Fmr. Mississippi Chief Dr. Carey Wright on State Leadership & NAEP Gains

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This week on The Learning Curve, Cara and guest cohost Charlie Chieppo speak with Dr. Carey Wright, former Mississippi state superintendent of education. They discuss the lessons she’s learned about education policymaking across her career, and the state leadership that was necessary to achieve dramatic improvements in fourth graders’ reading scores in Mississippi during her time there. Dr. Wright also talks about the role Mississippi’s great literature and blues music should play in the curriculum of K-12 schooling. She discusses the importance of early childhood education and literacy programs, as well as the lessons educators can draw from Mississippi’s heroes in the Civil Rights Movement, including Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Stories of the Week: Cara cited a story from 12News KPNX-TY in Phoenix, Arizona about the first public charter school in that state to unionize. The story quotes the a teacher and union organizer saying the school is managed by a private company with so-called “opaque finances” and could make more money available to the individual schools they manage. Charlie discussed the Boston Globe editorial which showed that contrary to claims by those who oppose the state’s MCAS testing system, more than 70 percent of students who did not pass one or more of the MCAS tests required for high school graduation also did not meet some or all of their graduation requirements.


Dr. Carey Wright is the former state superintendent of education in Mississippi. Her tenure in Mississippi was longer and marked by more student gains than any state superintendent of education since the Education Reform Act of 1982 established the Mississippi State Board of Education. Prior to her leadership in Mississippi, Dr. Wright was chief academic officer for District of Columbia Public Schools, as well as deputy chief for the Office of Teaching and Learning. A former member of the Chiefs for Change Board of Directors, Dr. Wright was actively involved with numerous national and state boards and organizations that advance the field of education. Notably, the U.S. Secretary of Education appointed her in 2019 to the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.” In 2022, Dr. Wright earned the Mississippi Top 50 Most Influential Leaders Award. She retired in June 2022.

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Learning curve listeners, this is Cara Candell [00:01:00] coming to you from Newton, Massachusetts. Back after a little bit of a hiatus, of course, I went on a sunny vacation and it was sunny here too. So that all seems wrong. But nonetheless, I am back and the fearless Gerard Robinson can’t be with me today.

[00:01:14] He’s out working hard. I’m very, very pleased to have an amazing co-host in. Charlie Chieppo, Pioneer Institute extraordinaire. What editor? PR person, legal advisor, all of the things. Charlie, thanks for coming back to the show with me. How are you doing?

Charlie: I’m doing fine, cara. Clearly we have yet another person who has not seen my law school transcript, and that’s good! So, but I’m very happy to be here with you.

Cara: Thank you. It’s always so much fun to hang out with you and I can’t wait to hear what’s on your mind because I think that there are few people at least that I know that have such a pulse, not only on national politics, but certainly on what’s going on here in Massachusetts.

[00:01:57] And listeners, just so you don’t know, Charlie’s like a regular on local public radio, always sort. Breaking things down, breaking down the issues and, saying the hard things that most people just don’t want to say. He’s also an excellent editor and known for slashing my work that I do for Pioneer.

Charlie: So basically writing, writing my paper, wish all the stuff I edited was like yours.

Cara: All right, so Charlie, as you know, I know you’ve got a story of the week that’s a little bit Massachusetts centric. Mine is from Arizona. It brings back a lot of trauma. So, we’ve known each other for a while now and you certainly knew me and walked me through some of the difficulties of being a board chair at a charter school network that was unionizing. Yes. So, so two things. Being a board chair at a charter school network, which wasn’t traumatic until our teachers voted to unionize. And boy was it an interesting time, a complicated process. It happened, if you might remember, right before the pandemic [00:03:00] and yes. Justice. So listeners for a little bit of context here some of you might be used to district run charter schools.

[00:03:06] Some of you might be used to charter schools that are unionized in a lot of states, charter schools aren’t unionized and certainly in Massachusetts it’s not common. It’s still not common, but it absolutely happens and it’s something that all teachers have the right to do, even if a lot of them choose not to.

[00:03:22] So this story that I’m looking at coming out of Tucson, Arizona from the local news, local Channel 12 news, there is why teachers of an Arizona Charter School have voted to unionize. Now, people who know charters and people who think about the private school world too will know BASIS schools.

[00:03:41] So BASIS Charter schools throughout the country. I believe they also operate some private schools. They are known for having incredibly high performing schools, very, very strong schools in delivering just an excellent high bar of education to parents, providing parents with different choices.

[00:03:57] They have several schools in Arizona, is my understanding. And I believe this is the first one, at least in Arizona. It’s the first charter school at all in Arizona ever to unionize. So, the teachers voted on Wednesday to form a union, so that would’ve been Wednesday of last week, and they are gonna be represented by the AFT now.

[00:04:20] I was really interested in here, Charlie, sort of the reasons given in this very albeit short article for the why behind it. So the spokesperson for the teachers union and the union organizer, her name is Trudy Connolly. I believe it’s a, she noted that they are managed by a private company with opaque finances. Now this just brings in so many different critiques of the charter world, right? Because a lot of people, and Gerard and I have talked about this a lot on the show love to hate on for-profit charter management companies or CMOs as they’re sometimes called, ignoring the fact that there’s tons of for-profit interests at play in, air quotes public school districts.

[00:04:58] So public school districts have lots of [00:05:00] contracts with for-profit companies. And so, what often happens in the charter context is that, the C M O has the ability to sort of scale schools to open buildings. And, and oftentimes it might provide sort of a centralized curriculum. But then schools have a lot of autonomy.

