One of the most unlikely education stories of the past decade has been Mississippi’s rise as a NAEP star and a reading science. When looking for role models, scholars and policy buffs typically point to places like Shanghai and Finland, or even Massachusetts. But Mississippi? Who saw this coming?
But under the leadership of Dr. Carey Wright, whose term as state superintendent of education comes to an end this week, students in Mississippi have made greater progress than in any other state, making it a model national for practitioners and policymakers, due to a series of reforms led by Wright, including the adoption of higher academic standards, an emphasis on teacher training and professional development, and a mandate to the statewide to retain struggling third-grade readers.
Wright is also one of the nation’s longest-serving state education chiefs, having been named to the position in 2013. She reflected on her work and success in this conversation, which has been edited for more length and clarity.
Why are you leaving?
It’s time to go home and be with my family. I have been here for eight and a half years. My youngest daughter is getting married in September, my grandson is three, and I have thought a lot about how important my parents are to my children. I am the only grandparent of my grandson. My family lives in Maryland and that part of my heart was really tugging at me. It will be difficult to leave because I have loved this job since the moment I took it and I love the people I work with.
Usually, people in your role shouldn’t buy green bananas; they don’t last long. But you are one of the oldest heads of state. How did you manage?
You are not doing this work alone. I have an amazing management team that believes in the same things I do about kids and the importance of putting kids first. And you have to have a pretty tough shell because you’re going to have your detractors. Ever since my feet hit the ground, I heard, “Why the hell are we hiring someone who’s not from Mississippi?” She’s not from here. This continues to this day. I try to stay out of politics. I didn’t want to turn this work into political football. I knew I was not going to accomplish anything if I was perceived as partisan in any way. So I’ve been very clear that my goal is to improve student achievement in the state and not lean to one side or the other of the aisle. I think people respected that.
But it is surely easier to get things done at the state level when one party is in control.
Well, yes and no. Yes, because my state education committee chairs are very supportive. But no, because not everyone gives priority to education. There was a culture of low expectations here. We were 50 for so long that I think people just gave up on education to improve. You just have to accept that it’s not at the top of everyone’s priority list. Sometimes when you make decisions based on what’s in the best interests of children, it doesn’t make life much easier for adults. Looking back, I see the pride that reigned throughout the state with our children doing as well as them. People say, “Wow, our kids really can do more!” I always believed they could do more.
I’ve always been skeptical that state-level politics can really get things done or productively shape classroom practices. But Mississippi is the outlier. How did you do ?
People can resist change. But I’ve discovered that data and accountability will drive the behaviors you want to see in schools and classrooms. If you put in the policy what is important to change student outcomes, people will pay more attention to it. We make it public so that parents, communities and other stakeholders can see what is happening in their schools and districts in a very transparent and neutral way. We do not bias the data. We report the data. Sometimes it made people happy, and sometimes it made people less happy. What I mean is, if you’re not happy with the data, what do you do to change it?
But surely Mississippi isn’t the only state in the country that worships the altar of data and transparency?
I think those are the strategies that we have put in place. We have been very clear that we teach the science of reading and provide a lot of professional development. I’m a big believer in empowering teachers and leaders because I think people want to do their best, but some come into these classrooms with more gifts than others.
Our coaching strategy has been very solid for us, but unlike [other states], we hire the coaches. I wasn’t going to just give the money to the districts and let them hire the coaches because I was worried that some district superintendent or superintendent would take advantage of it to drag an ineffective teacher out of the classroom and make them the literacy coach . We hired all the coaches we have there.
On the one hand, you paint a picture of a warm working relationship with districts and teachers. On the other hand, with the coaches, you say “these are my employees, not yours”. Where do you draw the line between being the authority of the state and having an ongoing, productive working relationship with districts and teachers?
There are times with me where things have to be non-negotiable. When it comes to what I believe, based on research, experience, input, or what is in the best interests of students, I will not hesitate. If I hesitated every time I was pushed back, we would never have accomplished anything. Like the science of reading. I believed so strongly that it was going to be the [focus of] professional development. For some teachers, this was all new. And so now we were coming in saying, “That’s really how you teach reading.” And we’ve had teachers coming out of professional development who were in tears saying, “I feel like I failed all those kids I had before me.” Our point was, no, move on. You can’t change the past, but you can influence the future by doing exactly what you need to do. So part of that is a give and take. But when it comes to students and what they need, I’m pretty firm on that.
What about your schools of education? In the era of education reform, I feel like we have kind of given schools of education a pass. I just guess there is not much we can do to improve the preparation of teacher candidates when they come to us.
I have found higher education institutions slower to move and change than I think they should be because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. And you have professors in some universities who are still committed to the whole language. You’re right, we’ve all heard, “I have a terminal degree.” So we tried to work with them for several years, and I think we made some progress. Going back to my article on politics here, I realized, you know what? We have the power to approve their programs, don’t we? So let’s do that. We will evaluate their programs because we can. And everyone came to the table. I think one of them came up kicking and yelling, “How dare you mess with my preschooler program?” But I’ve been pretty public about it. I don’t think it’s fair for students or parents or grandparents or anyone to pay for a four year degree and then the state has to step in and pay for more professional development to get them there where they need to be on the first day. Thus, students graduating from education preparation programs, to obtain a license in the state of Mississippi, must pass what is called a foundations of reading assessment based on the science of reading. I want to know what is the pass rate for first time educator preparation program. They don’t want us to release that data, but to me, data is what data is. So that’s something I talked to the team about. Let’s see how we can put this together and release this.
Is this going to happen?
I think so.
What was your biggest mistake? Something you did wrong? Or haven’t you and wish you had?
I’m going to be pretty candid with you about my biggest mistake. I was very naive, very naive. It was 2016, I think, and I had been here for a few years. The U.S. Department of Education, at the time, sent what it called these “dear colleagues” letters to states with updates and new information. Typically what I would do was take those letters and push them to the districts and say, “Here’s what we get from USED”. No comments on that, just “here it is”. So I get one that came jointly from USED and the Department of Justice on the LBGTQ guidelines, which I sent. I was unprepared for the answer “How could you get this information out?” It became the “bathroom letter”.  Even the governor was asking for my resignation just for sending that letter. And so that was a lesson for me about just being more aware of the political environment. But it stunned me. This surprised me because I don’t discriminate against children.
Apart from being a grandmother, what are your future projects?
I will probably do some consulting. I can’t imagine not doing something in education. I can’t. I am now trying to see exactly what it might look like. But not another full-time head of state.
What is your farewell advice to your forty-nine colleagues?
Stay focused on the kids, stay focused on their results, and keep reviewing the data to make sure you’re doing exactly what you should be doing to give every child access to as many different opportunities as possible. I used to tell my teachers when I was principal, I want you to treat each day like it’s the only day they have, because when the bell rings at the end of the day, you cannot recover this day. So what are we going to do every day to make sure we are doing our best for the children?