Ensuring Education Blooms in the Magnolia State
As the pandemic upended life for students across Mississippi, Jason Dean moved quickly to help minimize the disruption—while advocating for fixing longstanding problems
Jason Dean is no stranger to disaster recovery. He served as an advisor to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour when Hurricane Katrina devastated the state in 2005, and Dean came away convinced that major disruption can be an opportunity to address entrenched problems. The tumult of the covid-19 pandemic has exposed many systemic challenges, and Dean—in his third year as chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Education—wants to see schools emerge stronger than before. “How do we use this moment to really up our game in education?” he asked when we spoke recently. “That’s what I’m thinking about more than anything.”
I got to know Dean through the White House Fellows Program, where he served as aid in the U.S. Department of Education from 2006-2007. He has gone on to a successful business career in his native Mississippi, but has remained deeply involved in education policy and economic development. State officials like Dean have played a key role in guiding billions of dollars in federal relief funds since the start of the pandemic. I wanted to know how Mississippi has navigated the challenges of the past year and where Dean sees the potential for permanent changes in education once the pandemic ends.
Take me back to last spring, when it became clear that school buildings were going to be closed to students for more than a couple of weeks. What was your focus? What were the big areas of need for Mississippi?
All of this was happening so fast, from the time schools sent students home in March to the time CARES Act funding started to roll out in April. We recognized early on that a lot of the aid to states was going to be up for grabs, and we saw it as an opportunity to make progress in two big categories.
The first was to get a Wi-Fi-enabled computer for every student in Mississippi, which meant almost 400,000 new devices distributed across the state. And the next step was high-speed broadband access. We directed money to school districts that tried all sorts of creative things to bring internet access to very rural parts of the state. They outfitted buses with Wi-Fi, put routers on top of water towers, and some even brought cellphone towers to provide coverage in areas where they knew they had families in need. Electric power associations also got some funding to run fiber optic lines to a lot of previously unserved areas.
We were able to use the money that came in in a very positive, forward-leaning way. I think it’s going to make a massive difference in kids’ lives as we move toward recovering.
State lawmakers had a lot of discretion in how they used the federal CARES Act funding. How were you able to get support for those big initiatives so quickly?
We’re a state of 2.9 million people, so it’s pretty easy to know the decision-makers. You can lean on those personal relationships and that trust built over time. I’ve watched Mississippi education policy for 20 years, and I knew we needed to make hay while the sun was shining. We need to effectively use one-time money to make long-term progress on issues like teacher shortages in rural areas and the inability to access advanced classes.
We put together a coherent, accountable plan that shows a return on investment and we brought that to the legislature. We engaged the business community through the Mississippi Economic Council, and we convinced our leadership that this was really a good use of money. Because we were speaking with one voice for our projects, we were able to get them over the finish line. The broadband issue really became the key. A lot of rural legislators were concerned about the kids without access, and we were able to show them we had a plan to deal with that.
Members of the the Leflore County, Mississippi, 4H volunteered their time to help teach the Programming Pals curriculum at a local school.
Things still aren’t back to normal, but a lot of Mississippi school districts were able to resume some in-person learning last fall and into this spring. What are you seeing in terms of learning loss and plans to make up for a disrupted school year?
One of the major questions everyone is dealing with right now is the need for learning acceleration. We don’t want to punish students or schools for learning gaps that have emerged during the pandemic, but we’ve got to give the tests and find out where students stand. I’d like to see some waivers on reporting and accountability requirements this year, but we still need the data.
We already have a massive amount of it from tests done in the fall—some online, some in class. We’ve found that some subgroups did way worse than what we might’ve expected in a normal school year, and some groups actually performed better than expected. Maybe they were able to move faster because they were learning virtually and working at their own pace or had a lot of parental help at home. We’re not sure, but we’ve set aside some of our funding to study it.
We know we’re going to need more tutors, more after-school programming, more summer school programming. We can’t just let these gaps go. We’re going to ensure we know who these students are that need help and make sure we get resources to them for individualized training and tutoring to catch up.
You were outspoken from the earliest days of the crisis that schools needed to use it as an opportunity to fix longstanding problems. What are some of the lasting changes you’d like to see?
I think—I hope!—education is never going to look the same again. If it does, then shame on us; shame on everybody. I think we did some great work in 2020, really taking advantage of the opportunities we had because of new funding, but that should just be the start.
How do we use this new way of education—online, distance learning—that everyone now understands and knows how to use? We now know that just because you live in Podunk doesn’t mean you can’t access the best education anywhere. If we can deliver school or certain parts of school, remotely, then no one should be held back by where they live or what’s available in their local school.
Think about a subject like AP Computer Science, where we’ve struggled to find trained teachers in rural districts. Now we have an opportunity where if you’re in one of those low-resource districts and you don’t have a computer science teacher in your school, you should still be able to access the class online.
Demographics doesn’t have to equal destiny anymore.
Third grade teacher Cara Denison speaks to students while live streaming her class via Google Meet at Rogers International School on November 19, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut.
Why is there such a focus on expanding access to computer science?
Our legislature is moving fast on computer science, and our tech companies have really gotten behind it. It’s really one of the top issues in education in Mississippi right now.
Our companies need IT folks. We’ve had a brain-drain problem for a long time in Mississippi, so we’re trying to grow a native workforce of people who want to be here and want to find opportunity here. I just wish we could move faster. You’ve got to make policy, then you’ve got to train teachers who can do the kind of advanced computer science we’re talking about. It’s not just keyboarding and computer schools anymore. We’re talking about artificial intelligence, advanced algorithms, data analysis—you really have to make sure you’re upping the definition of what “computer science” means.
Exposing students to this topic is key. We’re not going to force anyone to become a computer scientist, but students need to understand it. And we need to think of computer science as a career and technical education subject, as well as an academic field. If you’re a coder, you’ve got an industry-recognized credential. You can go to a university, a community college, or immediately to work. You have options, and that’s what we want our students to understand.
You have three school-age children, so you’re thinking about this as a public official and as a parent. What has it been like to see your kids’ lives so disrupted?
I’ve got a 3rd grader, a 7th grader, and a 10th grader, so I’m living it! To see it through their eyes really brings home the impact of this year. My kids are a lot like all the other kids in Mississippi, and probably all the other kids in the country: they are done with this pandemic. They know how fortunate they are compared to so many others, but they also know that they’re missing out on things they love about school. And that’s hard.
It’s made me think more deeply about social-emotional learning, and what that really means for kids. The little guys are feeling marginalized, feeling isolated. They spent a couple of years going to school, and they know that this version isn’t close to the same thing.
My wife and I have been so lucky to be there to help our kids, but even we get worn out by the combination of school and work and isolation. You really understand the depth of the challenge some families are facing, with parents working two jobs and the kids being looked after by grandma, who’s never used a computer. It’s got to be so hard.
Still, I believe in the resilience of children. I think they’ll look back at this time and be amazed at the things they overcame. It sucked, but we made it. We’re going to get through this. And if we can use it as an opportunity to teach kids how to bounce back when things don’t go your way, I think there will be some value in that. Shared hardship, and the memory of shared hardship, has the potential to bring people together.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.