[00:05:17] but there’s always this sort of undertone that if it’s private, if something’s private, then finances aren’t transparent and there there must be more money on the table for me, and there must be more money on the table for somebody else.

Charlie: You mean Cara they’re not as transparent as all those public budgets. Well, I just wanna make sure I understand.

[00:05:38] Cara: I mean, oh my goodness gracious. Charlie, I’m at the board of a private school, and I can tell you our budget is one page long. It is one page. I was, after being a charter school board charter, a public school. I was like, what? This is it. Give me more. No, but, so this is a fascinating part of the argument, especially that this is cited as the reason for unionization now having, like I [00:06:00] said, sort of been on the front lines of the process. There may very well be good reasons for teachers to unionize. I really believe that. Do I? I don’t necessarily always like what teachers unions, especially the big ones do. I don’t think they always keep the best interest of kids at heart. But

there are, but it’s important to say that, having the right to unionize is

[00:06:20] Absolutely, it’s so important.

[00:06:22] It’s so important. It’s central to, you know, and the fact of the matter is that there might be really great situations in which teachers should unionize that, that it might be in their best interest and it might be in the best interest of kids. So I wanna, put that on the table, but this is fascinating to me in another sense as well, Charlie.

[00:06:39] And that is literal are two things. So number one, we’re coming up against what many are calling the fiscal cliff in 2024, where school districts, charters included charter ban, you know, where schools generally. I’m just gonna put it out there, Charlie, they did not do a good job of spending that federal money.

[00:06:57] Mm-hmm. So, you know, those of us in the in ed policy [00:07:00] were just waving our arms around saying whatever you do, don’t spend it on recurring costs. And of course, they all went and hired people and recurring costs. So a lot of economists and, and ed policy wonks are predicting, probably rightly in my opinion, they’re gonna hit a fiscal cliff and we’re gonna.

[00:07:14] If not mass teacher layoffs and a lot of layoffs of the support stack that teachers really need to do their job well. Yeah. So I think that’s one. And number two, we’re in this space right now in ed policy where, you know, it hasn’t been a great couple years for charters. It just really, really hasn’t. We’re seeing most states are sort of like, if they’re, we’re not seeing a lot of new charter laws.

[00:07:37] I still have my fingers crossed from Montana. But certainly states aren’t opening new charters. They’re not making their policy environments more friendly to charters, even when we know a lot of charters are very high forming. And this move toward unionization, I think is something that. Listen, we’re seeing it at Starbucks.

[00:07:53] We’re seeing it across the country and we’re certainly in a moment where workers want more. And teachers, it seems [00:08:00] like it makes a lot of sense because it’s a hard job. They’re still underpaid in many ways. And if we do hit this fiscal cliff and if we see a lot of support staff and money that wasn’t well spent in the first place going away, I fear that in the situations where we just don’t see more of a mass exodus of teachers from the profession, we are gonna see a lot more unionization in schools that aren’t currently unionized.

[00:08:23] And that could be for good in some cases, and it could be for not so good in others. So I’m interested in this. I’m keeping an eye on it, and I have a feeling. This is not gonna be the first charter school that we see move to unionize in Arizona. I’m interested that it’s basis, what’s your take?

Charlie: I wouldn’t be surprised. I think that is very interesting and I think definitely worth, you know, following going forward because these things are going in where these things are just going off in a lot of different directions and certainly the pandemic has kind of, I don’t know, intensified these changes it seems to me. So yeah, no, it’s, we shall see, and maybe we’ll have you back on next time to talk about it, so, okay. Now I know you’re watching something here close to home, which is also close. I am I to both of our hearts. It’s, I’ve been fighting the Massachusetts Wars for a long time and and so mine is definitely mine is definitely Massachusetts based.

[00:09:18] And so, you know, the Boston Globe is certainly the, the paper of record in Massachusetts and earlier this month they did an editorial that was interesting because, just to, back up a little bit and, and there might be maybe just a little bit of opinion in this little background I will present.

[00:09:35] And that’s, you know, some of you may know that Massachusetts passed in 1993. What I think you could argue may be the most successful education reform law of, you know, of the education reform anyway, of modern times and has seemed to go out of its way to essentially eliminate and get rid of as much of that law as possible in the, in, in recent years.

And so, essentially, there are two things that are left to that law and one is a lot of new money for public education. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m certainly not against that. But the other thing is this state test in Massachusetts known as MCAS and one of the big arguments, you know, the Massachusetts Teachers Association is of course really heading the battle against leading the battle against MCAS. And one of their big claims has been that 52,000 students since MCAS started did not graduate because of MCAS. And so what that means essentially is what they’re claiming is. These are students who passed all their school’s requirements, but somehow failed one of the MCAS tests.

[00:10:48] You have to pass tests in English, in reading, math and science to graduate. Now, I should say, and I have to admit, I’m, I am not somebody who does education all the [00:11:00] time, so I do a bunch of other things, so I’m not as up to date on everything as you are. But there was a time a few years ago when passing m c s essentially required about it working around an eighth grade level.

[00:11:12] Maybe it’s higher. Eighth grade. No, no, no, it’s right eighth.

[00:11:17] So it’s not so, so just to be clear here, we are not, demanding unrealistic things here. So they’re claiming that, this test that is the reason that all these high school graduates are not you know, are not graduating.

[00:11:29] Well, lo and behold the Globe did some research on this and discovered that in fact more than 70% of the people who did not pass MCAS also did not pass their all of their local requirements. And in fact, it turns out that only a very small minority of the students who did not graduate for one, one reason or another that it was entirely because of MCAS

[00:11:56] There were other other reasons that would’ve forced them not [00:12:00] to graduate.

