“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
[Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]”
– John F. Kennedy
Perhaps you have heard these points being made by friends and fellow Mississippians:
- “Our schools used to do so much better than today. Our schools have gotten so much worse than they were during the 1980’s and 1990’s. We did not spend nearly as much money then, but the schools were better than today.”
- “All we do is give the schools more and more money. There seems to be no end in sight. The schools want more money, always more money, and the state gives more, but the results just keep getting worse. When is enough going to be enough?”
Personally, I feel that these two interconnected points have been sold very well to many of our general public in Mississippi. From backhanded comments all day on the radio to vague insinuations by some politicians (both oddly without mentioning any hard data), many average Mississippians have come to accept as truth that schools have gotten worse in spite of the fact that we “throw more and more money” at them every year. Much greater research and many more facts can be used to explore this topic, but I will attempt to use some readily available and basic data points to see if the impressions still seem truthful in the light of day.
In regards to our schools being better years ago during the 1980’s and 1990’s, I do not think there is any data to support this being true. However, it is really impossible to tell in any objective way. If you remember, during those years there was no statewide testing program of any real relevance. It was often up to the school district itself to choose what types of achievement tests, if any, they gave. When some tests were required usually assessing basic skills perhaps once in lower elementary , once in upper elementary, once in middle school, and once before graduation (remember the Functional Literacy Exam), the information was certainly not put out to the public the way it is today. We have become so accustomed to knowing the testing “report card” of our local schools and districts that it is sometimes difficult to imagine, but this type of data for the public to review was something virtually nonexistent during those years. Up until No Child Left Behind was passed by the federal government and states began testing students in every district with a yearly, common, identical assessment given throughout the state which all students of a particular grade level took, there was no real means to compare schools within Mississippi to one another or schools in Mississippi to those in other states.
The few common assessments which did exist between Mississippi and other states were things like the ACT. However, the ACT didn’t really give a very accurate picture of how the school was doing at educating its students since it was taken voluntarily by only the students who chose to sign up independently. Thus, at one school 25% of its students might have taken the ACT while at another 75% might have taken the ACT. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which was created to compare achievement across state lines over time and to assess whether things were improving in different geographic areas, did not exist in its present form until 2000 when it began providing accommodations for students with disabilities. However, we do have data from the earlier form of NAEP from 1990-2000. But, both then and now, NAEP is not given to all schools within a state. With NAEP, only certain schools from each state are selected to take the assessment in a particular year. Naturally with the vast difference in school performance across the state, we can easily see that depending upon which school or district was chosen to take NAEP in a particular year, there could be vast differences in the scores reported for the state. Even with all of these limitations, we will attempt to use this data to see what clues it gives us as to the state of Mississippi education in years past compared to today.
Just glancing online for data, the average ACT score in Mississippi in 1989 was 15.9 (http://www.ihl.state.ms.us/urc/downloads/State%20of%20Education%20in%20Mississippi%201993.pdf). The average ACT score for 2012 in Mississippi was 18.7 (http://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2012/states.html). The average ACT score for 2014 was 19 (http://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2014/states.html). Even with this type of observed growth in ACT scores in Mississippi between 1989 and 2014 (+3.1 points on the composite average), the national average had also grown with a national average of 18.6 in 1989, a national average of 21.1 in 2012, and a national average of 21 in 2014. Using this highly limited data for comparison, our average ACT scores in Mississippi increased by 3.1 points and the national average increased by only 2.4 points, seeming to not only indicate growth in Mississippi ACT composite scores, but growth which exceeded that of the national averages. Using this data, it seems to paint a picture of Mississippi ACT test takers in 1989 who seemed less capable of achieving the higher scores which students in 2012 and 2014 were able to achieve, seeming to indicate that educational achievement at least among those taking the ACT was not as high during that earliest year. However, it is important to point out yet again, that this is not really worth much as a comparison since there were no assessments given to all students across the board as would be needed for a real conclusion to be drawn.
