachers financially, as in offering higher salaries and benefits for teachers to improve retention.How can we get rid of education inequality? ›
Provide Books to Low-Income Families
One of the first ways that kids experience inequality in education is with their exposure to books in the early years of their lives. Scientific research has proven that reading to kids often when they are young is a great way to give them a head start in their education.
Those who are less privileged are condemned to poverty and unemployment because of a lack of quality educational resources. Without a sound education, people have less knowledge of the world around them or the issues facing their communities. They are less likely to vote or to pay attention to politics.What are the benefits of Teach For America? ›
- Health benefits.
- Medical, dental, and vision care.
- Referral-free access to doctors.
- Routine preventative care.
- Flexible spending accounts.
- Employee assistance and wellness programs.
- Family-planning services.
- Vaccinations (e.g., flu shots)
What kind of salary and benefits do corps members receive? Corps members are full-time, salaried employee of their school district, charter school, or pre-K center. Their salary and benefits are the same as those of other beginning teachers working for the same employers.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness
And progress is only possible if each of us works effectively across lines of difference—with students, parents, partners, and each other—and if each of us understands and leverages the assets we bring to this work based on our identities and life experiences.
In last place was West Virginia. It was worst for educational attainment and 47th for quality of education. Also in the bottom five were Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The WalletHub survey compared 18 metrics that examined what it considered the key factors of a well-educated population.Why the US education system is the best? ›
That's because American schools are well known for providing high-quality education through a balanced, tried-and-tested curriculum. The US education system is informed by cutting-edge research, which helps develop students into critical thinkers with well-rounded social-emotional skills.What country is number one in education? ›
The education system in US is considered the superior system in the world. This is because they offer a rich and wide range of choices for international students. The most enticing attribute of the US education system is its versatility.What state has the best quality of life? ›
Washington. Washington state has the highest quality of life in all 50 states. The state has no income tax, a thriving job market, and great international business opportunities.What state is ranked 50 in education? ›
|State||Academic Performance Rank||Overall Rank|
Louisiana has the lowest graduation rate at 76%. New Mexico, the District of Columbia, and Alaska also have graduation rates below 80%.Which state has lowest literacy rate? ›
Bihar is the state in India that has the lowest literacy rate. Option B.How does Florida rank in education? ›
Florida has held the No. 1 ranking for higher education from U.S. News since 2017. The Florida Department of Education released a statement crediting Gov. Ron DeSantis.
1. Massachusetts. Massachusetts has the best public school system in the U.S. 48.8% of Massachusetts's eligible schools ranked in the top 25% of high school rankings, a total of 167 schools. Massachusetts has the highest math and reading test scores in the U.S. and the second-highest median ACT score of 25.1.Who has the best education system? ›
Finland. Finland has one of the best educational systems in the world. In areas like mathematics, science, and literacy, Finland has outperformed many well-known countries worldwide. Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences are the two types of colleges.What is the 1 college in Mississippi? ›
University of Mississippi
#1 Best Colleges in Mississippi.
|#||State||Number of Homicides|
|27||District of Columbia||339|
Mississippi regularly makes lists of the best states to live because of its low cost of living. But rampant economic concerns find the area more often topping lists of the worst places to live in the U.S. So, whether Mississippi is a good state to live in for you really depends on what you find most important.How is Mississippi education compared to other states? ›
Mississippi Ranks 35th in the Nation for K-12 Achievement in Quality Counts National Report. JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi ranks 35th in the nation for K-12 achievement in 2021, climbing from 50th in 2013, according to the latest Quality Counts report published in Education Week.What are the social issues in Mississippi? ›
Mississippi's problems — failing schools, high unemployment and egregious poverty in some areas, low wages, lack of adequate health care for many, hunger, high infant mortality, high rates of teen pregnancy, and so on — have severe impacts on a large proportion of Mississippians, and yet our government sees fit to ...What is the #1 ranked school in Mississippi? ›
|School||Ranking (2022 vs 2021)|
|1||Ocean Springs High School||2|
|2||West Harrison High School||20|
|3||Hernando High School||6|
For centuries, Mississippi has underfunded public education, and as a result has remained one of the poorest, unhealthiest and economically stagnant states in the country.Is Mississippi ranked last in education? ›
Economy: 49th. Education & Health: 50th. Quality of life: 49th. Safety: 34th.
The Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards (MS - CCRS) are a set of high-quality academic standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do in each subject by the end of each grade.What percent of Mississippi is Republican? ›
|Political ideology||Republican/lean Rep.||Democrat/lean Dem.|
White: 58% Black or African American: 37.68% Two or more races: 1.68%What is Mississippi ranked academic? ›
University of Mississippi's ranking in the 2022-2023 edition of Best Colleges is National Universities, #151. Its in-state tuition and fees are $9,220; out-of-state tuition and fees are $26,440. The University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss, is a large public institution in the college town of Oxford.Who is 1st in education in the US? ›
Florida, the No. 1 state overall in the education category, ranks in the top half of states on eight of 10 education metrics. It is also No. 1 in higher education, particularly excelling in the tuition and fees metric and in metrics assessing college graduation rates.Does the US government control education? ›
It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation.What is the definition of equality in education? ›
Equality in education is achieved when students are all treated the same and have access to similar resources. Equity is achieved when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school.What does the Constitution say about equal education? ›
While education may not be a "fundamental right" under the Constitution, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires that when a state establishes a public school system (as in Texas), no child living in that state may be denied equal access to schooling.What is the purpose of education equality? ›
Equity in education aims to provide equal opportunity to all students to develop valuable skills and knowledge that help them live a full life and contribute to society.How is there inequality in education? ›
Much of educational inequality is attributed to economic disparities that often fall along racial lines, and much modern conversation about educational equity conflates the two, showing how they are inseparable from residential location and, more recently, language.
Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents. It is also the belief that no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability.What are equity issues in education? ›
Equity, Not Equality
Equity in education means recognizing each student's different assets, resources, and other circumstances of their home and academic life and designing protocols for them to achieve comparable results to those of their peers.
- Treating everyone equally and fairly.
- Creating an inclusive culture that has respect for all cultures and religions.
- Ensuring equal access to opportunities for all the citizens.
- Enabling people to develop their full potential.
- Educating people and making them understand the importance of Equality.
The United States Constitution doesn't explicitly guarantee a right to public education, but that doesn't mean that it can't help ensure that all students are able to access an equal educational experience.Should education be equal or equitable? ›
Equality focuses on what is fair within the group. Equity highlights what is fair for the individual. In public education, both group and individual needs are important. All students should have equal access to high quality education and once they get it, they should be afforded equitable supports to achieve success.Is equal education a human right? ›
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that education is a fundamental human right for everyone and this right was further detailed in the Convention against Discrimination in Education.Why is education inequality a problem? ›
Educational Inequality is also about race and gender. Those who are less privileged are condemned to poverty and unemployment because of a lack of quality educational resources. Without a sound education, people have less knowledge of the world around them or the issues facing their communities.Why is education so important? ›
It helps people become better citizens, get a better-paid job, shows the difference between good and bad. Education shows us the importance of hard work and, at the same time, helps us grow and develop. Thus, we are able to shape a better society to live in by knowing and respecting rights, laws, and regulations.What is an example of education injustice? ›
When factors like wealth, gender and/or race determine what kind of education an individual can receive, that's an example of social injustice. Students not privileged enough to receive an education on par with more privileged students are given a poor foundation for the rest of their lives.What are the negative effects of education inequality? ›
Inequality hinders education access and quality for marginalized students, perpetuating poverty. Overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities, and discrimination contribute to poor learning outcomes.
Inequalities can be seen throughout the educational system, including unequal suspension rates of black and white students for the same infractions, unequal promotions rates of teachers of color, and hate crimes against LGBTQ+ community students.