Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning

The University of Mississippi School of Education


After A While You Don’t Know Your Lens is Cloudy

I had cataract surgery two years ago. My vision immediately improved. New glasses and “new eyes” gave me a new perspective on life. This week I returned for laser surgery on my eyes because “film” had grown over the lens and was obscuring my vision. The funny thing was I did not know it. On a routine eye examination, my ophthalmologist asked if I had noticed fuzziness or a lack of clarity in my view of the world. I was shocked, especially when he said it was significant and questioned why I had not noticed the slight “curtain” that was minimizing my sight. It must have sneaked up on me when I was not looking (excuse the pun!).

I wonder how many of us have “cloudy vision” and don’t even know it? For example, in Mississippi we are told repeatedly by lawmakers we have no money to spend on education, and yet we moan about the brain drain and lack of employees to fill jobs in manufacturing operations across the state. Helen Keller said, “I’d rather be blind than have sight with no vision.” Our state has a problem with lack of vision that laser surgery and bifocals will not fix. We seem to suffer from selective blindness. Funding education and health services are no brainers, and yet all we seem to read and hear about are budget cuts in order to balance the budget in a state that doesn’t have the workers to take highly skilled jobs that pay a living wage so more individuals can pay taxes, which increases our revenue.

Recently a Nobel Prize winning economist, Dr. James Heckman, visited our state as part of an early childhood speaker series funded by the Graduate Center. He met with numerous decision makers, educators and experts in work force development. His discussions focused on the high rate of return of investment (ROI) has in the short and long term when investments are made in high quality infant and toddler educational programs, including home visiting. Dr. Heckman and his colleagues’ analysis of data finds a 13% ROI for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early education and comprehensive health services. This new ROI, representing high-quality, comprehensive programs from birth to five, is substantially higher than the 7-10% return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds. ( and our web site where his slides are found).

Dr. Heckman has researched the long-term impact on the lives of individuals, analyzing the life trajectory of children who attended the Abecedarian Project begun over 40 years ago by Dr. Craig Ramey (see his presentation here). Dr. Ramey presented the findings at a meeting sponsored by the Graduate Center as part of the speaker series and stressed the research method employed is considered as robust as any conducted. He is in agreement with Dr. Heckman’s assessment of the project which continues to influence the science of early care and education today. The high quality components found in the Abecedarian Project reflect the commitment Dr. Ramey and his colleagues placed on putting the children ahead of politics and funding issues 40 years ago. Those who have done the work and conducted irrefutable examination of the outcomes are acknowledged as leaders in our country and around the world.

What is frightening to me is that after 40 years our collective vision in Mississippi is not only cloudy but blinded by ideology. We need not only surgery to correct the vision problem, but new eyes to focus on the issues before it is too late to recover from the selective blindness plaguing our legislators.

by Dr. Cathy Grace

Who knew what when?

We’ve been hearing that question a lot lately relative to the shenanigans going on in our nation’s capitol. It originated as possibly the most famous quote from the 1973 Watergate hearings when Senator Howard Baker asked White House counsel John Dean, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” with regard to President Nixon’s role in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington.

It’s a great question, right? Short and to the point. When the question is asked, it generally seeks to call attention to people in positions of authority who either did, or didn’t do, something that is contrary to the state or nation’s best interest, including something negligent, unlawful, or at least reflecting poor judgment.

In a democracy such as ours, citizens feel they have a right to information that can inform their voting decisions, so the policy choices of our elected leaders are worthy of analysis, especially how those policies impact the well being of all our people and our economic prosperity.

So, what did Mississippians know about our state and when did we know it?

Mississippi has long led the nation in poverty, poor health, teen pregnancy, and other factors that put children and their futures at risk. Here are only a few of the alarming statistics we know:

  • A third of all children in MS live in poverty.
  • We consistently have among the nation’s worst rates of premature births which can lead to cognitive and neurodevelopmental impairments.
  • Only 57% of Mississippians are participating in the labor force (2nd worst).
  • We are in the Top 5 for residents collecting disability benefits.
  • MS incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than China or Russia.
  • Our state’s economy is growing far slower than other southern states and behind the rest of the country.

