When the Mississippi Board of Education passed the new accountability rating system at their meeting held recently in Jackson, they made a tremendous commitment to the children of our state. This is perhaps the strongest commitment that the State Board has ever made to prepare our children to compete on a national and international level. For too long, Mississippi has ranked at or near the bottom on education, per capita income, health and quality of life comparisons among states. The reasons that Mississippi consistently appears near the bottom of these lists are intertwined. Improving all of them begins with improving education. The State Board made a bold step forward toward this goal when they approved the most stringent rating system in our state’s history.
For years, communities have been perplexed when their schools received the highest ranking possible in the state, but the state as a whole still ranked near the bottom when compared to student performance in other states. If we believe, as the State Board clearly does, that Mississippi’s children can perform as well as any children in the nation, then our standards should be just as high as theirs. With the new system in place, our standards are on par with standards in other states. When schools fall into the highest category, Star Schools, communities will know that those schools are not just outstanding in Mississippi. They would be considered outstanding if they were placed in Massachusetts, California or New York. When schools fall in the second highest category, High Performing, communities will know that their schools are performing at the national average. With the new system, there is greater transparency in school, district and state performance than there has ever been.
The State Board has set a very bold goal of reaching the national average on national assessments by 2013. This new rating system is a bold step forward in reaching that goal. Reaching that goal will bring our state much closer to moving up on all of the other lists mentioned before: health, per capita income and quality of life. Improving education improves Mississippi for all Mississippians, not just the children, their parents or the teachers and school leaders that work so hard every day to ensure that every child receives an excellent education.
The State Board has taken a dramatic step forward and its members are asking teachers, principals, superintendents, local school board members, students and parents to go boldly with them. It will not be easy. The curriculum and assessments are more rigorous than they have ever been. Although our students will be performing at a much higher level than before, the results may, at first glance, seem to decline. When the ratings under the Level 1, Low-Performing to Level 5, Superior-Performing system were last released in 2007, approximately 25 percent of our schools fell into the highest category. We are not likely to see 25 percent of our schools named as Star Schools. However, Superior-Performing under the previous system did not equate to performing well above the national average as the Star School rating does. As a state, we must stand behind our schools and give them the support they need as they move through this transition and work to prepare our students to compete for college and career opportunities with students from other states and countries.
Even more than state support, our schools need local support. Communities that have excellent schools are the ones that demand excellence and provide the support necessary to achieve excellence. Teachers and school leaders cannot rise to the new expectations alone. Business and community leaders must join hands with the schools to achieve excellence.
Finally, our children and their parents must join with the schools and raise their own expectations of themselves and their capabilities. In too many cases, children are not given the gift of high expectations and therefore never reach their full potential. Each child has special gifts, talents and abilities and should be expected to use these to the fullest to help themselves and their classmates, families and communities. I hope that all children and parents will believe in themselves enough to work their very hardest and make whatever sacrifice is necessary to succeed. Working together, we can achieve excellence and move Mississippi forward.
Dr. Hank M. Bounds is Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education.