An examination of NAEP state & national results over time seems to show the same trend. Without listing every testing of NAEP during the years from 1990 until the present, I can state that in every subject area that I reviewed and at every grade level assessed, Mississippi has only risen in regards to NAEP scores over the years (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/). An example would be 4th grade mathematics in which 45% of Mississippi students taking the test scored above Basic level in 2000 versus 74% in 2013. In fact, NAEP seems to indicate quite significant gains over time with the oldest scores (some dating back to the 1990’s in Mississippi) being very much lower than the latest scores (at least among the Mississippi schools chosen to take NAEP which might be different every year). In fact, Mississippi rose 20 scale score points for the 4th grade mathematics assessment over those years while the national average only went up 17 points. Again, not a perfect comparison, but one which seems to indicate Mississippi students achieved less on these assessments the further back in time you go, Mississippi students have on average achieved more as we progressed to the present, and our growth has outpaced the national average growth (even though we still trail behind the overall national average scores).
After the passage of NCLB, Mississippi developed its MCT tests for elementary and middle school students and its SATP tests for certain high school subject areas. As much as I find it a shame that in some parts of the country NCLB led to some administrators and teachers being overly preoccupied with only teaching “the test” with some classrooms becoming little more than test prep and test taking skills workshops, I do think that common testing under NCLB gave us comparable data that allowed us to make the first real attempts at assessing student achievement across district and state lines. This data was publicly available and gave us a picture of what effect classroom instruction and other factors were having at creating objective gains in student achievement. In the days prior to NCLB mandated testing, prior to 2001, there was no way for parents or the public to have a remote clue as to what students were learning or not learning at their local school in comparison to other schools. Parents during those days looked at a student’s report card, asked the student questions, spoke with teachers, and that was about it. Those without children had even fewer ways of gauging student achievement. Who was to say whether or not the teacher in a student’s 7th grade English class had the class writing narrative papers for their “A” grades while down the road at another school the same grade and subject teacher might have the students watching movies every day for the entire period and giving “A” grades on fill in the blank worksheets? There was no way for the public to tell how well a school was or was not doing in any objective way. During those years, people on the outside might make fun of a country school like the one I attended, thinking we learned very little and simply “played school” because of our rural setting in comparison to schools with more urban surroundings. The larger schools in larger towns, almost everyone assumed, gave far superior educations to our small country schools. Only after state testing did it come to light that many of the rural schools were very competitive in the performance their students gave on these common statewide assessments in comparison to many of our surrounding urban schools. This is not to say that all rural schools did better than all urban schools (in other areas the situation was flipped), but at least there was now an objective way to attempt to assess performance & compare schools for the first time. Through most of my childhood which occurred in the 1980’s & 1990’s, the more sports programs a school offered and how many of your students were ticketed on the weekend for drinking were both just as likely to be the basis people in the community used to decide whether things were “good” or “bad” in the school as any other. Stories of how students behaved, records for the athletic teams, and overall “gut feelings” were often the closest thing to data the community had to make its judgments.
I made this detailed point to illustrate that education in Mississippi overall does seem to be lacking in many ways today in that we still trail national averages. However, the main reason this present view seems to contrast so strongly with our impression of school performance in the years before 2001 and the passage of NCLB is that in those days we were all blissfully ignorant of exactly how far behind our students really were in comparison to national averages. This is just a fact, our students for a variety of reasons were very much behind the national averages once real data became available. But, I would contend based upon what limited data we do have from the 1980’s and 1990’s that public education in Mississippi through hard work has been able to produce gains in achievement almost every year. I think most parents would agree that what their children learn today in the 5th and 6th grade in Mississippi schools is more in line with what we learned in the 7th and 8th (conservatively) a few decades ago. If this observation is true and our students have much more rigorous classes in contrast to their parents at the same grade level, it certainly follows that students are learning more at an earlier age now than in years past (thus indicating improvement in academic achievement in our schools as students are still passing and advancing to the next grade). The only difference between the 1980’s/1990’s and now, I believe, is that with statewide common testing and the public distribution of data on school performance, we finally had to take our “rose colored glasses” off and see our educational performance at each school in Mississippi for what it was. What we saw was very often lacking in regards to our neighboring states. I would compare it to how some of our parents and certainly our grandparents did not think they were poor when they were children even though they often walked barefoot, had no running water, had frost on their bed in the winter, and read by a “coal oil” lamp. They did not know they were themselves poor or how poor their community and state was in comparison to others until after they grew older and were exposed to how other people in other locales lived. Our parents were happy and often satisfied, but they were indeed behind economically in comparison. I would contend that most average people during the 1980’s and 1990’s were reasonably happy and satisfied with their local school. Yet, once data was available it demonstrated that as a state we trailed much of the nation and more than likely had for years.
