One of the most unlikely education stories of the last decade has been the rise of Mississippi as a star of NAEP and a science of reading proof point. When looking for models to follow, researchers and policy wonks usually point to places like Shanghai and Finland, even Massachusetts. But Mississippi? Who saw that coming?
But under Dr. Carey Wright, whose tenure as State Superintendent of Education is coming to an end this week, students in Mississippi have made greater gains than in any other state, making it a national model for both practitioners and policymakers alike, owing to the raft of reforms Wright led, including the adoption of higher academic standards, a focus on teacher training and professional development, and a statewide mandate to retain struggling readers in third grade.
Wright is also among the longest serving state ed chiefs in the country, having been appointed to her position in 2013. She reflected on her work and success in this conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you leaving?
It’s time to go back home and be with my family. I’ve been here eight and a half years. My youngest daughter’s getting married in September, my grandson is turning three, and I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection about how important my parents were to my children. I am the only grandparent my grandson has. My family all live in Maryland, and that part of my heart was really tugging at me. It will be hard to leave because I’ve loved this job from the moment I took it and love the people I work with.
Usually people in your role shouldn’t buy green bananas; they don’t last long. But you’re one of the longest serving state chiefs. How’d you pull that off?
You don’t do this job alone. I have an amazing leadership team that believes in the same kinds of things that I do about children and the importance of putting children first and foremost. And you’ve got to have a pretty hard shell because you’re going to have your detractors. Since my feet hit the ground I’ve heard, “Why in the world are we hiring somebody who is not from Mississippi? She’s not from around here.” That’s continued to this day. I try to stay out of the politics. I didn’t want to make this job a political football. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything accomplished if I was seen as partisan one way or the other. So I’ve been very clear that my focus is on improving student outcomes in the state and not leaning in one way or the other to either side of the aisle. I think people have respected that.
But surely it’s easier to get things done at the state level when one party is calling the shots.
Well, yes and no. Yes, because my state education committee chairs are very supportive. But no, because not everybody puts a priority on education. There was a culture of low expectations here. We’d been 50th for so long that I think people had just given up on education getting any better. You just have to accept that it’s not at the top of everybody’s priority list. Sometimes when you make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of children, it does not make adults’ lives that much easier. Looking back, I watch the pride that has taken place across the state with our children doing as well as they are. People are like, “Wow, our kids really can achieve more!” I have always believed they could achieve more.
I’ve always been skeptical that state-level policy can really move the needle or shape classroom practice productively. But Mississippi is the outlier. How’d you do it?
People can be resistant to change. But I’ve found that data and accountability will drive the behaviors that you want to see in schools and in classrooms. If you put what’s important to change student outcomes in policy, people are going to pay more attention to it. We put that out in the public so parents and communities and other stakeholders can see what’s happening inside their schools and districts in a very transparent and neutral way. We don’t slant the data. We report the data. Sometimes that’s made people happy, and sometimes that’s made people not so happy. My point is, if you’re not happy with the data, then what are you doing to change it?
But surely Mississippi’s not the only state in the country that worships at the altar of data and transparency?
I think it’s the strategies that we’ve put in place. We’ve been very clear that we are teaching the science of reading and providing a tremendous amount of professional development. I’m a firm believer in building teacher and leader capacity because I think that people want to do the very best that they can, but some come to those classrooms with more gifts than others.
Our coaching strategy has been very strong for us, but unlike [other states], we hire the coaches. I was not going to just give the money to the districts and let them hire the coaches because I feared some principals or district superintendents might use it as an opportunity to move an ineffective teacher out of the classroom and make him or her the literacy coach. We have hired every single coach we have out there.
On the one hand, you paint a picture of a warm working relationship with districts and teachers. On the other, with coaches, you’re saying “Those are my employees, not yours.” Where do you draw the line between being the state authority and having an ongoing, productive working relationship with districts and teachers?
There are times with me that things have to be non-negotiable. When it comes to what I believe, based on research, experience, input, or what’s in students’ best interest, I’m not going to waver. If I vacillated every time I got pushed back, we’d never get anything accomplished. Like the science of reading. I believed so strongly that was going to be the [focus of] professional development. For some teachers, it was brand new. And so now we were coming in saying, “This is really how you teach reading.” And we had teachers coming out of the professional development who actually were in tears saying, “I feel like I failed all these kids that I’ve had before me.” Our point was, no, move forward. You can’t change the past, but you can affect the future by doing exactly what you need to be doing. So part of it is a give and take. But when it comes to students and what they need, I stand pretty firm on that.
How about your schools of education? In the ed reform era, I feel like we’ve kind of given ed schools a pass. Just kind of assumed there’s not much we can do to improve the preparation that that teacher candidates have when they come to us.
I have found the institutions of higher learning slower to move and change than I think they should be because “this is the way we’ve always done it.” And you’ve got professors at some universities who are still wedded to whole language. You’re right, we’ve heard all, “I’ve got a terminal degree.” And so we’ve tried to work with them over a number of years, and I think we’ve made some progress. Getting back to my policy piece here, I realized, you know what? We have the authority to approve their programs, right? So let’s do that. We’re going to evaluate their programs because we can do that. And everybody came to the table. I think one came kicking and screaming, “How dare you mess with my ed prep program?” But I’ve been pretty public about this. I don’t think it’s fair for students, parents, grandparents, or whoever it is to pay for a four-year degree, and then the state has to come in behind it and pay for more professional development to get them to where they need to be day one. So students coming out of ed prep programs, in order to be licensed in the state of Mississippi, have to pass what’s called a foundations of reading assessment based on the science of reading. I want to find out what’s the first-time pass rate by educator prep program. They don’t want us to publish those data, but to me the data are what the data are. So that’s one thing I’ve been talking to the team about. Let’s figure out how we can get this together and get this published.
Is that going to happen?
I think so.
What was your biggest mistake? Anything you did badly? Or didn’t do and wish you had?
I will be quite frank with you about my biggest mistake. I was very naive, very naive. It was 2016, I think, and I’d been here for a couple of years. The U.S. Department of Education, at the time, would send out what they call these “dear colleague” letters to the states with updates and new pieces of information. Typically, what I did was take these letters and just push them to the districts and say, “Here’s what we’re getting from USED.” No comments about it, just “here it is.” So then I get one that came jointly from USED and the Department of Justice on LBGTQ guidelines, which I sent out. I was not prepared for the response, “How could you put this information out there?” It became the “Bathroom Letter.”  Even the governor was asking for my resignation over just passing along this letter. And so that was a lesson to me about just being more conscious of the political environment. But it stunned me. It stunned me because I don’t discriminate where it comes to children.
Outside of being grandma, what are your future plans?
I probably will do some consulting. I can’t imagine myself not doing something in the education realm. I just can’t. I’m now trying to see exactly what that might look like. But not another full-time state chief job.
What’s your parting advice to your forty-nine colleagues?
Stay focused on children, stay focused on their outcomes, and keep looking at the data to make sure that you are doing exactly what you should be doing to give every child access to as many different opportunities as they can. I used to tell my teachers when I was a principal, I want you to treat each day like this is the only day they’ve got, because when the bell rings at the end of the day, you can’t get this day back. And so what are we going to be doing each and every day to make sure we’re doing the best for children?
1. The letter, dated May 13, 2016, stated that DOJ and DOE “treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations.” The guidance covered a range of issues, including participation in educational programs and activities, access to facilities, and recordkeeping and privacy.
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:
Pondiscio, R. (2022). “How’d You Do It?” Mississippi’s superintendent of education explains state’s learning gains. Education Next, 22(4), 87-88.