Transcript of speech given by Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent, at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Capital Day on January 8, 2014
Distinguished guests, thank you for inviting me to be here today. It is an honor and a privilege to talk to you for the next few minutes about education and the transformational impact it could have on this state and on the business community.
Primarily, I want to focus my comments on three areas that I believe can make a difference for the state’s economic future: early childhood education, higher academic standards and enhanced career and technical education.
When I applied to become state superintendent, I did so after much thought and research. I knew the numbers. The 2013 Quality Counts report, issued by Education Week publication annually, places Mississippi 4th from the bottom when it comes to education. Other statistics told more of Mississippi’s education story:
- 47% of third-graders are not reading on grade level according to our state tests
- According to the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report, 18% of 4th graders are proficient in reading and 19 % of 8th graders are proficient in reading
- 24% of 4th graders are proficient in math and 18% of 8th graders are proficient in math.
- 2013 ACT results indicated that 12% of high school graduates were considered college ready in all four tested subject areas of English, Reading, Mathematics and Science. The national average was 25%.
- According to the 2013 Mississippi Kids Count Report, Mississippi students and parents spent $35.5 million for college remedial classes, which do not count toward college credit.
I cite these statistics not to point fingers. The data are what the data are. I believe in transparency. We need to be honest and open about where we are in educating our children. Only then can we begin to improve our public education system and rewrite our story.
Early Childhood Education
I’m entering my second month as state superintendent, and what I’ve been saying to the local superintendents around the state is that I’m honest to a fault. If you want to know what I think about something, just ask me.
And when the conversation turns to early childhood education, what you will soon learn is that I am committed to making high-quality early childhood education programs more accessible to all children. If we expect our children to read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, which we should, then we need to ensure that they have the foundational skills necessary for success in kindergarten and beyond. A high-quality early childhood program prepares students not just academically but socially and emotionally as well.
I am pleased to know that the MEC supports strong early childhood education programs, and I look forward to finding ways to give every child the opportunity to access high-quality programs.
In recent weeks I have traveled this state meeting with school district superintendents and local officials, and one of the questions I heard most frequently was about my plans to address the education of children in poverty. I know that roughly 71 percent of students in this state receive free or reduced-price lunch.
I came from the Washington, D.C. public school system, where students mirrored the poverty rates in Mississippi. My experience there showed me that achievement at higher levels, even among the poorest students, is possible.
Results from national assessments of student performance bear this out. Since 2011, DC students improved in 4th and 8th grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. The growth DC students saw in 2013 was three to seven times greater than the national growth.
Also, DC students showed the greatest growth of any urban school district in the country on the 2013 Trial Urban District Assessment or TUDA, which only tests students in urban districts. DC students grew by five points in 4th-grade reading, eight points in 8th-grade reading, seven points in 4th-grade math and five points in 8th-grade math. This data represents the highest scores DC students have ever seen on this test.
The Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, analyzed the data and concluded that when controlled for both race and income, DC students showed significant gains consistent with those reported for the 2013 TUDA.
Raising student achievement is more than about test scores. It’s about providing our students with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the workplace and to build Mississippi’s economy.
Improving education is an economic driver. Last November, Fitch credit rating agency announced it was downgrading Mississippi's bond rating outlook from stable to negative. The main reason cited was that the state's socio-economic profile is relatively weak, with wealth and educational attainment indicators that significantly lag national levels.
Poverty and low education levels not only impact a person's quality of life; they also have a negative impact on the financial outlook for state government.
We must set high standards for our children. We must find ways to help the children who lag behind their peers and to encourage those who perform well academically to reach new heights. And we must fund public education at a level that can accomplish those high expectations. The 2013 Quality Counts Report gave Mississippi an “F” for funding.
However, I will add that money isn’t the sole answer to improving education. Our neighbor to the north, Tennessee, used the collective will of the state to focus efforts on student achievement and it’s starting to pay off.
This year’s NAEP results showed Tennessee was the fastest-improving state in the country in education gains. Those results are contributed to several different factors but focusing efforts on student growth and achievement played a significant role.
I have no doubt, based on my interactions with Gov. Bryant, Lt. Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn, that we, too, will forge productive working relationships to move the state forward in education.
One initiative that Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio have in common is the implementation of Common Core State Standards. Tennessee has aggressively implemented these higher standards, and the work is beginning to pay off.
I am committed to continuing implementation of these standards. Let me emphasize that the Mississippi Board of Education adopted STANDARDS and not a CURRICULUM. There is a difference. Standards simply set targets for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. A curriculum is developed by the local school district, which includes teaching strategies, lessons and materials. Neither the state nor especially the federal government controls that.
Let me give you a business example. Standards would be like a sales goal for a company. You’re a CEO and you tell your employees that they need to reach a specific goal by year’s end. That is the standard that was set.
A curriculum would be what sales strategies they employ, how often they meet with clients and the materials they provide to clients. Those are the employees’ decision.
I have said repeatedly across the state and I will say it to you. I fully support the Common Core State Standards. These are very rigorous standards that will better prepare students and your future employees.
You need employees who can think critically, solve problems, work in teams and communicate well. That’s what you do each day, and that’s what Common Core is designed to help our students do.
In fact, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, recently put into perspective his support for Common Core. He spoke at the 2013 National Summit on Education Reform in October and said that the business community should be concerned about high standards because you are the customers of the educational system.
He also said that if he’s looking for talent he would go to a state that uses Common Core to measure what students know and can do. He is confident that if a student performs well under such high standards, then that’s the kind of employee he wants. I urge you to join me in supporting these higher standards as well.
I have seen what can happen when states make education a priority. I have seen the governors of Virginia and Maryland battle over business and industries coming to their states and companies making those decisions because the quality of the educational systems were never in question. Both states have high academic achievement. I want Mississippi to be in that enviable position.
Career and Technical Education
When I talk about Common Core, I want to stress that these standards help prepare students for college AND career. I am aware that not every student wishes to attend a two- or four-year institution and that should be a student’s choice.
An academically strong career and technical education can have a dramatic impact on students and the Mississippi economy. By collaborating with business and industry, we can ensure that K-12 education aligns to workforce needs and prepares students through rigorous academic programs for a viable career.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m an optimist and I make no apologies for it. I applied to become the state superintendent of education because I believe we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of this state if we are willing to do the hard work, to collaborate, to innovate and to make decisions in the best interest of all children.
I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from President Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Please join me in the educational arena as we “dare greatly” on behalf of the students of our great state.