Behind the scenes of Mississippi’s school turnaround with Carey Wright

When Carey Wright became state superintendent of education in 2013, Mississippi had some of the lowest literacy scores of any state in the country. Teachers in the state were ill-prepared; the rollout of the new Common Core curriculum had gone poorly; and accountability was limited. And given that the state had one of the highest child poverty rates in the country and was continuing to face lawsuits over racial segregation in schools, the education system was not set up to serve all students equitably.

Over the course of the next decade, Wright worked to steer Mississippi schools in a new direction, fueled by her strong belief in the untapped potential of the state’s teachers and students. Two major pieces of legislation in 2013 laid the foundation for this change: the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which put much more pressure on the Mississippi Department of Education and schools statewide to focus on early literacy, and the Early Learning Collaborative Act, which drove public funding to early education. Wright capitalized on these laws and led meaningful change within the state’s education system by building deep relationships with community stakeholders, who became integral to the state’s success.

During Wright’s tenure, Mississippi became one of the fastest-improving states in both literacy and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (Exhibit 1). The state also made significant progress in closing the racial achievement gap.

Test scores in Mississippi increased tremendously from 2000 to 2019, particularly in fourth-grade reading.

By the time she retired in 2022, Wright had served in her role for three times as long as the average state education leader and left a transformed state education system. In an interview with McKinsey’s Emma Dorn, Carey Wright shared how she maintained longevity in her role, changed the culture of low expectations, and overcame common implementation challenges to see significant improvements in student performance.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Dorn: Tell me about the state of the education system you inherited when you took the top job in 2013.

Carey Wright: We were literally ranked 50th in the country and had been for years. There was a culture of low expectations for children and adults. Our standards had been evaluated by two outside organizations; one referred to them as “horrendous,” and the other referred to them as “the worst in the nation.”

The department was not organized well. We had just passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act and the Early Learning Collaborative Act. But there was no early-childhood department, and no one was really leading the literacy effort. There was no chief of operations. After I’d been there for six months, I realized we didn’t have enough professionals to get this job done.

There was no strategic plan at all. I think the legislature had been trying to legislate education by passing law after law, but legislative change wasn’t translating into change in the classroom. Education really wasn’t a high priority for them, even though we had been at the bottom for years. It felt like people had become resigned to failure and had given up trying to actually change student outcomes.

Emma Dorn: What was it like stepping into that environment?

Carey Wright: When the headhunting firm called me for this job, I had never really thought about being a state chief. But I thought, “You know what? Let me give this a shot.” You have to understand where I came from. I had been in two of the highest-performing school districts in the nation: Montgomery County Public Schools and Howard County Public Schools, both in Maryland. After that, I was in Washington, DC, and we had done some pretty amazing work there.1Lessons in leadership: Transforming struggling US K–12 schools,” McKinsey, March 28, 2023. I had the advantage of knowing what excellence looked like from my experience in Maryland, and I was able to take that lens to DC and identify the fundamental things that need to take place in a school district. That gave me the confidence to go to Mississippi.

I was unanimously picked by the Mississippi State Board of Education to lead this work, which shocked the state initially because I wasn’t from Mississippi and I was a woman. They’d never had a woman as the state chief before. Those two issues reared their heads very early on, but I didn’t let them limit what I could achieve.

Emma Dorn: How did you approach changing the culture and raising expectations?

Carey Wright: My chief of staff told me that there are some folks in this state who don’t believe in all children succeeding. He was referring to Mississippi’s history of racial segregation, which needs to be acknowledged. That was part of what we had to change. I was very emphatic with folks that we weren’t just talking about kids in only some zip codes. All kids in Mississippi needed to improve.

That whole first year, I had more breakfasts, lunches, and dinners than I’ve ever had in my entire life. This is the deep, red South. Relationships matter in most places, but here they really, really matter. So people got to know me.

It started with having the support of the board and maintaining relationships with key people in the legislature: the appropriations chairs, the education chairs, the speaker, the lieutenant governor. The people who make things happen. Other key players in the community—Mississippi First, the Barksdale Reading Institute, the Mississippi Economic Council—are part of that coalition, too.

Then, in the first six to eight months, I got to know the current leadership and quickly realized that many people were not on board. Luckily, they realized that I was going to be driving hard and decided to back out of their own volition rather than me having to politely ask them to leave.

We also had a very limited communications team, which, to me, was a real deficit. You’ve got to be proactive about your communication and what’s happening in the district—and we weren’t. We were in a reactive state.

So I assembled the best chiefs to lead each department, and I shifted the whole mantra to “We’re going to start shining lights.” Anything around the state that was working well, we were going to highlight it. We started live streaming our Board of Education meetings, which was not done before. Our board became a teachable moment for the public, for the legislature. And we shifted the board meeting agendas to focus on our six goals—on what was important for students and instruction.

I assembled the best chiefs to lead each department, and I shifted the whole mantra to ‘We’re going to start shining lights.’

Emma Dorn: We’ve heard a lot from your team about the six goals you had. Tell me about how you landed on them and how you disseminated those goals across the entire state.

Carey Wright: I’ve lived by the philosophy that if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Instead of trying to fix everything, we had to focus on student achievement. For me, there was no equivocation. We had to do something for the children of this state and make sure that they were starting to learn at a high level. We needed goals that were simple; that everybody could understand.

If everything is a priority, then nothing is. Instead of trying to fix everything, we had to focus on student achievement.

We first came up with five goals related to achievement: proficiency growth, graduating students from high school, early-childhood education, capacity building for our teachers and leaders, and world-class data systems. The board met and added a sixth goal around every school and district meeting a basic bar. In that process, the board members really took ownership of the goals and pushed them out as their own, which made a big difference. We then started meeting with districts across the state to encourage them to align with our goals to make work easier. At the time, we had 151 districts, and a lot of them jumped on board. It was the first time the state of Mississippi ever had a goal for early-childhood education. And the state department had never really prioritized teacher professional development or capacity building before.

