Stop Saying “At Least We’re Not Mississippi”: A Q&A With Rachel Canter of Mississippi First

There’s a tired trope in Southern states: “At least we’re not Mississippi.” The implication is that while one’s state may be underperforming on some measure — poverty, rates of uninsured, education outcomes, etc. — Mississippi can always be counted on to look worse. 

Having grown up, taught school, and worked in education policy across the South my whole life (but not in Mississippi), I’ve heard this statement plenty. I heard it as recently as this fall at a conference, leveled by a national thought leader who ought to know better. 

Last spring, Bellwether released “Education in the American South,” a data-filled report which highlighted, among other things, how the national education reform conversation has largely bypassed the South — a conclusion bolstered by the persistence of this Mississippi myth.

Here’s the thing: While many of us look down our noses, Mississippi has been working hard — and it’s been paying off. In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, Mississippi was the only state to see improvements in reading and had the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading and math. Mississippi’s gains have been nearly continuous over the last 16 years and mostly unmatched in the region.

To dig more deeply into what’s gone right in Mississippi, I talked to Rachel Canter, longtime Mississippian and co-founder and Executive Director of Mississippi First, an education policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit working to ensure that every Mississippi student has access to excellent schools.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The most recent NAEP results highlight the progress schools and students in MIssissippi have made, but 2019 isn’t the beginning of this story. When did the tide start to turn and why?

This has been a very long-term turn around. There are really two time periods where most of the gain occurs. The first is between 2005 and 2009, when you see a five- to six-point jump in scores. And the other is from about 2013 to 2019, when we grow about 11 points. Both of those time periods are significant in terms of what was going on in education policy, both nationally and in Mississippi. 

What we’re seeing between 2005 and 2009 is really the effect of No Child Left Behind, the effect of having annual testing, reporting, and disaggregated data. Like other states, Mississippi long had a low-stakes state testing program. We took tests, but it wasn’t really until No Child Left Behind that those tests had any stakes behind them.

I was actually in the classroom between 2004 and 2006, and I distinctly remember a teacher saying to me: “Now everybody matters. The kid in the back of the room matters.” That comment was surprising to me. But it reflected that suddenly we had this data telling us exactly how all our kids were doing.

It wasn’t just transparency: something could happen to your school district if the scores were low. Mississippi has had state takeover on the books since the late 90s, but that takeover was almost entirely about financial mismanagement. It wasn’t really until No Child Left Behind that there was any sense that the state could actually make schools do something differently if kids were not learning. 

In 2010 we adopted rigorous standards, and we started to phase them in, beginning with kindergarten in 2011-12 and moving up each year as that cohort of kids aged. 2013-14 was also the year that states nationally switched to much more rigorous assessments. We adopted PARCC here in Mississippi. We only had PARCC for a year, but even when we got rid of it, we kept a rigorous assessment, the MAAP (Mississippi Academic Assessment Program).

Between 2013 and 2019, the second period when [our NAEP scores] are really moving, is when the effects of high learning standards, the new accountability system, and the more rigorous assessment really started to hit. I think that our results are best explained by those changes and the fact that teachers and schools are responding by being more focused in their efforts, knowing where the bar is, and trying to reach it. 

Is the history you’re tracing different from the one that’s commonly told?

I think Mississippi is actually a real success story for standards and accountability, which people are not going to be necessarily happy to hear because there’s been a lot of conversation nationally about Mississippi’s literacy efforts, which are certainly very important. But when you look at the shifts in the NAEP data, half of the shifts happened before any of that [literacy] policy went into effect. And then after the policy went into effect, you have to consider when kids affected would have been in fourth grade for their data to show up in the NAEP.

This is why I think the bulk of the movement is likely from increasing our standards, increasing the rigor of our assessment, and evolving our accountability system to match. This is not to say the literacy work is not critical. It’s been an amazing amount of transformation! However, I believe that we’re only seeing the front edge of the impact of the literacy work, so I am excited to see where we go in the next NAEP cycle, particularly at eighth grade. 

When you think about your own work at Mississippi First, where has your focus been over this time period?

Since 2009, we have been the state’s strongest advocacy voice for high-quality standards and rigorous assessments. A lot of that time, Mississippi First and the Mississippi Department of Education were standing alone among other education actors who frequent the Capitol, but we knew we were a voice for teachers and students and families who wanted better. I give a lot of credit to the Department in those years for staying the course. 

We’ve also been highly focused on the long-term strategy of starting and expanding state-funded pre-K. We got the law passed in 2013 and have been slowly helping to breathe life into the program since then. The outcome data for participants is fantastic, so we’re making a big push to expand this year.

Lastly, I want to say that we’ve been the loudest advocacy voice that good education policy matters, that we don’t have to be on the bottom, and that kids will do better if we, as adults, do better. When I started here 10 years ago, there were a lot of people in the state establishment, in positions of power, who felt like nothing’s going to change. Demographics are destiny. We’ve got too many poor kids. 

