The Honorable Arne Duncan U.S. Secretary of Education, 2009-2016
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access is an initiative to provide access to advanced high school subject matter taught by great teachers from around the world to students throughout the State.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access plans to implement pilot programs to teach Advanced Placement (AP) subject matter in selected school districts that currently do not offer such instruction, with an initial focus on rural and low-income areas, where shortages of qualified teachers are most acute. The inaugural course will be AP Physics 1, the first of four courses in the AP Physics curriculum, taught by Professor Meg Urry, Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The pilot program will be provided free of charge to students, and at no cost to the budgets of participating school districts or the State of Mississippi.
Student enrollment in AP courses correlates strongly with college and career success. Thus, access to an AP curriculum increasingly distinguishes the educational haves from the have-nots. Yet a great many school districts throughout Mississippi offer no AP courses at all, and countless others have courses that are not taught by qualified instructors. Teacher shortages evident at all levels and in all subjects are particularly acute in advanced high school subject matter. For example, in 2015, Mississippi’s teaching colleges produced a total of one Physics teacher for the State’s 140,000 high school students. As a consequence, students who have demonstrated the aptitude and work ethic needed to succeed at a high level academically lack access to advanced course material, and thus are denied the means to reach their full potential.
The resulting educational disparities are alarming—according to recent data from the College Board, Mississippi has the nation’s lowest percentage of high school students who “pass” (that is, earn a score of at least 3 on a 1-5 scale) an AP exam, and every other state but one has a pass rate of at least double that of Mississippi.
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access will implement a pilot program to expand opportunities for underserved students who would benefit from more rigorous curricula. The initiative will address one of the most intractable causes of the educational disparities afflicting the State—the lack of qualified teachers—by providing a means for students to earn college credit by learning from an instructor who is both a superb teacher and one of the world’s leading physicists. That instruction will be delivered in classrooms led by an on-site teacher through a “blended” format. By doing so, the Consortium hopes both to foster substantive mastery of advanced content, and to promote a culture of achievement throughout the State.
Across the U.S., students who have the aptitude and work ethic to succeed in a rigorous curriculum often do not have access to the higher-level courses they need to achieve their full potential.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has reported that up to 25 percent of U.S. high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education—such as Algebra I and II, Geometry, Biology, and Chemistry.
Access to higher-level courses is even more limited. Nationwide, 40 percent of high schools do not offer Physics of any type—AP, honors, or even basic high school Physics—and over half do not offer any Calculus. Moreover, the percentage of schools offering those courses has declined in recent years.
The failings of U.S. schools have been evident in the performance of U.S. students. The December 2016 results for the most widely utilized metric for international achievement, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), show that U.S. student scores in both Math and Physics have declined over the past 20 years. Perhaps even more alarming, the study reported that just 4.8 percent of U.S. high school students even take Physics; by contrast, in France, 21.5 percent do.
The lack of access to higher-level courses is particularly evident with respect to AP subjects.
The College Board estimates that 60 percent of U.S. high school students who have "high potential" to excel in AP science courses do not take any, largely because their schools lack qualified instructors to teach those subjects. As U.S. News and World Report reported, "Students Want STEM, but Schools Can't Find the Teachers". Though harder to quantify, based on anecdotal evidence and the assessments of educators across the U.S., quality instructors in AP humanities and languages are also in short supply.
Because AP courses increasingly are a standard component of a college preparatory curriculum, access to AP courses increasingly distinguishes the educational haves from the have-nots. A very high percentage of successful applicants to highly competitive colleges have taken AP courses, and millions of students have been able to graduate from college more quickly and at significantly less cost because thousands of colleges and universities award college credit for qualifying AP scores.
(A qualifying AP score, the standard metric for AP “success”, is typically a score of 3 on the AP scale of 1-5, with 5 as the highest. In some states, state law requires public colleges and universities to award college credit for an AP score of 3 or above. In other states, educational institutions set their own policies for AP credit. Colleges and universities in Mississippi are not required by the State to award AP credits, but they widely do so. At some schools, such as the University of Mississippi, scores higher than 3 are required for credit in certain subjects.)
In 2016, over 2.6 million students took over 4.7 million AP exams; both numbers have more than tripled since 2000. Yet thousands of U.S. high schools do not offer AP courses at all, and thousands more offer AP courses only in a very few subjects.
