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SC looks to Mississippi as it works to improve education

When South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas was looking for ideas to improve education in South Carolina, he was surprised to find out Mississippi, often last or near last in the nation, had passed his state by.

Mississippi fourth graders made some of the biggest improvements in math and reading scores in the country last year, transforming the state so many others had dismissed or only compared themselves to in order to make themselves feel better.

“We want to be Mississippi. That’s how far they have come,” Lucas said Thursday as he introduced Mississippi Education Superintendent Carey Wright before she gave a nearly hourlong presentation to South Carolina House members on her state’s success.

South Carolina and Mississippi both started working to improv e reading in early elementary school about six or seven years ago.

Wright’s program increased the numbers of students reading at the proper grade level when they leave third grade from 52% to about 85%.

South Carolina passed what it called Read to Succeed and spent more than $200 million. Reading scores for the state’s third graders actually dropped, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Mississippi set higher goals and standards for its programs. It put some of the best elementary educators the state could find into roles as literacy coaches, and required all elementary teachers to pass a test showing they understood the science of reading and how children need to both recognize patterns of letters in words and their meaning in context. The state also focused on students struggling the most with reading.

“They expected more from their students,” Lucas said. “And they continue to expect more. We expected less.”

Mississippi offered free professional development to any early childhood education providers, public or private, because Wright said younger children can make the biggest leaps academically with the right help.

“We are proving what the power of high quality pre-k does,” she said.

Leaders in South Carolina are trying to figure out what to do next to overhaul education. Lucas frequently said lawmakers and others are dealing with more than 40 years of neglect.

The major overhaul bill the House passed last March remains on the Senate floor. Senators adjourned Thursday after eight days of debate with little obvious progress.

Lucas said the House will keep moving forward. He wants to give the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee more power, although he is still thinking about the exact details before he files a bill.

And in case the big overhaul bill fails in the Senate, the South Carolina House on Thursday passed a bill of rights for teachers that includes a guaranteed 30-minute break from students and requires they get paid when administrators require them to do extra tasks. A bill reducing the number of standardized tests passed earlier this week.

One other way South Carolina’s overhaul efforts have differed from Mississippi is the role of teachers. In South Carolina, teachers have been more vocal calling for change. Last spring they staged a 10,000-person rally. Now, some teacher groups are asking lawmakers to scrap the big overhaul bill and start over, saying educators had too little input last year.

In Mississippi, Wright said she made sure to give teachers as much professional development as they wanted and kept them in the loop. The group of 60 teachers she formally sought for advice has now grown to 400.

“That sent a message to teachers that we cared about them,” Wright said.

Wright is impressed with South Carolina’s efforts to pay teachers more. The state increased teacher salaries by 4% in 2019 and Lucas and the governor are looking at a flat $3,000 increase this year, which would bump average pay to about $56,000 — above the Southeastern average.

Wright said she was glad to share her experience with South Carolina lawmakers, but she also came to learn how their state did things. After all, she said, her ideas in Mississippi weren’t new; they were just changed to match what her state needed.

“We are all in this for the same reason. We are building the foundation of this nation every day,” Wright said.

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