On June 30, Dr. Carey Wright’s tenure as the State Superintendent of Education in Mississippi drew to a close.
Her nine years in the post were marked both by controversies and real gains in educational achievement.
Now, the State Board of Education is facing the most important task any board faces, finding a new leader. In conducting their search, the State Board should consider these attributes in a candidate:
1) Are they committed to the purpose of education?
The purpose of education is not to preserve the status quo. It is not to defend institutions and systems. It is not even to garner high test scores on information forgotten soon after testing ends. The purpose of education is to prepare kids for life. All the short-term measurements in the world cannot replace the goal. Decisions that run through the Mississippi Department of Education and every district in the state should be treated against the goal of real life preparation.
2) Do they understand Mississippi?
Dr. Wright moved to our state after a career in Maryland and D.C. Those are very different environments from Mississippi. It’s not to say that outside candidates should not be considered, but it is important that whoever is hired understands our culture, the diversity of our student population, and that needs vary dramatically from district to district.
3) Do they understand the role of local education leadership and believe in Mississippi teachers?
Dr. Wright came into the role of State Superintendent having never served in a similar post or even as a district-level superintendent. While it is not essential to have that background, having that experience likely would have created more empathy for and deference toward local leadership. Whoever is the next Superintendent should put a strong emphasis on empowering local education leaders and educators to be responsive to their community’s needs instead of a heavy top-down approach that devalues the potential contributions of Mississippi’s teachers.
4) Are they flexible to experimentation with true accountability?
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that states are the laboratories of democracy. Within a state, communities are those laboratories. We should be discouraging a system that attempts to create cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education and actively encouraging districts to think outside the box and innovate. The next State Superintendent should be prepared to break the mold. He or she should also not confuse preemptive regulation that prevents innovation with accountability. True accountability does not tie everyone’s hands on the front end but holds people responsible for achieving results.
5) Do they respect parents’ primary role in the education of their children?
Ultimately, parents are responsible for preparing their kids for life. Our education system is a tool that aids parents in carrying out that responsibility. The students in our schools are not the property of those schools. But too often, rhetoric and practice treat parents like secondary players.
The next State Superintendent should respect the fact that parents are an important voice. Because every child is unique and many parents have differing views of what their children need to be successful, he or she shouldn’t treat families having choices as an attack on traditional schools but as a path to satisfying the needs of students and better ensuring that children are prepared for life.