The lack of AP course offerings, though evident across the country, is particularly severe in certain geographic areas and in schools serving low-income and minority students.
A recent report by Douglas Gagnon and Marybeth Mattingly, researchers at the University of New Hampshire, found that only about half of the nation's rural school districts have students enrolled in AP courses, and students taking AP courses in rural schools have lower AP success rates than their non-rural peers.
Using data collected by Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the 2011-2012 school year, Gagnon and Mattingly calculated that 47.2 percent of rural districts did not have a single student in any AP course, compared with just 5.4 percent of suburban districts. Among districts characterized as serving a “smaller population” (that is, less than 450 high school students), 69.7 percent did not offer a single AP course. In addition, among the relatively few rural students enrolled in AP classes, just 32.2 percent earned at least one qualifying score, well below national norms.
Low-income students and other historically underserved populations also have particularly limited access to AP courses. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that the number of high-poverty public schools serving primarily black and Hispanic students nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2014, and less than half such high schools offer any AP courses; even fewer offer AP STEM courses.
That disparate access to AP courses has highly adverse consequences. Whenever students are denied the means to excel academically, they also are deprived of the ability to advance economically. As a result, those students must limit, or even abandon, their ambitions, with calamitous effects upon both their lives and their communities.
As the Equity and Excellence Commission, an advisory committee chartered by Congress, concluded in its 2013 report to the U.S. Secretary of Education, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence”, “[I]nequities are perpetuated [through] coursework that is low in academic rigor….Moreover, schools in poor communities often do not provide the full array of Advanced Placement courses [that] schools in wealthier areas offer, further limiting students from high-quality instruction.” The Commission further listed the lack of AP courses as among the factors “that aggravate the achievement gaps in urban, suburban and rural schools alike, and impair our ability as a nation to raise student achievement.”
In recent years, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights increasingly has focused on disparate access to advanced courses as a key concern.
Mississippi presents a unique laboratory for developing solutions to reduce those educational disparities by facilitating access to advanced subject matter for high school students, regardless of where they live or their family circumstances.
The data below, which includes information from school districts that are the founding members of the Consortium, starkly present the challenges Mississippi faces, and the economic and educational disparities residents of the state must overcome.
|Jurisdiction||Poverty Rate1||AP tests taken2||AP tests taken per 1,000 H.S. students3||AP tests passed per 1,000 H.S. students3|
|Booneville, MS School District||36.3%||0||0||0|
|Coahoma Co., MS School District||47.8%||0||0||0|
|Holmes County, MS School District||51.3%||0||0||0|
|Quitman Co., MS School District||29.6%||0||0||0|
|Scott County, MS School District||34.0%||0||0||0|
1 Poverty data for U.S. and Mississippi from U.S. Census Bureau 2015 estimates and show poverty rate for entire populations; School District poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau Small Area Income & Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) for School Districts, Counties, and States, and are 2015 estimates of children ages 5-17 living in poverty as a percentage of all children ages 5-17 living in the school district.
3 U.S. and Mississippi test data from College Board; U.S. and Mississippi student totals from U.S. Department of Education enrollment data; School District data from U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights; all student totals include public school students only (92.5 percent of all U.S. secondary students); “pass” is a score of 3 or above (on a 1-5 scale) on an AP exam, the most common threshold for a qualifying score to earn college credit or advanced placement in college courses.
In Mississippi, low-income students with extraordinary academic potential not only lack high-achieving peers to emulate, they often lack teachers as well—the state is particularly afflicted by the national shortage of teachers in advanced subjects. Moreover, Mississippi’s already grave problems in teacher recruitment and retention are poised to get worse, as teachers leave the profession and are not replaced.
The Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, a collaboration between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State, offers full, four-year scholarships, funding to study abroad, and other incentives for future teachers. Yet those two universities, combined, enroll only about 50 prospective teachers a year in the program, an exceedingly small number relative to the state’s nearly 500,000 elementary and secondary school students. Prospective teachers in advanced subjects are particularly scarce—in 2015, Mississippi’s four teaching colleges produced a total of one Physics teacher for some 140,000 high school students.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights quantify how the lack of quality teachers has led to a paucity of higher-level offerings in Mississippi high schools. Dozens of school districts across the state, including relatively large jurisdictions, offer no AP courses at all, and others offer AP courses that are not taught by qualified instructors with a substantive grounding in the subject they teach.