Cara: I, I’m shocked, Charlie. I’m shocked.

Charlie: But you know, I get all wound up about this and the reason is, I look at this from a more political view, and I’m an unenrolled voter, what in non-Massachusetts every place else but Massachusetts is known as an independent, and living in what Massachusetts has done has made me realize that problems associated with living in a one-party state.

[00:12:30] This is one of the examples that, you know, the Mass Teachers Association and, several other entities that are sort of, associated with them can essentially get away with just saying stuff. Just throwing stuff out there. And when you have a situation in which the political environment is so skewed, and let me be absolutely clear that I don’t think it would be any different or any better in a one party Republican state.

[00:12:55] Well, it would be different, but it wouldn’t be better. Yeah. that’s not the issue. I mean, the issue here is kind of the loss of, of truth and. I find it very frustrating and very difficult because you know, one of the other narratives that you hear here is that Massachusetts was on top of the world, you know, and has this great public education system, which is certainly one of the better ones.

[00:13:16] But then the pandemic came along, you know, sort of going to some of the things you were saying about what happened during the pandemic. Then the pandemic came along and, look what happened. We have this pandemic learning loss. It’s just horrible. But, you know, the reality is that, you know, and this is what Mass Teachers Association and a lot of other people don’t want to hear or don’t want to get out there. Now, if you look at the numbers, Pioneer did a report on this, and if you look at the numbers, between 2011 and 2019, before the pandemic, our math NAEP scores went down more than all but 17 states. Our English scores went down more than in all but 14 states.

[00:13:59] And it just kind of makes me crazy because, in, in a world where there used to be people covering state issues and where there used to be reporters and newspapers and things like that this would be front page news. But the reality is that if you did a poll in Massachusetts and said, you know, do you know that in the eight or nine years before the pandemic, this is what happened to public education in Massachusetts? I absolutely guarantee you that the number of people who are even aware of this would be in single digits.

Cara: Oh, absolutely.

Charlie: And that for an issue that is this central and so critical to, I mean, you and I are both parents, so it’s particularly important to us, but, to the future of the economy and, so many other things. I just feel like I’m just on a mission. I’m like a missionary. I want the world to know what the real deal is and that there are problems here and there are really things beyond just the pandemic that we have to address. And I think part of it, is getting real about trying to get rid of a test that gives us some basic information about how public school students in Massachusetts are doing.

Cara: So, Charlie, that’s the thing though, right? That so many people don’t understand that the function of a test like MCAS from the beginning has always been give me basic information about. Not my kids are performing necessarily, but whether or not the schools that my kids are in are serving them. And that’s what’s so much. So I have a, couple of number one on the, being an independent in a state that’s ruled by one party, I like you and I can have many beers and cry in them. Right. Because it is, it’s a really difficult place to be. But the other thing, you know, it’s the Massachusetts hubris—says the woman who will always be able to claim she grew up in Michigan—is such that, people, look at Boston Public schools and they’re like, well, but we’re the highest performing urban district in the country.

And see, you can correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I’m pretty darn sure I’m right. Pre-pandemic, only 33% of kids in the city of Boston were reading [00:16:00] on grade level according to NAEP. So it’s about, to your first point, it’s about setting the bar. Like how low can we possibly go people? But, all of that said, I think that those of us who are, I don’t even know what you would call it, pro accountability, and I certainly consider myself to be pro accountability is we need to own the fact that we have done a terrible job. I mean, I think a terrible job of pushing past the early 2000s because there were things about MCAS,  No Child Left Behind. All these things that were good. I think the best thing about all of these things is that they’ve shone a light on disparities and they shone a light on where schools weren’t serving families well, but there were problems with them too, and parents don’t like the way you know, you can argue about why those problems did districts start doing too many formative assessments to try and beat them. All of the things, right? But what we haven’t given as a pro-accountability bunch are really great ideas about how to keep that, like that tripod that is accountability standards for learning, measuring outcomes, and some sort of consequences for a failure to deliver outcomes.

[00:17:14] Hopefully supportive support, in my opinion, right? But we have failed to deliver any alternative that says, and this is what the future of testing should look like, or this is what the future of accountability should look like. So we have essentially made the Mass Teachers Association’s job a lot easier because I’ve gotta tell you, when I’m with my, and, I will own, I am a private school parent, so my kids have never taken MCAS. They take tests though. They take the SSAT and they take the blah blah blah at and all the like, I are blah, blah. I, there are a lot of tests. Yes. And I’m very concerned about how they’re doing and I wanna see the results and I wanna see where the school performs in comparison to the norm.

But what I hear constantly from public school parents is my kid hates MCAS and I don’t understand why they have to take it. Right? And it does. It’s not helpful for me as a policy wonk at a cocktail party to say, whoa, it’s not about your kids. It’s about all of the other kids that are being failed.[00:18:07] Overwhelmed. Yeah, exactly. Nobody wants to hear it. Right. So I think too, that we need to own, there has been a failure here and there is some really innovating thinking in the space around assessments. I mean, we, some of these people we’ve had on the show, Michael Horn and others, the problem is that we have not managed to marry what the future of testing and assessment should look like with.

[00:18:30] Real accountability that works. So I don’t know. Yeah. You know, that’s my take, but I share your —

Charlie: No, you know, and I think you’re absolutely right. And to put that into political terms, which I so often do, what it reminds me of is think that No Child Left Behind kind of did in education, you know, what I don’t know, a Ron DeSantis is doing today in politics, which is basically taking this idea of testing and accountability and just saying, well, if some of it is good, then, tons of it must be even better. and that’s clearly not been the case.

