The future is now for education

Before COVID-19 darkened the schoolhouse door, Mississippi’s students and teachers had a lot to be proud of in the classroom. Between 2009-2019, Mississippi’s growth on National Assessment of Educational Progress testing led the nation, our graduation rates surpassed the national average, and our innovative strides in literacy drew national praise.

Credit for these laudable gains belongs to Mississippi’s students, their families, and their teachers. While COVID did not disrupt Mississippi’s schools to the extent it did states that experienced prolonged shutdowns, it did place a strain on our education system and the people who toil in it. As a parent of two small children in Mississippi’s public school system, I have witnessed the sacrifice and dedication firsthand.

If there is a silver lining to adversity, it’s that it allows for self-reflection, which can encourage the kind of innovation that leads to improvement. One such reflection is that while Mississippi’s gains on state and national testing can be a good indicator of progress, we should not forget that children are more than a score on a test, teachers are more than test proctors, and education is not limited to the classroom.

A measurement tool should not be confused with the goal. The purpose of education is to develop students’ minds and character, to foster a lifelong love of learning, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills to live meaningful lives. Ultimately, success should be measured and incentivized based on how well-prepared students are to become contributors to society once they graduate.

Teaching the whole student requires giving teachers real freedom in the classroom. Teachers today are heavy-laden with regulation that often take the creativity and customization that would benefit their students out of the equation. We need fewer top-down rulebooks, more local control in our schools, and more trust in the ability of teachers to know and meet their students’ needs.

It is also important that teachers feel valued for their contributions and supported in the classroom. This session, two bills sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Dennis Debar and House Education Chairman Richard Bennett would provide significant salary increases, raising teacher pay above the regional average. Both Sen. Debar and Rep. Bennett have also filed bills to require Education Enhancement Funds (“EEF”) to be distributed to teachers before, or at the beginning of, the school year to pay for classroom supplies. This is a simple, but practical solution to an annual problem for Mississippi’s educators.

Another way we can support our students, teachers, and schools is by deploying rapidly developing education technology. Digital learning platforms can help bridge the gap in schools struggling to place certified teachers, serve as an aid in the classroom to all teachers, and fill holes for students wishing to take otherwise unavailable advanced courses. These platforms can also help students out of the classroom, allowing districts to experiment with expanded academic calendars, helping English language learners and students who have fallen behind catch up, and providing a custom path for students who have behavioral issues, unique learning abilities, or intense extracurricular schedules.

Finally, a word about the role of the family. COVID was a great reminder that while schools play a vital role, parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. Across the country, parents were deeply engaged in both questioning closure policies and curriculum choices. In many states this led to unprecedented policy reforms to give families more options for their children’s education. In Virginia, a state that had increasingly turned blue, education reform was the primary catalyst for Republicans sweeping the top-three statewide elected offices. Mississippi families must be stakeholders in the success of our community schools and Mississippi students the primary beneficiaries. Every student deserves access to a quality education that meets their needs. Every family should have access to education options to determine which setting works best for their child.

This session, Mississippi policymakers have the opportunity to show trust in teachers, harness the power of technology, and provide families with more tools to better prepare our children for life. All three make good sense.

This column appeared in the Sun Herald on February 6, 2022.