Everyone likes good news, so it’s no wonder that when Mississippi went from being ranked second-worst in 2013 for fourth grade reading scores to 21st in 2022, the media kept using the m-word. “Everybody keeps on calling this a miracle,” says Dr. Jill Dent, executive director, Early Childhood Education, Mississippi Department of Education (MDE). “But we have worked really hard, and we were very intentional.”
Mississippi’s education challenges, which contribute to its economic challenges, have a long history. The state’s business leaders recall the arrival of a Nissan auto manufacturing plant two decades ago, when it was hard to find an adequate workforce. One attempted fix was investing in community colleges. “That wasn’t as helpful as they had hoped it would be,” says Dr. Susan Buttross, professor emeritus, University of Mississippi’s Medical Center (UMMC), “because we weren’t starting early enough.”
Heather Martin, project manager with Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC), says the impact is greater when investments begin even earlier than the first years of school: “The earliest stages of life have everything to do with later ability to thrive, so it is best to start at birth, but it’s never too late.”
Dr. Connie Baird-Thomas, associate director of the Mississippi State Social Science Center for Policy Studies and Director of the Mississippi Health Policy Research Center, states, “Legislators really understand how important those early years are.”
Here are five strategies that have contributed to the Mississippi “Miracle” (or whatever you want to call it):
Mississippi Early Education Partners (a Partial List)
An infrastructure grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation supported coaching, family engagement and professional learning. “Those are the three legs we still stand on today,” says Dr. Dent. “If it doesn’t fit into one of those three, we don’t do it.”
The state lottery, which has generated more than $80 million for an Education Enhancement Fund, has also helped stabilize early learning.
2. Breaking down silos. “It’s a poor state,” says Dr. Buttross. “For a long time, our institutions were all scrapping for money and it felt so competitive.”
Dr. Baird Thomas sees a shift over the last five years. “We’ve seen phenomenal collaboration among partners,” she says. “That is contributing to the success of children.”
According to Martin, “There used to be barriers in communication that resulted in duplication of activities and services. She also credits initiatives like Mind in the Making and Vroom for engaging families: “When I was a teacher, parents would often share that they felt inadequate when it came to supporting their children. Thankfully, there are multitudes of ways these initiatives can seamlessly integrate with systems and agencies to empower parents and caregivers to give children a great start in life today—and an even better future.”
3. Expanding Early Learning Collaboratives. A 2012 Mississippi First report titled “Leaving Last in Line” began with these sobering words: “As any fourth grader knows, last in line is an awful place to be. But for Mississippi’s public school fourth graders, last in line in reading and math achievement isn’t a once-in-a-while woe; it is a recurring nightmare.”
A mixed-delivery collaborative Pre-K model arrived the following year, and according to Dr. Buttross, “The collaboratives showed results very quickly, and when those children are moving from Pre-K into kindergarten, they are ready.”
Each year, investment in the program has grown—and so has the impact. State tax credits incentivize local investments by individual and corporations.
4. Meeting benchmarks. Mississippi is one of five states that meet all 10 of the quality standards benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). “We have coaching for our teachers,” says Dr. Dent. “We have the collaborative coordinators who work with our programs to make sure that the leaders have the resources, information and guidance they need to make good choices in planning.” Because the NIEER guidelines are embedded in state legislation, she says, the program keeps pace with the latest research.
5. Engaging policymakers and the business community. In addition to the ways that children benefit from Mississippi’s fulfillment of the benchmarks, the high marks from NIEER also help to demonstrate progress to legislators. “We’re able to show that these kids are improving as they exit Pre-K,” says Dr. Dent. “They’re ready for school. They are able to cooperate with their friends. Our program is preparing those little guys to be successful citizens in our community.”
Dr. Dent says that when she speaks to the business community, she emphasizes executive functioning skills. “They are all ears, because they want successful employees. They want to make their businesses successful.” Dr. Buttross concurs, recalling a recent Early Childhood Investment Council event where 40 children filed in and performed a song. “Everybody was just amazed. It was just one of those moments when people were catching on to the fact that this is how we prepare our workforce.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.