Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning

The University of Mississippi School of Education


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

What are we teaching our children when we avoid those who are different?

I recently read a letter written by the mother of a child with a disability to parents in her child’s school. It seems parents had been “asking around” about whether the potentially disruptive little boy might be in their own children’s classes. The letter is a poignant and personal view into one of the many challenges of parenting children with special needs. Seeing one’s child ostracized, viewed with suspicion, disdain, and even fear because of their differences is terribly painful for parents, and I’ve thought about that letter a lot since reading it.

Parents of children with disabilities often have added dimensions of anxiety and stress other parents do not face. The pressures of finding accurate information and services for their children, managing appointments with specialists and other service providers, lack of adequate rest, additional financial demands associated with disability, and concerns over the child’s health and well-being can stress the most organized and resilient people, and threaten marriages as well as other relationships. Add to that the difficulty of finding child care that will accept a child with a disability, and parents can be left isolated and overwhelmed.

Infants and toddlers with disabilities are far less likely to be served in settings with typically developing children, and last month the Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) released a resource for building inclusive state `child care systems. Research has found attitudes and beliefs of early childhood personnel to be one of the barriers most frequently cited by early childhood administrators with regard to the inclusion of young children with disabilities, in spite of overwhelming evidence that high-quality inclusive settings benefit children with and without disabilities.

Concerns over whether children with disabilities will take up too much of a teacher’s attention, absorb needed resources, cause too much of a distraction for other children, and similar objections to early childhood inclusion simply have no empirical basis. When those who serve young children commit to an inclusive environment and engage with parents in problem-solving, the barriers can be quickly overcome.

Beyond the value of improved outcomes for all children in inclusive environments, what are we telling young minds when we express a desire to avoid those who may look, behave, or learn differently? If we want children to grow up to have the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly diverse society and global economy, we must provide them with opportunities to understand and appreciate individual variations and build meaningful relationships with those who are not like ourselves. High quality inclusive childcare, preschool, and school environments provide those valuable experiences.

I think most parents would say they want their children to value all human life and be kind to others. But children will follow the examples set for them.

By Dr. Melody Musgrove

The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

When Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind in 1962 the country was in the midst of unrest. We were on the brink of a nuclear war with Russia over Cuba and America was beginning to show a military presence in Southeast Asia. James Meredith became the first African American student to enter the University of Mississippi as National Guard troops and US Marshalls were called out to extinguish a campus riot.

Over 50 years later we are still grappling with issues whose answers continue to elude us. In Mississippi, despite the overwhelming proof  that early education is the most effective economic development strategy for developing a skilled workforce for the 21st Century, it appears leaders in our state “turn their heads and pretend they just don’t see” . This message has been screamed from the highest rooftops across the state and, again, how many times are Mississippians going to turn their heads and pretend they just don’t see?

Local leaders do have the vision to recognize the number of skilled workers for living wage jobs are not keeping pace with the number of jobs available. It is a situation of a job looking for a worker, which is not the position any economic development organization chooses. Currently, the Mississippi Department of Job Security reports that as of August 2017, 64,700 people are unemployed. On a county by county basis that is translated to a rate of 3.5 to 14.9 . The question begs to be asked-Why?

In addition to the unemployment rate reported, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the percentage of Mississippi workers earning at or below the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is 6.2 percent. This places the state near the bottom of the rankings of hourly wages paid when compared to other states. Again, the question begs to be asked-Why? Both of these statistics do not bode well for the immediate future and certainly not the long-term one.

Job training programs at community colleges across the state are striving to develop the workers we need, but until a prospective worker can demonstrate competency in reading, which is different than reading proficiency as it is currently being measured in the state, and executive function skills which allow a person to organize and manipulate information upon which to act appropriately in the workplace, they are not suited to succeed in a high tech job. The job training program for the development of those skills begins with children shortly after birth and according to Professor James Heckman the rate of return on the investment is at 13 percent.

If the current wisdom among leaders in the state is to invest in job training, then quoting Bob Dylan, “how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?”. I guess it is as he says…the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

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