Mississippi is the only Deep South state that has lost population for three years in a row. According to a report from the College Board, only a little more than half of the graduates of Mississippi’s eight public universities are working in the state five years after graduation. Many of our best and brightest are leaving for better opportunities for themselves and their children.

The maddening thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way! Professor James Heckman’s research shows that every dollar invested in high quality early learning programs can reap $7 in return, or over 13% annualized return on investment. The benefits are seen in reductions in the need for special education and remediation, social and health services, lower incarceration, and increased economic independence.

Some might argue, “But it would take many years to see any benefit.” Wrong. Professor Heckman says returns can be seen in as little as three years. And the improved results persist through adulthood.

Fanny Lou Hamer famously said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” How bad does it have to get before we get sick and tired of being last? Must we sacrifice yet another generation on the altar of political ideology? There are a number of things that can and should be done to put our state on a path to prosperity for all Mississippians, few of which are even being discussed in Jackson. A great place to start reversing the negative trend in our state is where there will be the greatest return on investment…by investing in our young children.

History will answer the question, “Who knew what when?” It cannot be said we didn’t know.

by Dr. Melody Musgrove

A List of Things We Can Hope For…

As the holiday season is quickly approaching, we often make lists. Lists that outline the menus for Thanksgiving dinner, or a holiday party, Christmas dinner and finally New Year’s Day and the football frenzy that is ongoing through January.  Other lists involve children’s wishes for gifts that Santa and other family members can use during shopping trips or in online purchasing.

I am proposing a list of sorts that is not one we can expect to check off by going shopping or planning meals. But, if one, just one of the items, was checked off by us as a collective state and country, the lives of millions of children would be altered for the greater good of us all.

  1. Political leaders, grow up. Leave the partisan attitude at the door and look past the power struggles that are plaguing us as a state and nation. Act like statesmen/women.
  2. Protect children. Value children as the precious resource they are. This value manifests itself in making and enforcing laws that come with heavy punishments and  little room for leniency for those convicted of domestic violence and/or human trafficking.
  3. Grow the workforce of the future. Fund evidence based programs that result in the investment of funding in high quality early childhood programs and programs meeting the mental and physical health needs of children.
  4. Reduce the number of unhealthy and disabled Mississippians. Numbers of Mississippi residents on disability are near the top in the country and will remain there unless the state moves into a pro-active rather than a reactive stance regarding prevention of health issues that are currently cutting into workforce recruitment. Federally, there needs to be an immediate reauthorizing of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the by-partisan federal insurance program for over 9 million low income children in the country and 80,000 in Mississippi.
  5. Put money where our mouths are regarding the sanctity of life. Raise the minimum wage so working families can have a better quality of life. While we speak of the sanctity of life, 61 percent of young children in Mississippi live in poverty and as a result suffer from its by-products such as a disturbance in normal brain development . Since Mississippi has set the minimum wage as $7.25 per hour , two parents working 40 hours a week will yield $580 a week before taxes. How does that support the current and future workforce? What quality of life does that ensure?

If Santa was presented this list, I am pretty sure he would ask Jesus for help. A miracle is in order.

By Dr. Cathy Grace


We know what will work in JPS…but will we apply it?

Governor Phil Bryant and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba were wise in partnering to avoid a state takeover of Jackson Public Schools, considering there is no evidence that such aggressive action would result in meaningful improvements for the district’s 27,000 children and their families.

Since the early 1990s, the State of Mississippi has taken control of sixteen school districts, some of them more than once, all of which exist in communities with high poverty and high percentages of African American children. The Hechinger Report examined five of the sixteen districts for which multi-year data were available and found results to be erratic, with none of the districts having experienced sustained improvement. Interviews with conservators who were appointed to lead the troubled school systems suggest that improvements may occur in administrative and financial management functions, but there is little to no positive change in instructional practices or educational outcomes.

It is past time for a new approach to improving low-performing schools. Top-down approaches that marginalize communities and minimize local voices are ineffective at generating the support needed to bring about lasting and meaningful change. For the resulting diminished morale of school personnel, disenfranchisement of those most impacted, and fractured relationships between local and state leaders, state intervention does little to affect the things that matter most to families and communities….the quality of their children’s education.

