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Addressing Teacher Shortage in Mississippi

Addressing Teacher Shortage in Mississippi

Like many states around the country, Mississippi is facing a major teacher shortage. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, nearly one out of every three school districts in Mississippi is designated as a critical teacher shortage area. In June of 2018, the state had just over 2,000 teacher vacancies, including long-term substitutes, uncertified teachers, or classes taught primarily by computer programs without teachers.

These shortages come with negative impacts on multiple levels. Teachers are left with larger class sizes, faced with larger workloads, and asked to manage classes outside of their area of expertise. At the same time, students are at risk of missing out on the type of top-quality instruction they need and deserve in order to thrive academically, and access to subjects and classes that align to their interests or educational goals.

Like in other states, the shortage in Mississippi is influenced by many factors both within and outside the realms of education and education policy. Here, we’ll explore what lies at the root of Mississippi’s teacher shortage and discuss what actions administrators can take to help meet the specific challenges they face in their own buildings.

What Is Causing Mississippi’s Teacher Shortage Problem?

As the great William Faulkner said, to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. The same can be said when it comes to the cause of the state’s critical teacher shortage. As a complex and nuanced issue, it’s impossible to attribute to a single cause. However, we can be certain of a few of the barriers the state faces in gaining and retaining educators:

Stagnant wages

Mississippi is one of only 17 states that utilizes a teacher salary schedule to dictate minimum pay for teachers. While the goal of this program is to ensure equity in pay, it also makes teacher pay a state-level legislative issue. And, comparisons aren’t favorable when salaries in neighboring states are considered. Mississippi’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, making an average of only $45,574 annually; teachers in neighboring Tennessee and Louisiana earn an average of $51,714 and $50,923, respectively. According to an article from the Clarion Ledger, it’s not uncommon for some Mississippi teachers to drive 40 to 50 miles per day to teach in neighboring states, just for better pay.

Recently, a new law took effect which grants Mississippi teachers a pay raise, but in lower-income areas, which typically are those in greatest need of teachers. The increase may not be enough to compensate for other challenges such as fewer housing options and lack of job opportunities for spouses, which can deter educators from seeking available teaching positions there.

Complex alternative-licensure requirements

Within the past five years, enrollment in Mississippi’s public university teacher-training programs has dropped by 40%, significantly reducing the state’s pipeline of new teachers. In response, Mississippi has approved expanded alternative paths to teaching certification. These programs allow individuals who already hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree outside of education to become certified to teach in Mississippi public schools. However, Mississippi’s current system of alternative teacher licensure has proved to be not only a confusing process, but also one riddled with barriers that may ultimately prevent many candidates from ever becoming teachers.

Many would-be educators have trouble meeting the state requirements to earn an alternative teaching certification, such as earning an ACT score of 21 to be admitted into the state’s teacher preparation program (the average state score has fluctuated between 18.4 and 19 for more than 20 years). Candidates who do not score high enough on the ACT have the option to take and pass the Praxis Core exam, but many struggle to pass on the first try, according to Mississippi Today, and in some cases, cannot afford to take the test again. After multiple attempts, many would-be teachers become frustrated and ultimately abandon dreams of leading their own classroom, moving on to other career paths. Some critics of the state’s licensure process argue that the test might ultimately screen out individuals who would be effective teachers and have called for the state to look into a more flexible certification process.

But it isn’t just exam troubles blocking teachers from achieving certification. Miscommunication between state department, district, and school leaders over licensure requirements have also caused the state grief, such as a recent licensing requirement misunderstanding which nearly cost districts across the state 734 teachers using a temporary license.

Complicated and confusing alternative licensures coupled with other barriers to completing certification can have significant impacts on getting aspiring teachers into classrooms and keeping them there, in turn, creating worse shortages.

Rural populations

Rural areas typically face more challenges when it comes to teacher shortages in any state, but in Mississippi, which has the 4th largest rural population in the U.S., these challenges are felt statewide, especially in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, a recent study found that in Mississippi, a Delta district is 114 times more likely to have a teacher shortage than a non-Delta district. Districts serving the smaller Central and Southern Mississippi communities struggle to offer salaries and lifestyle benefits (including access to housing, entertainment options, and walkability) that are competitive with urban areas.

What Mississippi Administrators Can Do to Overcome Staffing Challenges

Addressing an issue as complex as Mississippi’s ongoing teacher shortage inevitably takes time and sustained effort; there will never be a quick-fix for this problem. However, there are certainly concrete steps that administrators can take to manage immediate staffing issues and lay the groundwork for overcoming the broader challenge. Here are three options for Mississippi administrators to consider:

Continue to talk to local legislators

Advocacy efforts do make a difference. Talk to your local politicians about staffing challenges that your school or district is facing and how those challenges are affecting the teachers and students you serve. As much as possible, provide these legislators with concrete numbers and statistics to support your case. Overnight changes won’t happen, but over time, these conversations can lead to real and impactful policy changes.

Focus on workplace culture

You may not have control over the size of the applicant pool in your area, but you do have some, if not complete, control over retaining the high-quality teachers you already have. So, even if your school or district is working under significant financial constraints, do all you can to make your buildings outstanding places to work. Prioritize teacher-induction programs to ensure that all new staff members you hire get started on the right foot—and stick around. Provide opportunities for all of your teachers to engage in mentorship, seek professional development, take on leadership roles, network with their peers, and voice their opinions and needs. The resource edWeb is a great place to start for free webinars and networking resources to share with your staff. Even small cultural shifts to prioritize teachers’ well-being can have a huge impact on finding and retaining the talent you need.

Consider a virtual school partner

Often, virtual schools are understandably seen as competition by district and school administrators, so they may not be a teacher-shortage solution that immediately comes to mind. However, partnering with such a program can be a practical, convenient, and cost-effective route to take to address staffing challenges. For example, Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy is a fully accredited virtual school that works with schools and districts to provide over 400 Mississippi standards–aligned courses—including career and technical education, World Languages, and Advanced Placement® options—paired with high-quality teachers certified in the state. Students can be enrolled in EdOptions Academy courses as needed, enabling our Mississippi partners to provide the courses students want, the flexibility to quickly fill staffing gaps when needs arise, and the ability to retain student enrollment. 

Interested in learning more about how partnership with EdOptions Academy can help your school or district manage teacher-shortage challenges? Check out this blog post on 7 Benefits of Partnering with a Virtual School!