June 17, 2023

Thomas Ultican: Mississippi Malarkey

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Thomas Ultican responds to an ill-informed opinion piece in the New York Times. Reposted with permission

Nickolas Kristof’s opinion piece in the New York Times might not have been blatant lying but it was close. His depiction of the amazing education renaissance in Mississippi as a model for the nation is laughable. Lauding their third grade reading retention policies as enlightened, he claims their secret sauce for success is implementing the science of reading (SoR). This is based on a willful misreading of data while tightly embracing Jeb Bush’s futile education reform ideology.

Kristof gushes over Mississippi,

“So it’s extraordinary to travel across this state today and find something dazzling: It is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings. With an all-out effort over the past decade to get all children to read by the end of third grade and by extensive reliance on research and metrics, Mississippi has shown that it is possible to raise standards even in a state ranked dead last in the country in child poverty and hunger and second highest in teen births.” (Emphasis added)

The soaring national rankings claim is a crock. National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is the most trusted testing standards by which entities are compared. NAEP provides a ranking of 53 jurisdictions, consisting of 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Department of Defense Education Agency.  A table was constructed using the NAEP rankings.

From 2015 to 2022, testing outcomes for Mississippi fourth graders did “soar” past more than 20 states in both math and reading. But results from eighth grade expose those lofty outcomes as a mirage. In 2013, Mississippi followed Florida’s lead and introduced retaining all third graders who did not meet end of year reading exam targets. That is the probable reason for the improved fourth grade testing scores and why those illusory gains were erased by eighth grade.

Misusing data allows Kristof to end the paragraph indicating poverty is not an excuse for education failure. It reminds me of a statement written by education professor Kathryn Strom,

“The “no excuses” rhetoric (i.e, “poverty is not an excuse for failure”) is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools” while avoiding addressing deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures.” (Emphasis added)

To add heft to his argument that poverty is no excuse, Kristof quotes Harvard economist David Deming from the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Education, saying “Mississippi is a huge success story and very exciting.” He adds, “You cannot use poverty as an excuse.”

It is important to note that Harvard is famous for supporting privatization of public education and promoting failed scholarship. Deming is currently doing research with Raj Chetty and John Friedman. Along with Jonah Rockoff, Chetty and Friedman published the now thoroughly debunked value added measures (VAM) paper. Their faulty research caused many teachers to lose jobs before it was exposed as a fraud. Kristof is using an economist (not an educator) from a group best known for scholastic failure as his expert.

Kristof also indicates that spending is not important. He writes, “Mississippi has achieved its gains despite ranking 46th in spending per pupil in grades K-12.” If we look up at the 8th grade rankings, it seems they are getting what they paid for.

The Mississippi Miracle Uses the Jeb Bush Method

In 2000, former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale came home to Mississippi and made reading education his cause. He and his wife put up 100-million dollars to establish the Barksdale Reading Institute. Barksdale also used his political influence to promote state spending on education. There have been some real gains in Mississippi and Barksdale’s effort likely aided that improvement. For Kristof, this was the beginning of a renaissance.

In 2013, Mississippi’s legislature adopted packages of education focused bills which included third grade mandatory reading retention. That same year, they hired a new state superintendent of education, Carey Wright, from the Washington, D.C., public school system. Kristof lavishes her with praise declaring, “Wright ran the school system brilliantly until her retirement last year, meticulously ensuring that all schools actually carried out new policies and improved outcomes.”

Of course the article was an opinion piece but even opinions should be tethered to some objective reality. When asserting a public servant is “brilliant” or was “meticulously ensuring” some supporting evidence should be provided.

Wright began her education career in 1972 as a teacher in Maryland. After just four years in the classroom, she transitioned to various administrative roles. When leading special education services in Montgomery County during the early 2000s, she was serving in the middle of a corporate education reform triumvirate. John Deasy was promoting charter schools and teacher “pay for performance” in Prince George County. Baltimore had Andres Alonzo firing teachers and closing schools. Just a few miles away, Michelle Rhee was promising to “fix” Washington DC’s schools by firing teachers and principals.