[00:19:01] You know, it’s just like, if coming out against, you know, all this woke stuff gets me some votes, you know, if I really caught against it, I’ll get lots of votes. Right. I mean, so, yeah. No, I, you’re right. I think we’re good.

[00:19:13] Cara: Oh, Charlie Chieppo, you’ve always known how to make my head spin with that stuff. I’m gonna hold my tongue for today anyway, we. A guest to get to Charlie, who probably has a lot to say about this. I think we’re gonna talk to her a lot about early literacy. We are gonna be speaking with Dr. Carey Wright, who just recently stepped down as the state chief for the state of Mississippi.

[00:19:38] Which, you know, Bostonians, I think like to a lot of them don’t know about what some have called the Mississippi Miracle. Which means the great growth that that state has seen really coming from the bottom up in recent years with comprehensive approach to accountability. Especially in, in a real concerted push to get kids reading by grade three.

[00:19:58] So she is a [00:20:00] fascinating figure, a wonderful human by all kinds. I’m really excited to talk to her and we’ll be back, Charlie.

[00:20:46] Learning Curve listeners, as promised, we are back with Dr. Carey Wright. She is the former state superintendent of education in Mississippi, one of the longest serving state education chiefs of the 21st century. She retired, I can’t believe [00:21:00] it’s been almost a year in June, 2022. Wow. Her tenure in Mississippi was longer and marked by more student games than any state Superintendent of education.

[00:21:11] Since the Education Reform Act of 1982 established the Mississippi State Board of Education in policy wonk circles, we call it the Mississippi Miracle listeners. Prior to her leadership in Mississippi, Dr. Wright was the Chief Academic Officer for District of Columbia Public Schools, as well as the Deputy Chief for the Office of Teaching and Learning.

[00:21:29] A former member of the Chiefs for Change Board of Directors. Dr. Wright was actively involved with numerous national and state boards and organizations that advanced the fields of education. Notably, the US Secretary of Education appointed her in 2019 to the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, which is the nation’s report card, which we talk about quite a bit on this podcast. In 2022, Dr. Wright earned the Mississippi Top 50. Most Influential Leaders Award Very well [00:22:00] deserved, Dr. Carey Wright, thanks for coming to the show today.

Carey Wright: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

[00:22:05] Cara: Well, we are really excited to have you. So much, so much to ask. So we’ve read your bio, which is a big one. So you’ve done a lot in K to 12 education, but like, let’s highlight for folks that before you served as state chief in Mississippi, you worked as a teacher and you’ve been a district leader, you have had all of the jobs. So talk to our listeners about some of those formative experiences and, what you have learned about not just American education but policymaking when it comes to American education.

[00:22:36] Carey: Sure, sure. Absolutely. Well, I did, I started my career in in Maryland and spent the majority of my career in Maryland, actually in Prince George’s County, and then in Howard County, and then in Montgomery County. And you’re right, I’ve been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, director of special ed and student services associate superintendent for special ed and student services before I landed as the Chief academic officer in DC.

[00:22:58] So, lots of varied [00:23:00] experiences with districts like DC that was really struggling. And then districts that were just excelling, like Montgomery County Public Schools and Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. And I think that in terms of policy making or just things in general, you know, number one, you’ve got to.

[00:23:17] I know this sounds very trite, but you’ve got to have a very tight strategic plan. You’ve gotta have an idea of where you’re headed because hope ticket better is not a plan. And so you need to not only draft that plan, but you also need to monitor that progress at all times. And then a very famous researcher once said, there’s no point in monitoring if you don’t intend to adjust.

[00:23:39] So based on that, when the data come in which is pretty consistent with everything that I’ve done in my career. When you take a look at the data, then what needs to change in order to continue to improve outcomes for children? I’m a firm believer in using research based initiatives. I believe the lives of children are too precious for us to just guess at what might work.

[00:23:59] And so there’s a lot of research out there, a lot of longitudinal data around various research interventions that I think we need to be focusing on to make sure that we are continuing to make sure that children are learning policy is critical. I mean, having strong policy. It really kind of drives the behaviors that you want to see in the adults really, that are responsible for children.

[00:24:19] So I think that is something that is really critical and making sure that you’ve got the right policies in place so that they’re impacting children’s education w at large. I also believe that excellence is possible. I mean, with a sustained and focused effort, you’ve gotta know where you’re headed in order to know whether you’re gonna get there or not.

[00:24:38] But it’s gotta be sustained and you’ve got to really dig into it and be very clear about what you ex consider expectations, for example. All children deserve to have a high quality curriculum. All children deserve for their teachers to be able to use high quality and instructional materials. All teachers should expect strong professional development to [00:25:00] continue to build their capacity as teachers and as leaders.

[00:25:03] And I also believe in setting very high expectations. I have seen that again and again, high expectations, not only for children, but for teachers and leaders who guide those children. I’m a firm believer that people will rise to the expectations that you set. And if you set them in a high bar, then people will arise to meet those.

[00:25:21] And likewise, if you set a very low bar, then there’s not much that’s gonna get accomplished. So those are the key factors that I think, and anytime you’re thinking about leadership and I’m gonna touch on that in another a little bit later. Besides having incredib. Brilliant people around you as you’re doing this work as well.

