Setting Mississippi teachers and families free

Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi showed remarkable improvement on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” This included the highest improvement in the country on several measures.

That improvement gives the state the chance to overcome its reputation as the least educated state in America. Sadly, such impressions are sticky and people are slow to update what they think they know. As one who has worked with education reformers in Florida for many years, I can tell you its reputation as “Flori-duh” was not overcome in a day or even a decade. In fact, judging by the comments sections of newspaper articles, there are still people entirely unaware of Florida’s improvement.

But no state can rest on its laurels. It is not uncommon for states to relax their standards over time or for the players in the system to learn how to circumvent the safeguards that originally worked.

Above all, Mississippi can’t rely on standardized test scores as the only measure of success. The pandemic helped make that abundantly clear to parents.

Parents certainly want their children to learn to read and to figure out math, but they have other priorities as well. They want their children to be happy, engaged, and challenged. Instead, we see childhood anxiety and suicide on the rise. Even before the pandemic, 70 percent of teens saw anxiety and depression as major problems among people their age. COVID lockdowns only made that worse, as students were kept from the human interaction they need to grow.

Students are not happy, and neither are teachers who show record levels of job dissatisfaction in polls. The solution lies not merely in running big-box schools better, but also in doing something truly radical: setting teachers free.

From left to right these teachers are Alexa Altamura, Nikki Duslak and Greg Wenderski. I’ve described Altamura’s school to Empower Mississippi readers before but the photo alone speaks a thousand words. Altamura and Duslak run micro-schools in Florida, whereas Wenderski is a wandering teacher from Austin, Texas who travels from city to city teaching students how to cast their own bronze-age swords. Duslak, a former public-school teacher of the year reached her breaking point when she was criticized for having posters on the “wrong wall.” What these and growing legions of teachers left behind the bureaucracy before it could kill their love of education.

Plenty of teachers in Mississippi want to be free as well.

Disintermediation is underway in K-12 education: teachers are cutting out the bureaucratic middlemen and bringing their visions of high-quality and fun education directly to families in delightfully small communities.

Some states southern states have been supporting the teachers yearning for freedom for decades with each success informing the next reform. Other southern states are struggling at a glacial pace to implement 1990s-era choice reforms.

Can you imagine a future where some states have a pluralistic system of schooling while laggards can’t quite figure out why the factory school model fails yet again to deliver? Can you imagine families and teachers flocking to innovative states and shunning the laggards?

I certainly can. Mississippi has the opportunity to be a leader but faces the very real danger of being a laggard.  As Mississippi public school teacher Khrysten Glass put it:

If you want citizens in our state to be productive members of society, then you have to teach them how to do that, and that’s supposed to be my job. That’s what I got into to teaching to do. I’m supposed to teach them life skills and prepare them for where they go after high school, but I need the freedom to do that, and with test after test there is no time for that kind of instruction. Where does it end? It’s disheartening for me, and that fire to educate inside of me has begun to grow dim.

Glass should not have to move to another state in order to fulfill her dream to be an educator. There are plenty of students in Mississippi who need the opportunity to learn from her.

Mississippi leaders should not compromise on high-quality content, but they should be open to innovation in how that content is taught and how schools are structured. A good start would be to avoid the bureaucrats and listen to the people who know what works for students and what doesn’t, because they are closest to them: parents and teachers.

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