Because of the severe shortage of qualified teachers in advanced subjects, a very high number of Mississippi schools simply do not offer AP courses. As a result, Mississippi students take AP exams at less than half the national rate. Nationally, about 16 percent of all high school students, including about a quarter of high school juniors and seniors, took AP exams in 2016; each of those students, on average, took two AP tests. In Mississippi, only about 6 percent of high school students took AP exams, with those students also averaging about two exams each.
In addition, the relatively few Mississippi students that do take AP exams score much worse than their peers nationally. Just one-third of AP exams taken by Mississippi students achieve a score of 3 on a scale of 1-5, typically the score needed to earn college credit in the examination subject; nationally, 58 percent of AP exams earn a qualifying score.
According to a 2014 report from the College Board, the entity that administers AP exams, just 4.4 percent of Mississippi high school graduates scored a 3 or above on any AP exam while in high school, less than a quarter of the national rate of over 20 percent for all public high school graduates. Perhaps even more troubling, every other state but one (Louisiana) had more than twice as many students, as a percentage of all high school graduates, score a 3 or above.
Mississippi students fared particularly poorly in AP math and science exams, taking disproportionately few tests in STEM subjects and scoring lower on exams taken.
Nationally, over 1.5 million AP exams were administered in 2016 in 11 math and science subjects: Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Science, Physics 1, Physics 2, Physics C (Electricity and Magnetism), Physics C (Mechanics), and Statistics. In nine of those subjects, over half of the examinees from across the country earned a score of 3 or above, with Calculus BC having the highest “pass” rate of 85.1 percent.
By comparison, Mississippi students took fewer than 4,000 AP exams in those 11 subjects, that is, about one quarter of the national AP participation rate for math and science exams. In 8 of those 11 exam subjects, fewer than half of Mississippi students scored a 3 or above, and the math and science exams for which Mississippi students had mean scores of 3 or above had too few examinees to be statistically meaningful—97, 16, and 22, respectively. In AP Physics 1, the subject of the Consortium’s inaugural course, just 114 of the 67,356 students who scored 3 or higher on the exam were from Mississippi.
|Jurisdiction||AP Physics 1 tests taken1||AP Physics 1 tests passed1||AP Physics 1 tests taken per 1,000 H.S. students1||AP Physics 1 tests passed per 1,000 H.S. students1|
|Aberdeen, MS School District||0||0||0||0|
|Booneville, MS School District||0||0||0||0|
|Coahoma Co., MS School District||0||0||0||0|
|Holmes County, MS School District||0||0||0||0|
|Quitman Co., MS School District||0||0||0||0|
|Scott County, MS School District||0||0||0||0|
1 U.S. and Mississippi test data from College Board AP participation and performance date for 2016; U.S. and Mississippi student totals from U.S. Department of Education enrollment data; School District AP test data from U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights; all student totals include public school students only (92.5 percent of all U.S. secondary students); “pass” is a score of 3 or above (on a 1-5 scale) on an AP exam, the most common threshold for a qualifying score to earn college credit or advanced placement in college courses.
Maintaining even those modest numbers for AP STEM participation and passage rates will be a challenge. The Mississippi School for Math and Science, which many of the State’s highest achieving students have attended in recent years, has cut enrollment recently due to funding constraints. In 2013, 61 of the school’s 230 students took at least one AP course, including 18 in math and 49 in science (127 students took Physics of varying levels), and of the 54 students who took AP exams, the vast majority, 46, earned qualifying scores. However, enrollment at that school has been reduced by 12 percent from the levels from five years ago, to 238 students for the 2016-17 school year.
Schools across the U.S. particularly struggle to teach advanced subject matter to rural, minority, and low-income students. In Mississippi, those categories converge—the State is among the nation’s most rural, has the highest percentage of African American residents, and has the nation’s highest poverty rate.
