Education bar too low, expert tells leaders

More than 250 business leaders, elected officials and educators gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Ridgeland Wednesday to celebrate Madison County’s premier status as a quality provider of education.

They left shaking their heads.

The message they heard was good job indeed, but not good enough. While impressive by Mississippi standards, state leaders may be guilty of becoming gatekeepers of the past instead of leaders for the future.

Dr. Bill Daggett, the admittedly politically incorrect chief executive officer of the International Center for Leadership in Education, delivered the blunt and sobering assessment.

He praised improvements in Madison County’s public, private and parochial schools, acknowledged progress in community colleges and universities, then warned listeners to look more closely at the results.

Daggett said better test scores and standings might be the product of low expectations and standards rather than smarter students.

Using national studies, he noted to a round of applause, Mississippi’s No. 1 ranking in proficiency among fourth grade readers. The problem, he explained, is the state’s definition of proficiency. Compared to measurements from other states, the rating tumbled dramatically.

“You, even in Madison where you’re making good progress in your schools, have the lowest definition of proficiency in the country,” he said. “You’ve got to start comparing yourself more to the highest performing schools in the United States, in the world.”

Two concerns register high according to Daggett.

He said on a statewide analysis, Mississippi needs to commit to a broad and inclusive pre-kindergarten program. Many state youngsters, primarily because of a high poverty level, enter school unprepared, losing critical years where learning is most important.

“It’s astounding how poor your commitment to pre-K is,” Daggett said. “Kids who don’t have that learning opportunity are developmentally delayed. It takes time for them to catch up and many don’t. If they’re not performing at grade level by the third grade, you’ve got a problem. Studies show it leads to increased dropout rates and incarceration. That becomes an economic problem, hurting businesses. And that hurts communities. The focus on reading must also be expanded.

“Everybody must teach reading,” he said. “Today, you teach reading between kindergarten and the 8th grade. That’s not enough. Part of the reason students have trouble in other subjects is they can’t read, they can’t understand the content. Poor reading skills don’t just effect language arts. They impact science, math and everything else in school. They impact technical information and daily skills in everyday life.”

He challenged community leaders to evaluate their definition of excellence, fearing standards of 1980 might still be in place. And he encouraged school officials not to lead through a rearview mirror but in grasping standards and measurements that involve technology and the exploding information world.

“Technology is not going away,” Daggett cautioned. “You and I, at best, are immigrants in the technology world, our kids are natives. We’ve got to understand and appreciate that. We’ve got to help them as they prepare to live in a world that has been truly globalized.”

It isn’t an easy path, he said, using obesity as an analogy.

“We all know the best way to lose weight is diet and exercise,” he said. “But how many of us do it? We can talk about changing our schools and there are ways. But how many of us will do it.

“All of us say we want to improve, but none of us, not the elected officials, not the parents, not the administrators, not the teachers, not the support people, not the school boards and not the business community will say we’re the problem. But we are. We all are.

“Everybody,” he continued, “supports reform and improvement as long as they don’t have to do anything. That’s got to change.”

Daggett praised the group for its involvement, encouraged them to make a difference and to broaden the necessary partnership that will be necessary.

“It’s okay to celebrate where you are,” he said. “But you can’t ever be satisfied.”

The Madison County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA) and the Madison County Business League (MCBL) organized the Salute to Excellence in Education forum.

Other speakers included Dr. Phil Pepper, retired state economist; Dr. Tom Burnham, state superintendent of schools, Dr. Hank Bounds, commissioner of the Institutions of Higher Education (IHL); former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, chairman of the National Assessment of Education Progress High School Achievement Commission; state Rep. Rita Martinson of Madison and Dr. Glenn Boyce, president of Holmes Community College.

Article by Ed Darling from the Madison County Journal ยท Sept. 2, 2010