Next, we developed a strategic plan that was simple and that everybody could understand. We kept the board regularly updated on the development of the plan and our actions. We couldn’t tell the districts how to spend their money, but we could encourage them to lean into what we know works to keep improving. We also kept focused on what the public was going to hear and what our messaging was. I did the same thing with the legislature and did a lot of press availability.

However, it wasn’t enough to communicate the goals—we had to support districts to actually implement them. We leaned hard into what was important to guide our districts. We trained every kindergarten through third-grade general-education teacher, special-education teacher, and elementary administrator in the science of reading. We did the same thing with math. We needed them speaking the same language and doing the same things. We never backed off from that.

The other key decision that we made to ensure quality was hiring every single professional-development coach in Mississippi who was out in the field. Coaches were put through a rigorous interview process to make sure they had the right background knowledge and knew how to work with adults. We were strategic in how we deployed these people and how we built capacity for teachers and leaders.

Emma Dorn: I can imagine there was significant pushback from superintendents, principals, and teachers who felt like some of these things were their job. How did you navigate that? How did you bring all those people along with you?

Carey Wright: Initially, we put the coaches in the schools that had the worst data across the state. I’ll never forget when one principal said, “I don’t need a coach.” And my response was, “Did you look at your data?” But the teachers thought having a coach was amazing. Then the rumors started going around the state, and everybody wanted a coach.

Another change that people resisted was that we eliminated all courses at high schools that were below grade level. Our standards became the most rigorous these kids had ever had. And people thought, “This is going to be their downfall.” But children can achieve at high levels if you give them the support to get there. We were determined that these kids were going to get access and opportunity.

I also had a very large teacher advisory council, and I listened to the members. I think they recognized that we were invested in them as much as we were invested in the children. Any time we could highlight teachers and leaders across the state, we did. That’s where the magic happens: in the classroom. It doesn’t happen at the Mississippi Department of Education.

Emma Dorn: And how did you bring the board and the Department of Education along?

Carey Wright: When I was called to a budget meeting with the board, I spent the first 15 to 20 slides talking about return on investment. They’re all in business, so I told them, “You gave me $15 million for the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. Here’s your return on investment.” I then went through all the data, which showed we were continuing to climb.

When the NAEP scores came out, we were number one in the nation for our gains in fourth-grade math and fourth-grade reading, third in the nation for our gains in eighth-grade math, and fourth for eighth-grade reading. Our children of poverty, be they Black, Hispanic, or White, outperformed all their counterparts nationally [Exhibit 2]. That became a huge talking point for us and gave people hope.

From 2000 to 2019, test scores grew for Mississippi students across races and ethnicities.

Did I have my haters? Of course. But we marched on. When people around the state started seeing the scores come up, they realized that our kids could do this. It’s hard to say something bad about somebody who is always open to conversation and who produces results year after year.

Emma Dorn: How did your priorities shift over time as Mississippi climbed the rankings and the education system began to improve?

Carey Wright: We kept our eyes on the data to see what else we could be improving. When we saw that participation in advanced placement [AP] courses was low, we prioritized a statewide AP initiative and more than doubled the number of courses offered. Some doubters thought that scores would drop if we put these kids into AP. Well, not if you support the teachers and the children in those classes. We maintained and then kept increasing our pass rate. The two groups that benefited the most from the initiative were Hispanic and African American students. A child who takes just one AP class has a higher success rate in college.

We kept our eyes on the data to see what else we could be improving. . . . We also listened to and attended to our teachers and students.

We also listened to and attended to our teachers and students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we also began focusing on the social and emotional well-being of teachers, leaders, and students because we heard loud and clear that mental health was a huge, huge priority.

Emma Dorn: What do you think about the future of education in Mississippi? What needs to happen next to continue accelerating the progress that you’ve made serving students in the state?

Carey Wright: To start with, there are some priorities that need to be sustained. We need to hold true to providing ongoing teacher professional development and leader capacity building. Because new teachers and leaders are coming into the system all the time. Mississippi needs to continue to expand early-childhood education, particularly for children in poverty. Mississippi has the highest rate of poverty in the nation. Kids who have received early-childhood education are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, get a well-paying job, and have less involvement with drugs and the police.

Then there are some priorities that need to evolve. Now that the NAEP results have shown the devastating impact of the pandemic on mathematics, I’m hoping the state will take a close look and prioritize professional development for math. Another area that we need to address is career technical education. We could be forging more partnerships and work-based internships. That’s going to require thinking a bit differently about education.

Last, social and emotional learning play a critical part in learning. You cannot learn if you are depressed; you cannot learn if you don’t feel safe; and you cannot learn if you don’t feel equipped to solve problems. We have to be thinking not just about the children’s academics but also about what their life is like. We have to ask ourselves how we can lift some of these children out of abject poverty. To me, education is the way to do that. There is nothing more important than making sure that kids are learning.

Emma Dorn: If you were giving advice to a new state superintendent who wants to see the kind of gains that Mississippi has experienced, what would be your reflections for them?

You’ve got to, in your heart of hearts, believe that there’s nothing children can’t do with the right amount of access and opportunity and support.

Carey Wright: It’s a team effort. You can’t do this job alone. And you’ve got to persevere. I can literally look you in the face and say I had absolutely no social life for nine years. I did nothing but work, but I was determined, and I loved every minute of it. You’ve got to, in your heart of hearts, believe that there’s nothing children can’t do with the right amount of access and opportunity and support. And you’ve got to convey that to the children and to their teachers and school leaders. That, in the end, is the North Star.

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