How State Level Education Policies Hold Us Back, and How We Can Improve Them

Guest post by Denver J. Fowler

As an education leader in Mississippi, I am frustrated that our state consistently places last in national education rankings. Education Week gives Mississippi a D- and ranks it 50th (out of 50 states and the District of Columbia). Even more troubling to me is that my fellow Mississippians seem to have gotten used to this situation, and detailed plans on how to fix the problem is lacking. Year after year, it appears Mississippi is not getting the job done when it comes to educating our children. I am left wondering why and asking myself what can we do in order to address this issue? 

An Uphill Battle 

To be sure, Mississippi public schools face some unique challenges. First, there are more private schools than public school districts, as many white families in the 1960s and ‘70s resisted integration by forming schools of their own. Mississippi is also one of the poorest states in the nation, and it is consistently losing residents. The political, economic, and historical factors behind these trends are numerous, but I believe the key to reversing them starts with education.

Issues and Recommendations for PreK–12 Education Policy in Mississippi

I’ve spent many hours and days pondering what the State of Mississippi could do to help schools at the local level. Here are my recommendations:

Elected Superintendents 

Historically, Mississippi public school districts have had elected superintendents, which is a process almost all other states in the U.S. have either never used or put an end to long ago. There is overwhelming evidence that school districts benefit from having professional superintendents selected by an elected school board through an open and competitive search process.

Recommendation: Fortunately, in 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill (SB 2438) that will effectively end the process of elected superintendents on January 1, 2019. It will be important to ensure this bill is fully implemented in a timely manner.

Superintendent Licensure

A related issue with respect to superintendents is licensure. To become a superintendent in Mississippi, one must complete an educational leadership program focused on being an assistant principal/principal and pass the School Leadership Licensure Assessment (SLLA) in order to obtain a license. Unfortunately, these requirements are the exact same ones that a principal in Mississippi must have. You see, Mississippi only has one administrative license for both principals and superintendents. A consequence of this policy is that an individual does not need to have any school administrative experience before being elected as a superintendent of a school district, a practice that does indeed happen.

Recommendation: To ensure that quality school leaders are leading our districts, Mississippi should adopt a model like most other states requiring an additional superintendent license separate from the principal license. The requirements of this license would include two main components: additional education and at least three years of building-level administrative leadership experience.


Mississippi’s intentions were noble when they adopted the highest cut score of any state that utilizes the SLLA. However, with reciprocity, individuals can pass the same test in nearby states at a much lower cut score and receive the same license to practice in Mississippi.

Recommendations: In order for the SLLA cut score adopted by Mississippi to ensure quality school leaders are leading schools, Mississippi must end the process of reciprocity as it applies to the school administrator license.

Teacher Retention

In contrast to ending reciprocity for administrators, it may actually make sense to continue reciprocity for teachers because teacher retention is a major issue in Mississippi. This is in large part due to the high number of Teach for America (TFA) and Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC) teachers across the state, many of who have only a two-year commitment to teach.

Recommendations: To attract top teachers and keep them in our schools, Mississippi can pursue a number of options. State funds could be used to create a statewide teacher retention program that would study the reasons why teachers are leaving Mississippi and implement plans focused on keeping teachers in the state. In addition, Mississippi could offer statewide professional development for school leaders focused on fostering a positive school climate and culture. By using the approach of “train them so well they can leave, but treat them so well they never want to,” and focusing on improving the school climate and culture, we can work to retain all teachers in Mississippi.

These are just a few suggestions for how Mississippi can start to reverse such a negative trend. Certainly, there are many other factors that could be explored. But from my perspective, we need to start at the top, with school leadership, to attract—and retain—highly skilled and dedicated professionals who are willing to do the hard work over time that will be required to get Mississippi schools moving in the right direction.

How do education policy decisions at the state level affect your local schools? Can you identify particular things that you think your state does and doesn’t do well? What is one change you would recommend to improve education policy in your state? 

Denver J. Fowler, EdD, is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at The University of Mississippi. In 2015, he was named the NASSP and OASSA State Assistant Principal of the Year for Ohio. He has over a decade of experience in the preK–12 educational setting and over seven years of experience in higher education preparing aspiring school leaders. Denver is currently writing a book to be released in the fall of 2017 titled The 21st Century School Leader: Leading Schools in Today’s World with a foreword by Todd Whitaker and afterword by Thomas Tucker (two-time National Superintendent of the Year). Follow him on Twitter @DenverJFowler.


  • Mike Duffy says:

    Thanks, your article gives the rest of us across the country an insight into one of your state’s shortcomings in advancing education.

  • Neil Burton says:

    Dr. Fowler,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article on ways to address the education issues we currently face in Mississippi. As a lifelong resident of Mississippi, I am hopeful that the state can begin to address some of the issues you have raised. Specifically, I appreciate the idea of the separate licensure and experience requirements you suggested for Superintendents. I am somewhat less on board with the administrative reciprocity idea, however, as I fear that administrators with an excellent track record might not be able to move into the state due to a score from their past. If an administrator has shown the ability to lead at a high level, I would hope they would get the chance. Regardless, I appreciate your thoughtful suggestions and hope you can continue to speak to the advancement of education in Mississippi.

    • Denver Fowler says:

      Neil, I enjoyed reading your comments. As for reciprocity as it applies to administrators, I agree that the State of Mississippi would still want the option of attracting excellent school leaders. Thus, the reciprocity would include different routes (see example/link shared below) leading to licensure for those individuals who want to obtain their administrators license in the State of Mississippi. This in large-part would be based on their previous experience, education, and the like. Of course, we must first implement a separate licensure/licensure programs for superintendents in the State of Mississippi – in accordance with the adopted routes. An example of how another U.S. state (i.e., California) does this can be found here: Finally, an “excellent track record” would need to be clearly defined (i.e., shared definition), as we would want to ensure there is some consistency in what the different routes define as successful school leadership. I imagine this “excellent track record” verification would include items such as required letters of recommendation from the individuals former superintendents and/or principal (i.e., if they were an AP), verified years of experience, and copies of all performance evaluations. Again, I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks for all you do! ~ Denver

  • Charles says:

    Dr. Fowler,
    I appreciate your thoughts on ways our state can move forward. My question is what can educators, parents, and other stakeholders do to expedite change in our education system.

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