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Mississippi is delivering, and its students are the beneficiaries.

The state proved a bright spot on the most recent Nation’s Report Card. Mississippi’s gains came as students in many states did worse in 2019 than they did in 2017 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — to the disappointment of leaders, educators and parents across the United States.

The Magnolia State has been making steady progress on NAEP since 2005. Mississippi continued its upswing in 2019, as the state‘s fourth-graders met the national average in reading and exceeded it slightly in math. Eighth-graders in the state are also making headway. Mississippi now stands ready to move the focus to the middle grades, and given its commitment, I have no doubt the state’s students will be better for it.

Mississippi’s progress in reading, at a time when many other states’ scores are stagnant or falling, is a prime example of how a state’s long-term commitment to its goals can pay off.

In 2003, the state began requiring future K-6 teachers to take two early literacy courses in their teacher-preparation training. These courses ground all new Mississippi teachers in what it takes to teach young children to read. A decade later, the state’s 2013 Literacy-Based Promotion Act focused on K-3 literacy professional development for teachers and funded literacy coaches in schools with the most students performing at low levels on the state’s literacy assessment.

Related: Mississippi made the biggest leap in national test scores this year. Is this controversial law the reason why?

First, set high — but realistic — expectations for where you want your state to be in future years. Some have taken to calling this the “Mississippi Miracle,” and while that makes a nice headline, it’s not quite right either. Mississippi’s results are no miracle but rather the outcome of planning, commitment and hard work.

Second, examine current practices. Where are your areas for growth? What will it take to get there? Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent of education, attributes the gains to a mix of actions the state has taken recently. Among them: better teacher preparation and professional development for elementary reading; higher academic standards; state assessments aligned with NAEP’s expectations for students; and steady, consistent work toward the state’s strategic goals.

Third, involve other stakeholders. A 2016 Governor’s Task Force on Teacher Preparation for Early Literacy Instruction set next steps for continued progress. And the state took care to evaluate these initiatives to ensure they were working, which brings us to the final and, perhaps most important, lesson.

Fourth, commit to the plan. Real progress takes time. Evaluate your state’s progress toward its goals regularly, and make adjustments as needed.

Related: U.S. achievement slides backwards

At a moment when so many of us are disappointed in our states’ showing on NAEP, it can be tempting to assume that what states are doing isn’t working and that big changes must be made to state policy. But huge swings in policy are often more disruptive than helpful. As the example of Mississippi shows, the best course is one that is careful and consistent. Mississippi has set an example with a common vision, commitment at all levels of leadership and the courage to be patient.

Mississippi is giving its students a real opportunity to pursue the American Dream. Ensuring that all students are able to read by fourth grade sets them on course to contribute to the prosperity of their communities, and to both state and national economies.

Most important, students will have the opportunity to live full, meaningful lives. Now that’s something to be proud of.

This story about Mississippi education reforms was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Stephen Pruitt is president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

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