Mississippi’s success has no single origin moment, but one turning point was arguably when Jim Barksdale decided to retire in the state. A former C.E.O. of Netscape, he had grown up in Mississippi but was humiliated by its history of racism and underperformance.
“My home state was always held in a low regard,” he told me. “I always felt embarrassed by that.”
Barksdale cast about for ways to improve education in the state, and in 2000 he and his wife contributed $100 million to create a reading institute in Jackson that has proved very influential. Beyond the money, he brought to the table a good relationship with officials such as the governor, as well as an executive’s focus on measurement and bang for the buck — and these have characterized Mississippi’s push ever since.
With the support of Barksdale and many others, a crucial milestone came in 2013 when state Republicans pushed through a package of legislation focused on education and when Mississippi recruited a new state superintendent of education, Carey Wright, from the Washington, D.C., school system. Wright ran the school system brilliantly until her retirement last year, meticulously ensuring that all schools actually carried out new policies and improved outcomes.
One pillar of Mississippi’s new strategy was increasing reliance on phonics and a broader approach to literacy called the science of reading, which has been gaining ground around the country; Mississippi was at the forefront of this movement. Wright buttressed the curriculum with a major push for professional development, with the state dispatching coaches to work with teachers, especially at schools that lagged.
Meanwhile, we in Wisconsin spend more for less.
“Well, it’s kind of too bad that we’ve got the smartest people at our universities, and yet we have to create a law to tell them how to teach.”
The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”
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