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Charlie Mitchell: State ready to give up on schools; superintendent isn't


Charlie Mitchell



OXFORD -- Folks familiar with Greek mythology (10th grade?) will remember that it was Alexander who "untied" the Gordian knot in 333 B.C. and, as a result, became known as Alexander the Great. 


The knot had existed since Gordius honored Zeus by tying it. No one could figure it out. 


Alexander's solution, of course, was unconventional. He didn't study the knot. He whacked right through it with his sword. Some cried foul, but not too loudly. Alexander might have whacked them, too. 


Let's compare this ancient story to the pledge Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Gov. Phil Bryant and leaders in the Legislature have taken, insisting that charter schools legislation will pass in Mississippi in 2013. 


Let's admit public schools are in a knot, a knot tied in no small measure by the officious intermeddling of politicians and others who inserted themselves between teachers and students -- perhaps meaning well but making the education-centered mission more difficult, if not impossible. 


Let's say charter schools legislation -- turning over a public responsibility to private enterprise -- is Alexander's sword. 


Passing the legislation is tantamount to giving up, to saying, "We have made a mess, tied a knot we are unwilling or unable to try to unravel." Whack! 


It must be added -- with haste -- that there are many excellent private schools now operating with state charters and state dollars. The point is not to condemn private enterprises or say they don't have the potential or, in many cases, the proven ability to outperform public enterprises. The point is merely to say, with clarity, something that backers of the legislation never do: Creating charter schools would never, under any circumstances, be contemplated if public school outcomes were meeting public expectations. 


Dr. Lynn House is serving in the capacity of state superintendent of education. She grew up in the North Delta and previously served as dean of the School of Education at Delta State University. 


She's not ready to give up. 


In media interviews as the legislative season approaches, House has made clear that she doesn't take a position of "no charter schools, not ever, not never." She concedes -- as all who track performance indicators do -- that there exceptionally good results coming from exceptionally modeled programs. 


The question is, "What keeps public schools from using the same strategies to achieve results that are equally good?" 


And the answer is "nothing" or "very little." 


It would take effort. 


In brief, what House appears to be saying is that Mississippi schools need to be more realistic. 


Think about it. A mere 12 years ago -- when today's high school seniors were starting first grade -- a guy named Ronnie Musgrove was elected governor. Part of his pitch was the wild-eyed hope of placing one computer in every Mississippi classroom. Today, it's rare to find students (past the eighth grade anyway) who don't have Internet-connected phones in their backpacks. 


Now the core of education hasn't changed. For the magic to happen, an effective teacher and a willing student are the only requirements. But just about everything else is different. 


House wants to see what's known as the Common Core curriculum in place. Adopted when former Gov. Haley Barbour chaired National Governors Association, it raises standards. The higher bar, House has said, will created the impression that schools aren't doing as well, at least initially. There will be a PR challenge because the normal response to headlines about low scores is to create easier tests. But that's what's gotten us where we care. 


There are myriad other options. If a student has "maxxed out" on learning after the 10th grade and is ready to go into the workforce, why not help make that happen through a certificate program? If a student is not reading and writing at grade level after three years in school, why send the student to the fourth grade and just hope that his or her frustration doesn't intensify? 


In sum, House wants public education to innovate, to create multiple pathways that meet students where they are and challenge them to go as far as their interests and abilities will take them. She sees schools as becoming less formulaic, less "one size fits all," driven by students needs instead of statistics. 


That, not coincidentally, is where prize-winning charter schools have met success, too. 


With so many ready to surrender, to cleave through the puzzle of public education instead of trying to solve it, charter schools legislation is a sure bet in 2013. 


Too bad. House says the state can do it. She's right.



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