Education Solutions for Mississippi

In addition to the Delta, catfish, blues music and magnolia trees, one of the things Mississippi is known for nationwide is the state of its K-12 education.

A report from the American Legislative Exchange Council shows that in 2008, Mississippi’s public education system was ranked 50th out of 51 states (and the District of Columbia).  The report showed that Mississippi students had the worst average scores on the ACT, and that only 61 percent of students graduate from high school.

Doctor Susan McClelland is an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Education.  She says that one of her goals is to improve the quality of K-12 education in the Magnolia State, so that “when you look at a chart that has the states listed, that Mississippi is not at the bottom.”

Of course, that may be easier said than done.

One of the biggest issues standing in the way is the issue of funding.

“[School districts] are facing such shortages that it is now affecting having adequate teachers in the classroom, buying supplies and things that students need,” McClelland said.

The shortages in funding come despite a level of spending on K-12 education that is reportedly only 1.3 percent below peak spending and that totals $4.574 billion from federal, state and local sources.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has proposed an emergency fund for school districts that are strapped for cash as a way to help out schools in need, planning to use $30 million originally appropriated for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to fund the emergency bridge loan program.

Dr. Kim Hartman, Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at Ole Miss, says the budget issue has another serious impact on school districts.

“Being able to hire the number of teachers needed, particularly in high-risk schools areas where we need special teachers is an issue,” Hartman said.

However, the number of teachers is not only a problem for the high-risk schools of the Delta and the city of Jackson, but also it is a state-wide problem.

“Being able to find qualified, licensed teachers for mathematics and science at the secondary level,” Hartman said, is the second-biggest issue in K-12 education in Mississippi. 

She said the state needs to do a better job of recruiting people from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to teach in schools.

Hartman added that the School of Education at Ole Miss is looking at increased use of technology in classrooms to allow the best math and science teachers, in particular,  to reach more students through distance education.

“In the math and science fields, those really strong teachers would be able to teach more students,” she explained.  “I think that is a definite plus.”

McClelland agrees. 

“The single most important factor,” she said, “is quality, effective instruction.” 

With some superintendents in certain parts of the state being unable to attract teachers for foreign languages, advanced math and science, as well as technology, despite multiple incentives, the ability to have a sort of virtual classroom can be invaluable.

McClelland said it’s a wonderful opportunity for students who want to take a subject in a school that doesn’t offer that class, but it’s not a perfect solution.

“It’s second to having their own teacher in the classroom, but it definitely benefits those students in those areas,” said McClelland.

However they are brought to the classroom, math and science teachers are urgently needed in Mississippi.

According to the STEM Education Coalition, Mississippi’s math scores on the 2006-07 National Assessment of Educational Progress lagged behind the national average, and Mississipp fell short as well as in percentages of students taking Advanced Placement Math and Science courses.

In March, the Mississippi legislature passed what was called the “charter schools bill,” which would give the state’s Department of Education the ability to take over failing schools and reorganize them as charter schools.  This is an extension of the state’s current ability to take over failing schools and reorganize them, and would also give the state-appointed superintendent the ability to fire all of the teachers and re-form the school board.

McClelland said she can’t wait to see how the charter schools bill is implemented. 

“I don’t really know [what will happen],” she said. “I have high hopes that…it will be very successful.”

The new legislation could potentially affect over 200 of the 951 elementary and secondary schools in Mississippi, which the Department of Education says are either already failing or at risk of failing. 

That list includes schools like North Panola High School, Coldwater High School in Tate County and Coffeeville High School in Yalobusha County.  North Panola was actually previously taken over by the state after consistently poor performance, and the Department of Education’s Mississippi Assessment and Accountability Reporting System (MAARS) lists it as “At Risk of Failing.”

The results of efforts to improve education in Mississippi, and achieve Dr. McClelland’s goal of raising Mississippi from the bottom of the list, are unlikely to be immediate, but the professors at Ole Miss’ School of Education hope that in the long run, their work will pay off.

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~ by bairvine on April 19, 2010.

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