JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi is often cited as having the worst education system in America. But this year, the Mississippi Department of Education is spending a lot of time answering a simple, some would say urgent, question.
“If we’ve identified a school that is not meeting the needs of all its students, what are we as a state going to do to intervene, to make it better?” asks Dr. Lynn House, Deputy State Superintendent.
House is helping the department retool for an era of reform prompted by the onset of federal No Child Left Behind waivers. If granted, the waivers allow states to submit new policies for improving schools, often without having to slog through the traditional legislative route. Here in Mississippi, one of those reforms will be increasing the hands-on support the state gives low performing schools.
“It’s having teams on the ground that will review what is happening,” says House. ”Is it working? And if it’s not, what can we do to improve it?”
These teams will be working with schools such as Greenville Weston High in rural Greenville, Mississippi. Despite being in a low performing district, Greenville Weston has its strengths. The marching band is one of the best in the state. KaShayla Edwards is a member of the band and says she’d love to see that same energy carry over into the classroom.
“It’s an okay school,” says Edwards. “It could be better, academic-wise. Maybe if they get stricter on us. Something.”
Superintendent Leeson Taylor says the school needs improvement but says just because federal and state governments are ramping-up the pressure doesn’t mean schools know how to get better. Taylor was with Greenville schools before the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. He says the law demanded a lot, but the buck just kept getting passed down.
“I really don’t feel, as educators, we are in an environment that is supported,” says Taylor. “I think we are scapegoats more than anything else.”
Taylor says he hopes a waiver will mean more shared responsibility between local, state and federal stakeholders. He’s behind many of the changes proposed: on the ground support teams, access to experts who can distinguish between effective education programs and those wasting money, and advice and feedback at regular intervals throughout the year.
But he says he worries Mississippi’s request for a waiver isn’t specific enough. He says without a lot of detailed thinking up front, conflict and confusion are inevitable on the back end.
“It’s almost like someone comes along and says go right, go right,” says Taylor. “And someone else with the same authority comes along and says go left, go left. And you end up bumping into each other.”
The federal panel that reviewed Mississippi’s initial waiver request had a similar reaction. At first, the panel rejected all of Mississippi’s plans for schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent or ones that have areas of extreme shortcomings such as low graduation rates or test scores – what have been dubbed Priority and Focus Schools. The panel urged Mississippi to be more specific about how they would intervene in struggling schools and get them back on their feet. They cited Florida as an example.
“We outline at a school level and a district level exactly what needs to happen,” says Fred Heid, the Bureau Chief for School Improvement at the Florida Department of Education. He says Florida recognized years ago that schools could not simply meet the high expectations of No Child Left Behind without the resources and planning to get there.
“We can compliance monitor anyone,” says Heid. “But this is really [about] how do we build meaningful capacity overtime that will support school improvement.”
And that, he says, is what is being demanded of states across the country. Mississippi’s Department of Education has since tried to work in all of the federal panel’s suggestions into a revised plan for improving schools. There are plans for pre-kindergarten, teacher coaches, and monthly monitoring, to name a few – corrections the department hopes will result in approval for the state’s latest waiver request.