In a lot of ways, our politics are more conducive to change right now. People are hungry for it. People are tired of being on the bottom, and we’ve got some wind in our sails. Now is the time for us. There’s been a dramatic difference in the number of politicians and folks at the state department who say: “No. It does really matter what you do in schools, and policy really can push people and give people incentives to change their behavior. We actually can get better.” I am really grateful to folks in the legislature, folks at the state department of education, and folks in school districts who have accepted and propagated that message. 

Looking ahead, what else needs to happen? What else needs to change to preserve or even improve this trajectory?

What it took for us to go from bad to good is not necessarily the same as what it will take to go from good to great. In addition to continuing to deepen the literacy work in terms of scientifically based instruction, we also believe curriculum work is very critical. Standards are foundational, but standards don’t teach themselves. You have to have curriculum, you have to have professional development, you have to have leadership that is bought into the idea that we need high-quality curriculum.

Our state department, like many states, doesn’t have the authority to mandate a specific curriculum for a specific school outside of a school under state takeover. So what the state department is doing right now, and we’re helping them with, is building teacher demand for high-quality curriculum in both reading and math.  

Continuing to push on state funded pre-K is also really important. Right now our program only impacts about four percent of four-year-olds. When you add in school districts that are doing high-quality pre-K with their federal Title I funds, you get up to about 15 percent. But we really need to be at 20 or 25 percent because we know how dramatically better those kids do when they show up in kindergarten.

Looking outside of Mississippi, are there external factors necessary to accelerate your continued progress? And on the flip side of that, are there barriers from outside that you worry about?

I do think that what other states are doing matters because we look at them and say, “Well, should we be doing that?” That can be positive or negative. It can be positive in the sense that we say, “Okay, we don’t want to be left behind,” which I think has been the dominant feeling here in the last 10 years.

But it could also potentially be a threat if people across the country are saying, “Okay, we’re going to back up. We’re going to slow down.” And in a lot of places, we’re seeing that happen. People have said, “This is too uncomfortable.”

We’ve gotten to a pretty stable place with learning standards, but I think people have realized that they can water down the whole system by watering down assessments. So I have a lot of fears around that because who wakes up in the morning and says, “I really love testing”? That’s a hard thing to rally people around, but having that data is a critical part of our success story.

I’m a bit concerned about the conversation around the country concerning moratoriums on charter schools because we are just now getting a sector off the ground. And Mississippi is the type of place where if things go badly in other places, we are going to feel it worse than other people because we have less money, we have less political power, et cetera. If national foundations and other people decide okay, we’re going to back off charter schools, it will slow down the sector in some of these other places, and it will kill it here. 

I also think that, in general, the toxicity in education politics in the last few years is worrisome. I say this to our state politicians all the time: you have to build a better relationship with educators. Educators make all of this possible. And yes, we want to move fast, and, yes, we have to do things differently. But educators have to feel like we have their backs as they make uncomfortable changes because we’re asking them to do something very different and very hard. We need to acknowledge that and appreciate how hard they are working, even if we are not where we want to be yet. 

What do you want those outside the state and region to better understand about Mississippi’s education system?

We are actually working really hard and really fast. We don’t get the respect for the very hard work we’re doing, work that sometimes is harder than in other places. We don’t have as much money. We don’t have the national spotlight. We don’t have national investment from basically anyone. We have the Kellogg Foundation that’s here working on early childhood, and Coahoma County has a little bit of Walton Home Program region money. But there’s no other national foundation that’s really been knocking on the door here.

I wish people appreciated that a little bit more. Certainly there have been people who have helped us, but we have largely done it on our own in a way that other states have not. They’ve had a lot more help than we have. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that states with millions of dollars in federal and philanthropic investments make progress, but can we get a little credit for doing all of that without much help?

I also want people to recognize that there are lots of Black and brown kids in rural places. In Mississippi, a lot of our rural school districts are 100 percent Black. And if you’re not having a conversation about kids in rural schools, if you’re not having a conversation about kids in the deep South, you are missing the boat on the equity conversation. When people say, “well, we’re doing stuff in New Orleans and we’re doing stuff in Memphis so we have the South covered,” — most kids in the South don’t live in New Orleans and Memphis. 

Any final words?

I want to end on a note that is both hopeful and a call to action: we all do this work, day in and day out, in good weather and bad, for kids. There is no question that kids are far better off in Mississippi today than they’ve ever been: we’ve doubled the percentage of kids reaching a NAEP benchmark of proficient or advanced in 4th grade reading and quadrupled the rate in fourth-grade math. In the eighth grade, we’ve grown reading proficiency by 30% and math proficiency by 150%. That’s eye-popping. This success is true for every demographic, a huge victory.

But despite the fact that the gains are across the board, our achievement gaps for Black kids and low-income kids are unchanged. On the one hand, this means that in an era of major improvement, we haven’t simply ridden a wave of big boosts from high-income white kids. On the other hand, it means that for every child to succeed, we need to ensure that Black kids and low-income kids get what they need to move even faster. I think we can do it. We’d love for you to help.