[00:25:39] Cara: So, I’d love to pick up on two things that you said, some of which Charlie and I were talking about at the top of the show when we were talking to each other, right? So like one is the importance of, data and setting high expectations. I mean, well those are two things. Data and setting high expectations so we could take.

[00:25:54] Any of the things that you talked about and go on for an entire show. But, you know, some would say that these things on the rails. One of the things we were talking about was here, the move in Massachusetts to really do away with our state test, which is, you know, that’s going on in a lot of states, but I wanna take this to your, a very specific experience in Mississippi.

As I mentioned at the outset, a lot of people call them Mississippi Miracles. So when you arrived there fourth, graders in Mississippi were more than a full grade level behind the national average on nas. Correct. And in 2019, you all just had. Historic gains, you had a historic gain. So not only did Mississippi’s fourth grader score higher than the nation’s public school average in math, you tied the nation in reading.

[00:26:37] And there was the largest gains, not only that year, but in many years. I mean, this is we saw so something similar in Florida years before. Mm-hmm. And this, but this, I think that I want our listeners to understand that it’s a lot harder to like, bring everybody up and make such enormous gains than it is like, you know, a lot of, I, we always say here in our home state of Massachusetts, we do a lot of padding ourselves on the back for scoring so Well, and they, there’s a lot that goes into it. And we have a lot of kids that need to be brought up. So talk to us about those achievements and, the leadership that was necessary to really drive those improvements.


Carey: So, a couple of things. One, I think that’s a really key factor, and I don’t want to, I can’t really underscore this enough. Mississippi was at the bottom. I mean, we were 50th in the nation for years and years and years prior to even my arrival in November of 13. And so what I also found, getting back to your point about expectations, was that it was just a culture of low expectations for children and for education. president Bush said it he called it the soft bigotry of low expectations.

[00:27:43] And it is so true. Nobody really expected the children to get any better. And so when we really dug in with our strategic plan and the initiatives that we put in place et cetera, we started seeing we totally redid our statewide assessment [00:28:00] because that statewide assessment that we had before that was not telling the truth.

[00:28:03] They had put a market proficiency at basic instead of proficiency. So we were tout. Back then, you know, 65, 70% of our kids proficient in reading. And then Nate would come out and it was, no, it was 22%. So we were the face of the honesty gap, and I was determined not to be on that poster the next time it came out.

[00:28:24] So we then revise our standards, which had already been evaluated as the worst in the nation and horrific to be honest. And we revised those to be incredibly rigorous standards. We revised our statewide assessment to be aligned to those standards and aligned to the rigor of NAEP. And then we put a very strong accountability system in place for the entire state. So lots of pillars there to really ground the work. And we knew we had a long way to go, but it had to be a comprehensive statewide assessment.

You know, I’ve heard of some states wanting to start small and scale up, and I’m thinking, well then who gets picked to start at the small group? I mean then, and how many years is it gonna take you to scale up? In a state, you’ve gotta make it a statewide initiative. And when I look. And I think about the things we put in place. Not only did we come from 50th to 35th in the nation and actually 21st in the nation for our fourth grade reading scores and gains actually. But Education Week had rated Mississippi, they put out that annual quality counts report every year for every single state in the nation. And they, Mississippi had been ranked the second most improved state in the nation for three consecutive years. 2019, 2020 and 2021. So that was prior to the pandemic, during the pandemic and after the pandemic.

[00:29:41] And so that to me, really, really told me that all that, that we had put in place, all the professional development, all the resources that we had developed, our focus on intervention and early intervention was paying off for us. And I think our graduation rate, one of the graduation rates I’m most proud of is for our [00:30:00] students with disabilities, because that went from 22% to 59% of our children with disabilities getting a traditional diploma, I mean, not an alternate diploma, which we have for that 1% of the population that is really significantly cognitively delayed.

[00:30:15] But for every other special ed child that’s a huge growth for them because now they can graduate with something that is meaningful. And I think in terms of state leadership, I can’t say enough about that. I had an amazing leadership team. I’m a firm believer that a leader needs to know what they don’t know and what they do know and what you don’t know or don’t know as well.

Then you surround yourself with people that do know what you don’t know to a large extent, because that’s how a team gets stronger, that you can then compliment each other by their strengths. And I think surrounding yourself with very smart, capable people not only in the leadership team, but in the department itself.

Amazing people developing strong relationships with the elected leadership. That’s the governor, the lieutenant [00:31:00] governor, the speaker, the education chairs, the legislators who pass the legislation and also fund your agency. But having a very clear vision and a commitment to what you wanna do, and then make sure that you are transmitting that vision in a very powerful way.

[00:31:17] I was not going to back up from. Making sure that all of our kids could get an outstanding education. And I kept using the term All means All. And I had a chief of staff who was born and bred in Mississippi and he said to me, you know, doc, he said, there’s some people that don’t necessarily believe when you say All means all.

And I said, well, they’re gonna learn very quickly that when I say all means, all I do mean all children. Because it’s you can’t just, you can’t hide behind an aggregate test score. If not all of your subgroups are doing well, then you are not doing well overall. And I think one of the key factors that came out of our 2019 and 2022 NAEP results, Mississippi has the highest rate of poverty in the nation and our [00:32:00] children in poverty in the ‘19 and ‘22 NAEP assessments outperform their counterparts nationally, be they black, Hispanic, or white. And to me that was a very powerful message. When I do say all that also means children in poverty. So, I’ll stop there cuz I can go on and about that cuz I just feel so passionately about the fact that we are responsible for all children.