Then comes the point as to whether we are spending more and more on education each year in Mississippi with no results to show for it. On this point, we do have some hard, relevant data to compare. According to the 2015 census data, Mississippi spends $8,130 per child in our public school system (http://www.deseretnews.com/top/2663/47/Mississippi-See-which-states-spend-the-most-least-per-pupil-on-public-education.html) using the most recent available data. This amount places Mississippi third from the bottom (47th out of 50) in our spending per student. Every other single state in the South spends more money on education per student than Mississippi. This begs the question, is it simply a coincidence that Mississippi is also at or near the bottom in comparison to how other state’s students score on average? It would be impossible to say for sure that extremely low money spent on education would necessarily equal low performance. However, as an analogy, if I told you that people in Tennessee drank far more contaminants and toxins in their water than any other state in the South and more than almost every other state in the US, this would probably alarm most Tennesseans. Then, if I followed up that information with the fact that Tennessee spends far and away less money per citizen on pollution regulation and water quality improvements than any other state in the South and was only three from the bottom in the whole United States, what might be the logical conclusion? Would common sense not figuratively “scream out” that Tennessee’s lack of spending in comparison to other states on pollution regulation and clean water would more than likely be a main cause of the excessive pollution in their drinking water compared to other states. How many of us would expect that Tennessee residents and voters would demand at the next election or even before then that funding be increased to clean up their polluted water knowing that such spending would be needed to make improvements? I will leave it up to you to carry that same logic over to our public education system and its funding in Mississippi.
Yes, in spite of all the talk radio and rhetoric from people who have attempted to convince us that money is literally being wasted right and left (and I am not saying there are not areas where efficiency could improve), Mississippi spends less per pupil than almost anywhere in the United States and certainly less than any other state in the South! But, here is where the real insult to injury is, this was not a situation that was isolated to one year in 2015 and it was not a situation of a state continually trying to do what it could to improve funding. Naturally, those opposing adequate funding contend money is being “thrown” at education so logically more money is being spent every year per child, right? No, not by any stretch. Oddly our state has consistently cut our public school funding in the years leading up to 2015, according to the data. The following is a listing of Mississippi’s spending per pupil for the past several years. The data shows for Mississippi our average spending was: 2014 – $8,130, 2013 – $8,130, 2012 – $8,301, 2011 – $8,298, 2010 – $8,666, 2009 – $8,704, and 2008 – $8,636 (http://www.governing.com/gov-data/education-data/state-education-spending-per-pupil-data.html). Yes, Mississippi, under some of our present leaders who have the apparent nerve to make comments as if money is being thrown at education, has without any significant exception consistently spent less per child on education every year since 2008! Now again, not to beat the Tennessee and the imaginary polluted water analogy to death, but what if in spite of the bottom in the United States performance in regards to toxins and pollutants in their drinking water and the fact that they were at or near the bottom in regards to their spending per citizen on keeping water clean, I told you that Tennessee for the next six year has decided the best way to make the water cleaner is to cut their spending on clean water even further each and every year? Would anyone even pretend to believe that quality of water would then improve? Would almost everyone not expect water quality would naturally go down even further as less resources were available to tackle the problem?
