Each time the Jackson Free Press publishes one of the four annual arts preview issues, we are reminded of the immense diversity and wealth of talent that abounds in Mississippi. We're also reminded that people come in all shapes, sizes and aptitudes. Not every person can be an engineer or a writer, an architect or a mathematician, a sales representative or a surgeon. Each of us, while part of a larger whole--our community--brings his or her special talents to the game of life.
In a bit of perverse synchronicity, Gov. Phil Bryant released his education plan, "Framing Mississippi's Future: An Agenda for Children" as we were putting this issue together. We could find little to celebrate in the document.
Bryant's solutions center around the same ideas we've heard over the years from conservatives: test, measure, reward and privatize. Raise teacher standards, but not pay; raise the bar for students in 4th grade, but do little to expand pre-K education; establish a system of for-profit charter schools, but provide no plan to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, the state's formula for leveling school funding between high and low-income school districts.
Despite mountains of research-based evidence proving that "soft" subjects, such as arts and music education, improve educational scores in "hard" subjects such as math and science, the governor's plan makes no mention of art or music education. There's no discussion of the importance of play, or any renewed effort toward a statewide pre-K program.
"Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking and verbal skill," states the educational website Edutopia. "Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence and teamwork."
Yet, it seems our conservative leadership want us to believe the way to improve education is through tougher standards and teacher merit pay.
"A large and growing body of research shows that investing in high-quality pre-kindergarten education yields benefits for children, schools and communities," states the Center for Public Education in its preamble to a paper summarizing that research. Early learners, kids who begin learning at age 2 or 3, are more ready to learn than kids whose first encounter with school is at age 5 or 6.
The effects of pre-K reach into adulthood. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project study, which began in the 1960s, found that "low-income black children randomly selected to receive the comprehensive preschool program showed impressive long-term results regarding educational progress, delinquency and earnings. Seventy-seven percent of these youngsters eventually graduated from high school, compared with 60 percent from the control group. In adulthood, pre-k participants were also less likely to be arrested for violent crimes, more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn higher wages than those in the comparison group."
While we can't ignore the issues created by our financially hamstrung public schools in Mississippi, we must take a more appropriate long-term view of best practices and incorporate them into a viable program to improve the educational and economic outlook for all of our children. If Bryant is serious about making a lasting impact on our state's wellbeing, the same old solutions simply aren't good enough.