[00:32:22] Cara: Wow. And that’s amazing. And I hope some of our, friends are listening in other states. I’m looking at my own because I think you know, you can’t be, as we say here in Massachusetts, can’t be number one for some. And I think that’s the point you’re making. And if I might also say your long tenure and your commitment to the state of Mississippi to stay in the job, which is not an easy one for as long as you did, speaks volumes because these things take time and, you know, we can look at from school districts to states to see, policy churn and the next new thing come in.

[00:32:52] And if you, if you don’t commit. doing what the data tell you you need to do like that. Where, where are you gonna get? Yeah, [00:33:00] I wanna just turn the conversation a little bit here because, you know, on the learning curve we have a lot of listeners that really we have a lot of great writers and we talk about the arts sometimes, which we think is a wonderful compliment, the kind of work you do.

[00:33:11] And Mississippi, you know, a lot of people, I don’t think realize it’s really rich tradition. Some America’s greatest writers we’re talking Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, wonderful music, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. Talk about the role of great literature in music in K-12 school.

[00:33:31] And because it’s not all about, it’s not always all about standards and Right. you get to do some of this really cool, exciting stuff. Well, not that standards aren’t exciting.

Carey: Yeah, that is so true. It’s so critical. I mean, children to be well-rounded need the arts. It’s not just always, I mean, definitely they need reading and math and social studies and science and those kinds of things. There’s no doubt about that. But the arts bring out different aspects of children’s lives that they may not [00:34:00] have experienced. And,the arts are really celebrated in Mississippi. I think that there’s tremendous museums that are all across the state, and there’s a, an amazing museum actually in Jackson that celebrates the work of the arts um, the art museum in, in, in Jackson.

[00:34:16] But I do think that it’s important that, that, that gets embedded into the programming because it’s the last thing you wanna see happening. I, I appreciate that children, we want all children to learn to read, but we don’t wanna do that at the expense of not exposing them to great literature and, great music and great art.

[00:34:33] And so I think that as teachers are doing their planning, we’ve done a lot of we produced a, a document for all of the, the districts on how to design a good master schedule that would allow for. All the reading and the math and the socials and the science, but also the arts to be included in a great master schedule so the children are getting exposed to that.

[00:34:53] There’s all kinds of texts that are coming out now that can be used in our reading programs for children to learn [00:35:00] about these folks that, you know, that came from the great state of Mississippi. And I think that. We can’t ignore that part of the child’s learning whether it’s vocal music or instrumental music or it’s dance or whatever.

[00:35:12] in fact, we’ve met somebody inside the department that that’s his job. His job is to advocate for that, to make sure that that’s embedded, you know, across the state. And so if you’re not paying attention to it it can easily be slipped aside because so much focus is on reading and math.

[00:35:27] But you’ve gotta make sure the children are also coming along and learning those aspects of, because music, music and literature carry you through a lifetime. it’s that important. So, we need to make sure that they’re exposed to the beauty and the richness of Mississippi that children really need to know about.

Carey: I have to tell you when I hear about, when I hear the names you know, Walker Percy and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, I just get so excited that I have to continue on in that vein a little bit. I have to tell you a quick story that I, so I grew up in a place where I, and everybody I knew Dr. Wright, was Italian American. And I always tell people that I grew up in a place where it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that everyone did not wake up. Everyone in America did not wake up on Sunday morning to the sound of the Italian radio station and the smell of the sauce cooking in the kitchen.

[00:36:18] And so, and then I went to college at a sort of a very diverse place. And the way it affected me was that I became obsessed with all the different cultures within the United States. And so, for better or for worse, I spent much of my twenties actually driving around every back road in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And I’m glad that I did, and I’m, fascinated by so many things about the cultures there. And I, and, and, and one of them for me, I’m part of a big history fanatic, and I just want to talk a little bit about obviously when I think of Mississippi, one of the things I think about is the civil rights movement. And certainly, large pieces of that occurred in Mississippi.[00:37:00] Some of it very painful and so what, so for me, when I think. I, I think a lot because I’m just fascinated by this stuff about, Emmett Till’s murder or Fannie Lou Hamer, who is just such an amazing, was such an amazing woman, and just all these, these martyrs, you know, Medgar Evers and the, the three murdered victims from the Mississippi Summer in 1964.

And, I’m just very curious, how does that, how do you make that part of the curriculum? How do you make that part of a public school students experience?

[00:37:32] Carey: Well, the first thing you need to make sure of is that it’s embedded in the social studies standards. And that’s something that we were very conscious about. And so if you go on our website and take a look at our standards, you will see that the folks that you just mentioned and many, many others are lifted up in those standards. And so there’s a way to also, as if you’re going through, whether it’s social studies and Throughing school or the history classes, US history whatever the case might be there, there’s an African American history, you know, class that you could take.

I think it’s, it’s critical that our children in Mississippi, well, nationally, quite honestly, this, since we’re talking about Mississippi, know their history. I mean the good, the bad and the worst, right? I mean, it’s, you could look at any state and find things that you would want to think, oh gosh, that’s such a shame that that happened, or, oh gosh, that’s so great that that happened.

[00:38:18] But you’ve got, it’s the lessons that come from that. Yeah. Is the, when you think of Emmett Till, you think about his mother and what a strength she was. And what lessons did she taught the nation about this? Or you’re talking about, you know, the three young men that were, that were killed and, but what was their history, what did they add to the overall, the Civil Rights movement?

[00:38:40] And you think about people, like Medgar Evers, or Fannie Lou Hamer. I mean, those are people that were, that were ahead of their time in terms of the courage that it took to really to identify a cause and then stick with that cause. Because I think that’s something that children need to understand.