Again, the data clearly indicates Mississippi does not “throw money” at education. Heck, Mississippi is virtually dead last in regards to our spending on education and has cut that spending per child almost each and every year since 2008. Now, again, I am not saying there are not places in the state that waste money and spend it inefficiently within our schools. Our system is operated by humans and as such is not perfect. But, the data does not lie, Mississippi students are not being provided with the funding that children in almost every other state receive to insure an adequate education. On the other hand, what might be questionable in regards to potential lies are politicians who know these figures, who have themselves slashed into per pupil spending each year for almost a decade, and who still attempt to insinuate to the public that we are just putting money into schools hand over fist. Some of these same politicians on the state level then introduce bills to start charter schools, often run by “for profit” companies. The same politicians then quietly take campaign contributions from pro-charter school organizations from out of state. Yes, if you want to know what the major difference was in the 1980’s and 1990’s verses today in regards to our public school system, the answer might be that we had not yet generated this present “strain” of state office holders who instead of supporting public education seem bent on slamming it with every comment and move.
Basically, in 1997, back when we by and large all still supported our public schools in Mississippi whether Democrat or Republican, except for a small few in parts of the state who had always sent their children to private schools, the state passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) which used a mathematical formula to assess the bare minimum of dollars which needed to be spent by the state per student to provide a merely “adequate” education. But, this program has only been funded twice. The last time was in 2007, when Gov. Barbour and the legislature both bragged that fully funding MAEP was the single largest thing that could be done to help our state economically. Gov. Barbour stated that it should be funded every year from then onward. However, in that amount of time our state has elected a different breed of Republican politician to several top spots. These different breed of Republicans come more from that Mississippi private school tradition and have also become quite accustomed to taking money from national charter lobbying groups. They are the ones who have pushed these cuts and they are the ones, along with help from certain airwave media, constantly putting forth all of these innuendos that Mississippi is wasting money on a bloated education system. That is why Initiative 42 came about and why in my opinion they oppose it so much. It is all about money and having it available to spend on other things whether it is a pet developers project or a tax cut rather than anything associated with the public school system, which for whatever reason they seem to resent.
I certainly believe we must have more funding or our public school system has no chance of improving. In fact, if cuts continue as they have for the past several years, our facilities and our quality of education will inevitably go down as districts have spent almost all of their reserves to make up for the shortfall and cuts in state spending. The gains garnered by hard work will transform into the losses in student achievement some politicians falsely insinuate have already occurred. It is my firm belief that they want to starve our public school system of the funds it needs to provide a quality education. Then when things finally reach a breaking point and scores inevitably drop, these same politicians will point the finger and say, “See I told you they don’t do a good job. We need more support for charter schools and vouchers for private ones.” Money will then flow to those schools that serve only a minority of our students and will come directly from the public school system which educates “all” of our students. You will not see the poorest child you know whose family depends on the school bus for transportation going to the charter school. The non-verbal child with autism will not be attending the charter school. The child whose parents are on drugs will not be using a voucher to go to the private school. For those children and their needs it takes vastly more than the amount we spend on average per student to educate them, often much more than the average of a little over $8,000. Thus, the public schools will be left to educate the children who cost the most to educate and have the most needs with much less money than they ever had in the past. All the while the students who do not need as much money for services will take their funding vouchers to the charter or private school down the road where their parents will drop them off every morning. Yet, are all of these children not equally deserving of an education and an opportunity at a better future? The company who operates the charter or private school will laugh all the way to the bank as they educate the “higher profit margin” students without any extra needs and with professional parents at home during normal hours to help them with their studies for much less than the $8,000 provided from the state. Those schools will then naturally kick part of their profits back to those same politicians via political donations and those politicians will continue the cycle of downing the public schools while pushing the privatized alternatives. You see a public school district does not help much to buy campaign ads since it can’t make contributions to politicians, but for a charter or private school company wishing to donate to a candidate or a PAC which support a candidate, well the sky is the limit for them. This is the future that some of our state politicians’ actions will inevitably produce. The sad thing is that many good and well meaning people will help them to do it simply because they are not being told the facts and the truth. I hope that I have presented this information in a way that shows where the actual facts lie and where just rhetoric lies. Our public school system is in real danger. It can and must continually improve, but it cannot be starved out of existence and must have adequate funding to survive and thrive.
- Clint Stroupe