In Mississippi, 56.5% of all public school students are enrolled in rural schools, according to a 2014 report, making it just one of three states with over half of its students in rural schools. Although almost no Mississippi school districts do well on AP exams relative to national metrics—according to a 2015 presentation prepared by the Mississippi State Board of Education, only the Oxford district exceeded national averages for both AP passage and participation—more densely populated areas, particularly near the Gulf Coast, tend to do better relative to the rest of the State. Conversely, Mississippi’s many rural districts tend to have no AP programs at all. Thus, in a majority of Mississippi school districts, less than one percent of graduating high school seniors earned a 3 on an AP exam.
The demographic profile of rural Mississippi is also unique in that over one-third of the rural student population is minority—the only predominantly rural state of which that is true. More generally, 37.6% of Mississippi residents, and 48.9% of the state’s 482,000 K-12 students, are African American.
Though many black residents of Mississippi heroically have overcome many disadvantages to achieve great academic and career success—just months ago, Ericka Wheeler of Greenwood, a graduate of the Mississippi School for Math and Science, was named a Rhodes Scholar—minority students continue to face long odds, and many attend schools with limited curricula, particularly at higher levels. Statistics indicate just how much work remains to be done. In 2016, black students from Mississippi took 884 AP exams in 11 math and science subjects, and earned 82 scores of 3 and above.
Persistent poverty, often extending across generations, often presents the greatest impediment to educational achievement for Mississippi students of all backgrounds.
Poverty in Mississippi in not only severe, it is widespread, and particularly afflicts the young. The overall poverty rate in Mississippi, at 22.0 percent, is the nation’s highest. Of the State’s 82 counties, 79 have a poverty rate above the national average, and 81 counties have a median per capita income below the national median. Perhaps most troubling, 31.5% of the State’s children—that is, over 225,000 residents 17 years of age or younger—live in poverty. In some school districts, over half of school age children are from impoverished homes.
Mississippi’s pervasive poverty has many deleterious effects. Families—even the most well-meaning—often lack the financial means or knowledge base needed to help their children achieve their full potential, particularly children of extraordinary promise, who require extraordinary resources to realize that promise.
Poverty also requires Mississippi schools to conduct budgetary triage; as a result, the needs of less numerous groups—such as the most exceptional, highest-aptitude students—are, by necessity, given lower priority. Thus, at a time when even affluent school districts have great difficulty in hiring teachers in advanced subjects, particularly STEM, the disadvantages faced by Mississippi students are even more pronounced.
In part because of the State’s educational deficiencies, Mississippi’s economy remains sluggish—unemployment is tied for eighth highest in the country—and the state’s population is in decline—Mississippi is one of only five states, and the only one in the South or West, that lost population in both 2015 and 2016.
Although Mississippi has many needs, among the most pressing is to develop and retain high-achieving students. That, in turn, requires providing students who have the aptitude and work ethic needed to succeed at advanced subject matter with access to those courses. Moreover, that must be done without excessively burdening school district budgets, particularly districts in rural and low-income areas.
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access was formed to address that need.
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access was formed to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstances, have access to instruction currently available only to students privileged to attend extraordinary schools. In the 2017-2018 school year, the Consortium will implement a pilot program to teach AP subject matter in selected school districts that currently do not offer such instruction, with an initial focus on rural and low-income areas, where shortages of qualified teachers are most acute. The pilot program will be provided free of charge to students, and at no cost to the budgets of participating school districts or the State of Mississippi.
The Consortium consists of school districts from across the state with varying demographic and economic profiles, though each district is significantly affected by the educational disparities afflicting rural and disadvantaged students. The founding members of the Consortium include six school districts:
In addition, it is expected that several other Mississippi school districts will soon join the Consortium. In the first year, membership will be limited to approximately ten districts to permit the Consortium to work most effectively. However, the Consortium contemplates adding additional districts in future years, as it scales subsequent efforts in Mississippi to benefit substantially greater numbers of students, as lessons learned from the initial pilot program are used to refine the course content and improve its efficacy.
Though the Consortium’s membership consists of local school districts, the Consortium has commenced, and is continuing, discussions with political leaders and educators at the federal and state level, community college officials, and faculty from Mississippi universities regarding possible support that those institutions may provide to the Consortium, its affiliated high schools, and their students.
The notion that animates the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access is that all students should have the opportunity to learn from teachers who are not just as good as those who at high-achieving schools, but from the very same teachers teaching the very same subjects. To do so, the Consortium, with curricular and logistical support of the Global Teaching Project and the Excellence Group, will leverage technology to replicate and scale much of the substance and interactive elements of classroom instruction at elite schools.