[00:38:58] If you believe in something, [00:39:00] then you need to believe in it enough to make it a part of your life and, define you as a person rather than just simply kind of floating through life, you know, looking for, that kind of cause. And I think as, as you lift people like this up, it gives children Hope that there’s a place for them in the future.

[00:39:17] You know, if they decide to pick a, a certain cause and then follow that through. You know, I was really pleased to see that in 2011, Mississippi opened the Civil Rights Museum down in downtown Jackson. And it’s amazing museum that, that just celebrates all the things that you’ve, that you’ve talked about.

[00:39:33] And I think that that’s important for children to know what their history was, and some of it, you know, you look at and you just shake your head over and others you look at and you, you know, you think, you know, we don’t wanna forget this. This is, the really, the grounding. I mean, Mississippi was, you know, ground zero as was Alabama, et cetera, for the Civil Rights movement.

[00:39:51] And so, I think it’s important the children know that.

[00:39:55] Charlie: Boy, I, I think what you’re saying there is so important, Dr. Wright. I, I mean, I just look at what’s [00:40:00] happening in politics today and look, no matter where you are, ideologically or whatever, you just. I just shake my head and maybe it’s just cause I’m old now because it’s like, boy, we’ve been down this road, you know, if we, you know, we know how this story ends, you know, I just wish that, that we could learn the lessons of history. But it’s never that simple.

[00:40:19] Carey: Well I thought, you’ve got your current leaders as well. I mean, the gentleman that’s President NAACP is the Mississippi person. I mean, so it’s very interesting like how things come, come back around, you know, in other words, in terms of leaders then, and leaders now. And so, he’s a gentleman that is being, you know, held up as a, as a fine example as is, you know, Benny Thompson and, you know, all the people that are, legislators that are coming from uh, congressmen anyway from Mississippi. So I think there’s a lot to really, to celebrate about the state.

[00:40:50] Charlie: Yep. Yep. Well, to change gears a little bit to something a little bit more directly, I guess, education focused, you know, it’s funny, a, a good friend of [00:41:00] mine works for a company that, creates curriculum for early childhood, you know, early childhood curriculum. And so I was interested to see that one of the reforms that implemented was the first publicly funded early learning collaborative program.

[00:41:14] It got a lot of recognition in the state nationally and, and mm-hmm. I’m just curious about your impression of the kind of impact and how important that was, in these really, striking improvements and advancements that you were able to make in Mississippi.

[00:41:29] Carey: Well, you’re talking to my heart now when you’re talking about early childhood. It to me is just the key. I mean, it is the key to the foundation for all children and so many of our children in Mississippi that lived in poverty, that did not have access to high quality early childhood programming.

[00:41:46] When we started the early learning collaboratives, we actually placed those collaboratives in the areas of the state that had the worst results. On our statewide assessment and had the least amount of access to high [00:42:00] quality early childhood programming, because that’s where we felt we needed it the most, was where these children who might never have access to that did have access.

[00:42:09] And I think that, that to me people began to see it. I think we tracked the data, continually over that. In fact, when we opened our collaboratives, I changed the kindergarten enrollment data and, excuse me, the kindergarten enrollment form. So the parents, when they enrolled in kindergarten would have to tell us where their children were as four year olds.

[00:42:28] So then when I administered the kindergarten readiness assessment, I could disaggregate that data by where they kept at home. Were they in headstart? Were they in one of our collaboratives? Were they in a private pre-K or another public pre-K? And then that gave me an idea of where to deploy my early childhood coaches, particularly in those, programs that were struggling the most.

[00:42:50] Because we figured that even though kindergarten was not mandatory in Mississippi, I did get the legislature to change the law to say if you enrolled in kindergarten, you were then under compulsory attendance law. Because what we were finding, the kindergarteners before we did that had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism because the parents didn’t see it as school.

It was like, oh, you can go today, or nah, you can stay on for the next few days. there was this inconsistency. So once we got that, we had, a large number then of our kids that were in kindergarten, but we then were able to track back on. How those kids did in our early learning collaboratives and year after year after year, they were outperforming all other kids coming into kindergarten.

[00:43:34] So that, I think that’s the reason that the National Institute of her Early Educational Research, we were following their quality indicators and Mississippi’s one of like five states in the nation that has met all 10 of their quality indicators. So when I started asking for more money with the legislature, I could show the data and say, here are the data that show we know what to do.

[00:43:55] These little ones are coming in stronger. And year after year, the legislature [00:44:00] gave us more money. In fact, the year I left, we’d asked for 16 million additional monies and they gave us not only the 16, but in additional 20 million because I think they. The results of the power of this early childhood programming, but I think it really pays off when you’re collecting the information.

[00:44:16] And the thing about early intervention, early intervention is the name of the game. That’s where a lot of kids can get off to. Just a great start. And I can say another thing, early intervention is far less expensive, gosh, than trying to remediate on the other end because remediation does not work. And so you’ve got to get in early and strong with strong programming with these little ones. And so we’re really proud of our early childhood programming and we’re really doing a lot to expand that then across the state.

[00:44:47] Charlie: You know, it’d be interesting. sure hope that a lot of uh, I’m sure they are. I hope that folks in other states are, are watching that because I think, the two points that you make, I mean, one that this is incredibly important and, oh, [00:45:00] by the way, the reality is that yeah no matter what the area is that we’re talking about there’s only so much money to go around and our money is better invested on the front end than I’m trying to make up, for it later, which as you say is that is possible.