In 2010, Rhee hired Carey Wright to be chief academic officer for Washington DC public schools. Wright was an administrator in the DC schools during the height of the cheating scandals. Besides working with some of the most callus and harmful education leaders in American history, she is a member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change and a graduate of the late Eli Broad’s superintendent training academy. It is highly likely that being steeped in corporate education reform mythology is why Kristof views her as “brilliant.”

The darling of corporate education reformers is an army of unqualified teachers recruited by Teach For America (TFA). It is not unusual for a college graduate to take a five-week summer training course, teach in a charter school or public school for two years and then become an education expert for some either public or private agency. This is an absurdly irresponsible system but effective for wealthy individuals looking to privatize or end public education.

Kristoff notes, “Two Teach for America veterans, Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson, in 2008 founded an organization called Mississippi First that has been a tireless advocate of raising standards.” Evidently a two-year stint as a temp teacher makes one a veteran. These two apparently are proceeding swimmingly along the corporate reform path.

Sanford Johnson’s biography includes teaching four years at Coahoma County High School (2003-2005) and two years at KIPP charter school (2005-2007), co-founding Mississippi First and becoming its Deputy Director (2008-2019) and today is Executive Director of Teach Plus. Teach Plus is the TFA formed group working to privatize teacher training. He also has another biography posted at the corporate education reform organization Pahara Institute. Johnson has made many corporate connections.

After two years (2004-2006) as a TFA temp teacher in Greenville, Mississippi, Rachel Canter went to Harvard University for a master’s in public policy. In 2008, back in Mississippi, she and Sanford Johnson founded Mississippi First with Rachel as director.

New PIE Network Partners’ Logos

Canter is still the director of Mississippi First and according to her PIE network BIO she was instrumental in the passage of the 2013 third grade retention bill. That year, the PIE network named Mississippi First “Game Changer of the Year.” She is now a board member of PIE along with Nina Reese President National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Robin Lake Director Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Pontificating While Clueless

Kristof states, “With such a focus on learning to read, one of the surprises has been that Mississippi fourth graders have also improved significantly in math.” His entire article is based on the misunderstanding of data possibly through ignorance but more likely through ideological belief.

These graphs show that the fourth grade “miracle” disappears by eighth grade. They also illustrate the point Ferman University’s literary expert Paul Thomas makes: “But the greatest issue with tests data is that inexpert and ideologically motivated journalists and politicians persistently conform the data to their desired stories—sometimes crisis, sometimes miracle.”

Third grade retention improvement has not only been shown to disappear; it is harmful to the students retained. Kristof informs us that “A Boston University study this year found that those held back did not have any negative outcomes such as increased absences or placement in special education programs.” This study was commissioned by Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd and only looked at students through sixth grade. It does not address disengagement or dropouts. Is Kristof being deliberately deceptive?

Kristof also makes a big deal out of Mississippi’s high school graduation rate climbing to 87 percent, surpassing the national average. This does look like real progress but graduation rates have become highly suspect. America’s high school graduation rates peaked at about 77% in 1970 and drifted down for almost four decades to 69% in 2007.  Since then, on-line credit recovery arrived and students are completing entire semester courses in as little as one day. This is a new corporate profit center where corruption is ignored.


Education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch wrote,


“What’s worrisome about this article is that Kristof asserts that poverty doesn’t matter (it does); funding doesn’t matter (it does); class size doesn’t matter (it does). In his account, states that want to improve test scores can do it without raising teachers’ salaries, without upgrading buildings, without spending a nickel to improve the conditions of the schools or the well-being of children. Children who are hungry, lack medical care, and are homeless or ill-housed are not likely to learn as well as those who have advantages.


“Does this explain why so many rightwingers love “the science of reading”? Publishers are rolling out new programs. Education can be reformed in the cheap. Can’t expect taxpayers to foot the bill, can you?”

In this opinion piece, Nicholas Kristof touched on and promoted almost every billionaire inspired agenda item aimed at decreasing money going to public education. He acted as a representative of elites, advancing policies undermining education quality for common people.

This was not about improvement. It was about lowering taxes.

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