Consider this: not a single living Mississippian was born at a time when our state wasn’t the poorest and least educated in the country. We have experienced revolutionary changes in technology, culture, the economy — and yet Mississippi’s position at the bottom has been ineluctably consistent.
It’s not that Mississippians are inherently dumber and lazier than other Americans (no matter what the stereotypes say, we know that’s not true). And it’s not merely the product of history: many other Southern states have climbed the national rankings while we’ve been anchored to the bottom.
The truth is that the scarlet No. 50 on our chests is elective, not endemic. Mississippi is held down by our institutions and investments — or lack thereof — that are derived from present-day political choices. How can we tell? Because when we create better policy, we get better outcomes.
Take the findings of a new study from Family and Children Research Unit at MSU’s Social Science Research Center. For the first time, researchers used student-level data from the Mississippi Department of Education to examine the impact of pre-kindergarten enrollment on future academic performance. Their analysis shows that pre-K can kickstart a positive domino effect that raises the likelihood of success in high school and beyond:
To put that into words: pre-K attendance boosts reading proficiency among third graders, and third grade reading proficiency is a great predictor of eighth grade reading proficiency. Those students who read well in eighth grade are much more likely to graduate high school. And everyone is aware of the bearing that a diploma has on employment, income, and overall well-being.
Mississippi was late to the game on state pre-K investment — last year, for the first time, the Legislature provided funding for 11 programs serving approximately 1,800 students — so the researchers examined the 4,100 students who were enrolled in pre-K supported by federal Title I or local funds. (More on methodology)
Pre-K may not detach Mississippi from the No. 50 by itself, but it is a prime example of the type of institutional investment that enhances the next generation’s chances for success — and the kind of policy that Mississippi has typically resisted long after other states have reaped its benefits. If they want to help Mississippi catch up, policymakers should heed the strategies proposed by the study’s authors:
- Increase access to high-quality early care and education programs for children, beginning at birth through school entry, with increased participation in quality rating system of child care centers
- Require developmental screenings for all children in child care, Pre-K and Kindergarten programs
- Conduct outreach programs to promote school attendance, beginning with Pre-K
- Increase data-driven decisions for making sound economic investments on behalf of young children and families
- Establish a requirement for mandatory kindergarten
- Increase coordination of the Mississippi State Department of Health’s First Step Programs and the Mississippi Department of Education’s Special Education Program to increase early identification, appropriate and timely referrals and follow-ups for young children
- Create mechanisms for combination of public-private funding to advance reading programs (e.g., after school and summer reading programs and grade level reading campaigns)
I have no doubt that we can break the intergenerational transmission of the No. 50 — as do the many Mississippians who work on behalf of our children every day in pre-K and K-12 classrooms, in Head Start and child care centers, and in the home. Policymakers need to believe Mississippi can, too, by supporting policies that give our children a chance to succeed.