The inaugural course to be offered by through the Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access will be AP Physics 1, the first of four AP Physics courses, which was chosen based on assessments by Mississippi educators of their most pressing curricular needs. Students enrolled in the AP Physics 1 course will be expected to take the AP Physics 1 exam in May 2018.
The AP Physics 1 course will be taught by Professor Meg Urry, Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. She also chaired the Yale Physics Department from 2007-2013, and is the immediate past president of the American Astronomical Society.
Professor Urry is one of the world’s most prominent physicists. She has over 230 publications in refereed journals, and lectures regularly around the world—she has spoken on five continents in just the past two years. Professor Urry’s current research includes work on the co-evolution of galaxies and the supermassive black holes at their centers (known as Active Galactic Nuclei, or AGN, when actively accreting), accretion, jets, multi-wavelength surveys, unification of AGN, and blazars.
The principal prerequisite for students taking the Consortium’s AP Physics 1 course is a strong commitment to learn. AP Physics requires less advanced Math than subsequent courses—it is Algebra-based, and the AP Physics 1 exam does not require knowledge of Calculus. Nonetheless, considerable work still may prove necessary to ensure that the students are adequately prepared. For that reason, participating districts contemplate providing substantial assistance in the coming months, and likely over the summer as well, to help participating students establish the academic foundation needed to succeed in the AP Physics 1 course.
When the AP Physics 1 course commences in the Fall of 2017, each student will work under the supervision of a teacher who is physically on site. Although that teacher may not have an extensive substantive background in Physics, it is contemplated that he or she would be a capable and experienced instructor with, at a minimum, strong Math skills. He or she also will be provided lesson plans and teaching notes. That teacher will preside over a blended classroom, in which the teacher would build upon the subject matter taught by Professor Urry, supervising assignments, responding to questions, and conducting assessments of student work and providing appropriate feedback.
Enrollment in the pilot program will be limited to a few students in each jurisdiction. Each school district participating in the pilot program will be responsible for selecting students to be part of the initiative, provided, however, that each student must have demonstrated the requisite aptitude and work ethic needed to handle AP subject matter, even if they require further academic preparation.
Professor Meg Urry: Director, Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics; Member, National Academy of Sciences
AP Physics 1, taught by Yale Professor Meg Urry
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access will teach Physics to Mississippi students, but it also aspires to do more—the Consortium will seek to promote a community of achievement in which students come to appreciate that they can accomplish much if they resolve to do the work needed to get ahead.
The AP Physics 1 exam will provide some data to assess the progress of the pilot program. Almost certainly, initial progress will be quite slow, and gains will be incremental. However, even modest gains will constitute material progress relative to the status quo, and, of course, those modest gains could be transformational for any individual students who are helped.
The school districts comprising the Consortium also recognize that, in the short term, the most important gains achieved by mitigating disparate access to advanced high school courses may not even be evident in test scores. Instead, the most consequential changes may be in how students view themselves and what they aspire to achieve.
As detailed in a seminal 2013 study by economists Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, a key determinant of whether high-achieving, low-income students enroll in elite colleges and universities is whether they act in an “achievement–typical” rather than an “income-typical” manner, that is, whether they share the ambitions of students with similar academic profiles rather than those with similar household incomes.
As Hoxby and Avery documented, talented students are strongly predisposed to limit their aspirations to those of other students to whom they are exposed. Yet high-achieving peers whom other talented students may look to as examples tend to be most scarce in places where low-population density, high-poverty, and high minority populations converge, such as Mississippi.
The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access will permit students in remote locations and low-income schools to identify with accomplished students beyond their own classrooms. Once those virtual communities of high-achievers take root in Mississippi schools, those communities of achievement can then begin to grow at those schools, no matter their size or the economic status of their students.
Mississippi students in Professor Urry’s AP Physics 1 will be challenged, but they also will be provided the support necessary to succeed. Through that experience, and by inclusion in a class comprised of students headed to leading universities, those students will learn about the elements of success. In turn, those Mississippi students will be able to serve as exemplars to their classmates in the State. Over time, the Consortium hopes that dynamic will lead to a virtuous cycle, in which high achievement fuels high aspirations, which leads to even higher achievement.