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Mississippi boasts about its gains on NAEP reading scores, but those “gains” were largely the result of holding back students who didn’t pass the third grade reading tests. It’s a form of “gaming the system,” aka cheating.
This article by Bracey Harris for the Hechinger Report tells a different story, a story of unequal opportunity for black children in the state, a history of racism and segregation, a legacy of underfunding black schools, of crumbling schools and high teacher turnover.
Large proportions of black children live in deep poverty, and their schools are ill-equipped to prepare them for college or career.
State leaders offer nothing but gimmicks that have failed elsewhere: merit pay, A-F grades, bonuses for new teachers, and state takeovers. What they have not offered is the funding necessary to give the schools and students and teachers the resources they need. The conservative white legislature has not been willing to do what is needed.
State leaders have attempted to improve the state’s poor educational outcomes in recent years by requiring third graders to pass the state reading test before they can enter fourth grade, offering $10,000 bonuses for Nationally Board Certified teachers to work in the Delta, assigning schools and districts A-F ratings and, on occasion, taking over failing school districts. Mississippi’s newly elected Gov. Tate Reeves, who took office in January, has also proposed paying new teachers a one-time $10,000 bonus to instruct in struggling areas like Holmes.
Mississippi has also made some positive traction after investing $15 million per year, in part to train and coach the state’s teachers on the science of reading and reading instruction, an investment that some officials said helped boost the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Mississippi ranked No. 1 nationally in gains in fourth grade reading and math, and near the top in eighth grade score gains in math.
To some observers, the NAEP scores suggest the state’s focus on these reforms have helped, a lot. But locals say the reforms don’t go far enough, failing to address the deeper issues of racism and poverty that are embedded in the marrow of the Mississippi Delta. Each year, districts in the region hold back dozens of third graders. At one school in Holmes, Durant Elementary, more than 80 percent of third graders failed the reading test on their first try.
Ellen Reddy, an advocate who has pushed to improve education in Holmes County said the state’s solutions haven’t reduced the challenges that dominate the average school day. Reddy, executive director of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, said the state has to step in to help districts that struggle to raise money. “The reality is we’ll always fail. We’ll always be a step behind until they put in more resources,” she said. “You get what you pay for.”
Children in communities with a high rate of poverty are at a greater risk of poor health and high levels of stress that require more support in the classroom. Years of research have documented that poverty “creates constant wear and tear on the body” and that safe learning environments, coupled with “responsive parenting and high-quality childcare” can help children progress. But it costs money to train teachers on how to support students and to hire support staff like guidance counselors.
Never underestimate the power of poverty and racism.