[00:45:14] Carey: That’s, that’s correct. That is exactly correct.

[00:45:17] Charlie: Well, the last thing I had that I just really wanted to ask you about, and again, I’m, we were talking before you came on I was talking about some stuff that’s going on in Massachusetts and that, sort of directly speaks to this question, which is, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about the remarkable gains that mass that Mississippi’s made.

[00:45:35] And specifically between 2011 and and 2019, and I was previously before you joined us, I was talking about how, you know, Massachusetts is among really the many states that really saw, big drops during that period. so, because so many states have seen these kind of drops as you know, it’s been, it’s been called the education reforms loss decade. And I was just wondering, [00:46:00] you having such a very different experience, what, what’s your advice to people who are in, your former shoes about how to recover from learning loss, both from the pandemic and from some, in a lot of places, difficult years before that?

[00:46:13] Carey: So, a couple of things. Number one, I would say you need to really focus on research based. Initiatives and interventions. And I say that very clearly because there’s so much that has been done in terms of research studies out there around what works. Like the science of we know what works, the science of reading works. So if you’re trying, particularly with little ones that are coming in, that is one thing that I’ve been advocating for years is the science of reading. Making sure that teachers know how to teach it and then children will then learn and read accordingly. And I think I really do attribute that to a lot of Mississippi’s gains.

I think you have to also drill down to individual needs. I’ve often said behind every data point is a face. And if you don’t know who that is, you don’t know what they need because there is not one size fits all. You can’t have one intervention for all white children or one intervention for all students with disabilities, or African Americans or whatever the subgroup might be.

You’ve gotta really drill down and then see that those children’s needs needs are met. I also said to my team, I will never hear the term learning loss come out of us, because to me, learning loss is finger pointing and it, I think it points the finger at children’s, what have you lost?

[00:47:34] And that’s not really, this fault is not theirs that the pandemic hit. Yeah. So I said to my team, we’re going to focus on accelerating learning, not remediation, accelerating learning. So every grade should be focusing on grade level standards, even if kids are a little bit behind. That’s okay. The grade level standard, you can then a teacher will immediately, if they’re teaching a grade level, What are one or two things that they may need to, to spend some extra time on, but you don’t go back to the year before. Kids will never catch up. I mean, if they’re in third grade and you go back and say, oh, well I guess I need to pull all these second grade standards into third grade, they’re never gonna catch up because third grade’s gonna come to an end. And what you get do for fourth grade, go back to third grade. So stick with grade level standards and then realize what each child may or may not have missed accordingly, and then adjust your instruction.

That way, I think, and I’ll get back that kind of end where we started, you’ve gotta set high expectations for children. I am a firm believer that all children will do and can do. What you tell them they will do and can do, and then provide the support to get them there. I believe that teachers are capable of doing amazing things, but they too need support. They need a chance to have their capacity improved as well as leaders. You’ve got some principals at elementary school that have never taught in elementary. They may have been a middle school person or a high school person. So you’ve gotta make sure that they’re well aware of what [00:49:00] should be expected when they walk into a classroom, what should they see teachers doing, what should they see students doing?

[00:49:05] And then how to give that feedback to the educators that they’re responsible for. So if everything is a priority, nothing is. So you’ve gotta choose your priorities. You’ve gotta choose those goals that you want all children to achieve, and then you’ve gotta support teachers in that process and support students in that process.


Charlie: Well, Dr. Wright, I, you know, when I finally rise to that, powerful role that I’ve so long deserved, I’m gonna point you to be my secretary of common sense. How’s that?


Cara: I think, I dunno, I think she deserves some rest, Charlie, after all the years of education. To be his secretary of common sense, Dr. Wright, I, that’ss a tall order.

Carey: No, it’s my honor. It would be my honor.

[00:49:57] Cara: Oh. Well, thank you so much for spending this time with us today. Truly a pleasure. And I can guarantee you that our listeners really appreciate your wisdom and some of these wonderful stories that you’ve told them. Just so enjoyed the time. Thank you for being with us.

Carey: My pleasure.

Cara: Listeners after that wonderful interview, it is, time for us to depart, but we never do so without the. Of the week. This one is from Laura Meckler via the Washington Post, and the tweet is, Macon County is working hard to help kids catch up with tutoring and intervention, but one leader there worries there’s a lot of attention on intervention geared at below grade level. When are we going to teach on level? So this is a tale of two Alabama districts. I highly recommend this article in the Post, and I think it circles Charlie right back to this conversation we had about your story of the week on just like, where do we set the bar so we can say to kids?

[00:52:28] And so we’re gonna give you tons of support, but if we have eighth grade expectations for a 12th grader, where are we gonna be? Charlie, it has been just lovely to spend time with you this week. Thanks so much for stepping in for our friend Gerard.

[00:52:41] Charlie: It is always a pleasure. I am more than happy to do it, Cara, great to hear your voice and to get to chat.

Cara: Ah, yeah, absolutely. And you better watch out because you know we’ve got some summer vacations coming up, so we’ll have to have you.

Charlie: I’m ready, I’m ready.

Cara: I can plan r on your schedule. So I’m ready and I can’t afford to go anywhere.


Cara: I’m with you. I’m right there with you. I blew it all in the classification. Next week we’ll be back listeners and we’re gonna be speaking with Dr. Eric Foner. He’s the Dewitt Clinton professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and author of the book Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution, as well as the Pulitzer Prize winning the Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln, and American Slavery.

Until then, Charlie, be well listeners. Be well, and we’ll catch you next time. Take care.

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