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For whom the school bells toll

Amidst all of the turmoil and government bashing that has characterized our long hot summer, Mississippi educators have plodded on toward the beginning of yet another school year. Surely the phrase “do more with less” was memorized long ago by those who are charged with elevating our younger generation into national and international competitiveness with their peers. Once upon a time we did not concern ourselves with any competition from outside of Mississippi and even shunned any activity that would promote any unpredictable outside influence. Such self-imposed xenophobia is now totally irrelevant and long in our past. Mississippi is in the global game and we have no choice but to play.

Comments made by guests appearing recently on the Sunday news program Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square) should prove sobering to all Mississippians as we begin another school year. Particularly interesting were the remarks of Columbia University professor and director of Columbia’s The Earth Institute, Professor Jeffrey Sachs. The panelists were engaging in serious hand-wringing about the stubbornly stagnant national and world economy. The experts on the program were trying to make sense of the several trillion dollar “stash” of cash in the hands of large corporations and their reluctance to move it into the hiring arena. Sachs offered a very clear opinion that seems to be a recurring one of late. He stated that we will be disappointed if we continue to expect a “consumer-led” economy to pull us out of this. “Consumers are exhausted,” according to Sachs. Our economies have ceased to be competitive. The United States, European countries and elsewhere must convert to an “investment-led” recovery, and those investments must be directed at “better skills, higher technology and infrastructure,” Sachs said. The bottom line must be a serious investment in educational upgrades, a ratcheting up of technical skills and the ever-present call for investment in infrastructure.

Let us consider Mississippi’s readiness to answer Sachs’ call for educational and technical competitivness. It seems that every dose of clarity in our marching orders comes with a sobering dose of cold water. Recently, the news of The Condition of College and Career Readiness Report 2011, published by ACT, hit the streets. ACT, named for the original college entrance exam, the American College Test, analyzed the latest test results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report contained analysis of, among other things, that portion of test takers in the high school class of 2011 who met the college benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. The key score was the percentage of test takers who met the benchmarks in all four categories.

The numbers speak for themselves. In Mississippi, only 10 percent met the benchmarks. This was by far the lowest percentage in the country including the D.C., school system. The national average was 25 percent. By comparison, the figures for surrounding states were 16 percent for Louisiana, 17 percent for Arkansas, 15 percent for Tennessee, 18 percent for Alabama and for good measure 25 percent for the often-maligned Washington, D.C., schools. Compounding this already difficult picture is the most recent graduation rate, which edged downward to 71.4 percent, according to Mississippi Department of Education published data.

One other news story of relevance to this discussion appeared this past week. Despite pounds of research that has virtually proven beyond doubt that a person’s learning skills are almost entirely based on what happens to that person between birth and entering first grade, Mississippi remains one of only 10 states with no state-sponsored early childhood education program. Furthermore, we are the only state in the South that can make such a claim. The administration of Gov. Haley Barbour, to its credit, is backing an effort to compete for $50 million in federal funds in an effort to add incentive to a quality rating system for privately-run child care centers. Although this will apparently benefit the centers that are already most capable while leaving the less well-funded operations to fend for themselves, it is perhaps a start toward bigger things.

So, how would Jeffrey Sachs and others like him assess the readiness of Mississippians to engage in international technology driven competition and, in the process, earn the brain power-driven dollars that will come with success in that arena? Will Mississippi policy makers “buy” into an educational investment-led recovery from birth to adulthood? Will we be able to continue to attract the best and brightest into the teaching professions and support them when they get there, or will we continue to blame them for society’s problems that were not of their own making?

Admittedly, problems must be corrected, but a continuing barrage of anti-government, anti-public education rhetoric is a waste of time. The investment-led recovery will happen with or without us.


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About Marty Wiseman

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