In recent years, Australia has grappled with disappointing education outcomes, with around four in 10 Australian 15-year-olds failing to meet national reading proficiency benchmarks, and one in three falling short of national standards. While Australian educators and policymakers often seek inspiration from abroad for improving the education system, the commonly looked-to model of Finland may have proven to be a mistake. Instead, an unexpected source of inspiration is the U.S. state of Mississippi.
Despite historically ranking as one of the lowest-performing U.S. states, Mississippi has made remarkable progress within a decade, elevating itself to the middle of the pack. Student achievement in Mississippi now exceeds the national average in math and equals it in reading, resulting in what has been dubbed the ‘Mississippi miracle.’ Even when considering the state’s disadvantaged demographics, Mississippi’s education system now ranks among the highest performing in the nation.
This transformation did not occur by chance but through a dedicated commitment to evidence-based practices, policies, and leadership. Evidence-based teaching methods, particularly those informed by the science of reading, have played a crucial role in this success. Mississippi’s embrace of phonics-based teaching, enhanced support for struggling readers, the raising of academic standards and expectations within the teaching profession have been key contributors to this achievement.
What accounts for this remarkable transformation, and what lessons can Australian educators and policymakers draw from it? Moreover, what are the next steps in reforming our education system, and can the ‘Mississippi miracle’ be replicated Down Under?
Carey Wright is the former Mississippi superintendent of education (2013-2022), among the longest-serving US state education chiefs of the 21st century. Prior to appointment in Mississippi, she was chief academic officer for District of Columbia Public Schools as well as deputy chief for the Office of Teaching and Learning.
Jennifer Buckingham is Director of Strategy and Senior Research Fellow at MultiLit and the Five from Five Project. She is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and was the chair of the expert advisory group to the federal government on a Year 1 literacy and numeracy assessment.
Glenn Fahey is program director in Education Policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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