The Institute for Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University analyzed state takeovers of local school districts in 50-State Report on Accountability, State Intervention and Takeover and concluded, “For the most part, [state takeovers] seem to be yielding more gains in central office activities than in classroom instructional practices.” According to the report, state takeovers “place poorly prepared state-selected officials in charge, with little possibility of any meaningful change occurring in the classroom.”

A 2015 report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University concluded the following:

State control over public schools or school districts is not new. Individual schools, or entire districts… have been seized by state education departments for financial reasons, academic performance, or both. Despite more than two decades of state takeovers, these schools and districts have shown little improvement.

But what are state leaders to do in the face of a responsibility to enact policies that drive improved educational outcomes in their most troubled schools? The SEF/Annenberg Institute report yielded three conclusions relative to turning around the lowest-performing schools:

  1. There should be a focus on strategies that directly address the quality of teaching and the atmosphere inside the school. External governance change will not, in and of itself, change student outcomes.
  2. Reform should identify the specific challenges and needs of educators, students, and their families, and address these challenges directly.
  3. Effective school reform isn’t done to communities, parents, students, educators, and administrators. It is done with them. Top-down mandates, school takeovers, external corporate operators—these strategies have not proven successful in building high quality public education.

Recently, new conceptions of school reform have been emerging (Booth & Ainscow, 2011; McCart & Sailor, 2014). Re-casting education through an equity lens as the schoolwide application of research-validated practices based on demonstrated student need allows reformers to prioritize individual student strengths above the limitations that traditional learning environments produce. Organizing schools around multi-tiered systems of academic and behavioral support (MTSS) with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices present throughout every level of support provides a structure within which instruction, participation, and progress are accessible to virtually all students.

Local communities care deeply about their schools and local educators sincerely want to provide a high-quality education for all children under their care. Communities and schools need evidence-based tools and support to engage stakeholders, use data for ongoing analysis and decision-making, set priorities, develop and implement improvement plans while building capacity at all levels to support reforms. The tools already exist and we know how to support educators and communities in a way that brings about sustained positive school change. The question is whether the 15 appointed members of the commission will embrace innovative reforms that change the learning outcomes…and life trajectory…of children in the City of Jackson.

By Dr. Melody Musgrove






Premature Babies + Disabled Adults = Sick Economy

The headlines of the Clarion Ledger scream of yet another sad statistic. A report released by the March of Dimes scored Mississippi with an F in the number of premature babies born last year. The 2017 March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card indicates that the preterm birth rate is 13.6 percent. The news is even worse when the demographics are reviewed. According to the report, in Mississippi, the preterm birth rate among black women is 46% higher than the rate among all other women. One has to wonder, with the state budget cuts to the Health Department and federal delays on passing legislation for the CHIP program which provides health care to the poorest children in the country, how will we look, and feel, twenty years from now.

On the front page of the very same edition of the paper, a story appears about an expected drop in state revenue for next year.  Dr. Darrin Webb, state economist, when asked how Mississippi compares to other states that have a much higher rate of economic growth, is quoted as answering that while the reasons are complex, one fact that has to be considered is Mississippi’s “high rate of disability among its citizens.” “There are a lot of unhealthy people,” he said.

According to the March of Dimes in 2005, the medical cost, on average, for a premature birth is over $30,000 as compared to $3,325 for a term birth. While the data is over 10 years old, the comparison is striking and is just the beginning for many parents who will continue to bear the economic as well as emotional burden of caring for a child with significant health, learning, and living challenges.

Despite the attempts being made to present a smiley face on current conditions for children in our state, the stories reported beg to differ. What happens today affects tomorrow, as much as we would like to pretend it doesn’t. We cannot continue to dismiss this real people issue by commenting that “it” will have to be addressed on someone else’s watch.

For the companies seeking workers who have not only the cognitive skills but the physical stamina to report to work every day, tomorrow is today. For the parents whose child was born prematurely today, today starts now. For the communities and the taxpayers who are paying disability benefits through taxes to those who qualify, it is now, not tomorrow. Today is when we plan for the workforce of tomorrow. The bedrock of the plan and its implementation is an acknowledgment that healthy children who are receiving a high quality comprehensive early childhood program, along with supports to their parents, is the wisest investment that can be made.

Shame on us for turning a deaf ear when a loud collective voice screams about the sanctity of life and yet we refuse to scream as loud when the quality of life is clearly in jeopardy.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

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