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Guest Post: Is Mississippi the New Finland? Can Your School Learn From Them?


I was surprised and happy to read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Unusually, the Times devoted the entire first page of this section to a single piece. Still, on June 1, 2023, Mississippi Is Offering Lessons for American on Education by Nicholas Kristof filled the entire page. Kristof has a law degree and no experience as an educator.

I mention Finland in my title because Finland overhauled its education system in the mid-1990s. Since their overhaul, Finland has routinely scored at the top of international tests.

If you are used to seeing Mississippi at the bottom of any state-by-state comparison of education results, that time seems to be over. Recently, Mississippi fourth graders were best in fourth-grade reading and second in math on the NAEP when adjusted for demographics.

A seminal moment in the state’s improvement came in 2000 when Jim Barksdale, a former CEO of Netflix, gave $100 million to fund a reading institute that has proved influential. Legislation pushed through by Republicans in 2013 increased the reliance on phonics and professional development.

Another piece of legislation required third-grade students to pass a reading test before going to fourth grade. They had multiple chances and could try again in summer school if necessary. This lit a fire for principals, teachers, students, and parents. Even the small percent who didn’t make it didn’t seem to suffer negative consequences.

Rather than spending to lower class size, additional funds were spent on teacher coaching and tutoring for needy students. The state has also improved parent involvement, promotion of vocational learning, and graduation completion. Schools have also reached out to families in dire circumstances to see what they can do to help.

The state has had the good luck of having visionary leadership, which is something you can’t just reproduce. Two leaders are former Teach for America, teachers more known for teaching for a few years and leaving the profession before becoming proficient rather than sticking around to make a more significant difference.

Other schools including New York City have been borrowing from Mississippi. You can start by going to the Barksdale Reading Institute website. Perhaps your school can be the next Finland or even Mississippi. Good luck.

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