By Jason Dean
For decades, Mississippi was behind in education. However, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many advancements that are giving Mississippi hope and a promising future. Although the state was already working hard on improving education, the pandemic added extra pressure to address multiple long-known issues such as lack of learning devices and few science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education offerings.
In 2014, Mississippi was ranked 48th in the United States for education. But in 2020 and 2021, we rose to 39th in the country, according to data released in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2021 Data Book. State leaders took large steps to begin tackling the divide in technology access, and it has made a huge difference. Not only are students learning more and scoring better, but they are also being better equipped for secondary education and innovative tech careers.
The pandemic forced students into distanced learning, exposing outdated technology in schools and the lack of technology altogether within their homes. Programs, such as Mississippi Connects, stepped up to address this issue and equip students with devices to learn at school and at home. Mississippi Connects activated quickly during the pandemic but has continued answering schools’ requests for Chromebooks and other technologies to ensure education continues seamlessly no matter the circumstances. Equipping students with current technology places an important avenue for learning at their fingertips and contributes to their overall mastery of technology.
Additionally, K-12 educators have historically struggled with student engagement. Multiple tech innovators have found a solution to this issue creating interactive, multimedia content platforms that help teachers enhance classroom learning with digital tools. Mississippi has welcomed these platforms and engaged in contracts to bring a new layer of learning to their students. For example, Mississippi’s Vicksburg-Warren School District will be partnering with Discovery Education to expand their content portfolio for in-person and remote learning. The program also connects content with current events which fosters “an early interest in science, technology, engineering and math career fields.” Google Classroom has also played a huge role with creating a digital classroom environment that fosters collaboration. Throughout the pandemic, Google held training for teachers to ensure they know how to fully utilize Google Classroom tools. These multimedia platforms amplify student engagement making learning more interesting and more transferable to other areas of life – and at home.
Mississippi universities and colleges have put in the effort to bring innovative professors and professionals to offer programs and courses in the STEM field. Offering more STEM options for students is opening new doors and connecting them to endless, innovative careers in tech. These higher education institutions understand the value of an education in STEM and are working to connect students to careers in the fields of science and technology before they reach college. The University of Southern Mississippi, in collaboration with the Mississippi Department of Education, used funding from Governor’s Emergency Education Response to make Learning Blade available to middle schools all around the state. Learning Blade offers tools to expose students to computer science and cyber security careers early and show students the connection between their studies and their career while they still have time to prepare.
In addition to substantial CARES Act funding, tech companies, nonprofits and educational institutions have bound together to fund major changes in Mississippi’s education ecosystem. Their tireless efforts are making the difference and boosting Mississippi’s education into the 21stcentury and up the national rankings. Innovative companies see the potential Mississippi students have to offer and are making the investments to help them reach their full potential and hopefully pursue a career in science, math or technology.
Mississippi has a long way to go, but investing in our children’s education is an investment in our state’s future. Ensuring they are well-versed in technology will not only help them be successful, but also open the door to good-paying technology jobs. Mississippi officials and school districts should be doing more than allowing tech companies and nonprofits to invest in their digital capabilities – they should be welcoming and recruiting them to form long-lasting relationships with the state’s educational institutions to ensure developments do not plateau and leave Mississippi students behind.
Jason Dean, Ph.D., is the former Mississippi State Board of Education Chair (2018 – 2021) and currently serves as Senior Vice President, Path Company.