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Marty Wiseman: Education in Mississippi: A glimmer of hope


Marty Wiseman



It seems that in every news outlet over the past few days there has been discussion of education legislation passed in the 2013 session of the Mississippi Legislature. While there was no massive education reform package, numerous doors were opened. 


The actions this session seem to signal willingness on the part of legislators and the Governor to consider the type of "outside the box" thinking that will enable Mississippi to attempt to right itself in the effort to participate in a high-tech world that is advancing at warp speed. While opening a number of doors is not the same as walking through them, Mississippi may nevertheless discover a portal to the future by peering at the world beyond. This rise to action by policymakers could not have come at a better time. 


One need look no further than the April 22, 2013, issue of Time Magazine to discover why this is the case. The feature in this issue, "Made in The U.S.A.," by Rana Faroohar and Bill Saporito contains much good news concerning the return of manufacturing superiority to the United States. The bottom line in their well-researched piece is that the once cost-effective outsourcing of manufacturing jobs is rapidly becoming less so. American technological innovation, combined with abundant newfound domestic supplies of energy, portend an industrial manufacturing renaissance in the United States. That is the good news. 


The not-so-good news is that few new jobs are being created in the process. The task of manufacturing itself is being taken over by computer-driven precision machines with virtually unimaginable capabilities. 


Quoting from the Time article, "Today's U. S. factories aren't the noisy places where your grandfather knocked in four bolts a minute for eight hours a day. ... Computer skills and specialized training are in, since the new made-in-America economics is centered largely on cutting-edge technologies."  


The article goes on to say that in this world of "more machines and fewer workers, for those workers to be the masters of the machines new manufacturing jobs are requiring at least a two year tech degree to complement skills in welding and milling and further that it won't be long before employers can demand and expect a four year degree for virtually all manufacturing work." According to Faroohar and Saporito, the implications are huge for educators who must "deliver the skills and policymakers who will have to recognize and set new educational standards." 


In the past, consumption of such an article would be followed by despair as one pondered the plight of Mississippi in such a scenario. However, the once prevalent sense of hopelessness may be poised for a change. Many of Gov. Bryant's "Education Works" reform measures have been allowed to see the light of day by the legislature. Taken together, these pieces of education legislation do not yet comprise an all-encompassing solution, but they do represent a departure of sorts from the status quo. 


Legislation creating the possibility of charter schools in low-performing districts will enable us to judge in actual practice whether such schools can contribute to the turnaround in educational performance in districts desperately in need of a new direction. Legislation titled "Third Grade Gate" literacy will focus the spotlight and some financial resources on the development of reading skills by the third grade. Improving teacher quality is the goal of a multi-pronged approach based on college entrance scores, classroom performance and teacher exams. In addition, scholarship money to attract the brightest scholars possible into the teaching profession is being made available. Also of significance is legislation to implement a pilot program in pre-kindergarten education. 


Several other appropriations have been made by the Legislature to target areas of educational improvement. Appropriations for the key providers of workforce development - Mississippi's community colleges - as well as funds for the state's universities that are the research and development engines held their own even in these austere economic times. 


Will the work of the 2013 Mississippi Legislature alone be sufficient to propel Mississippi into the thick of the manufacturing renaissance described by Time? Hardly. But these legislative efforts do offer significant evidence that we may be willing to step up to the starting line. 


Many of the pieces are in place. Mississippi is fortunate to have one of the oldest and most effective community college systems in the country. Many of the state's universities have demonstrated national rankings in a number of fields of innovative research. Now that we have committed to a beginning we must feed these higher education entities with the large numbers of capable high school graduates necessary to make Mississippi - yes even Mississippi - attractive territory for the new age of manufacturing. 


The fact is that we have no other choice.



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