Licensing ‘misunderstanding’ may cost some teachers their jobs, heightening state’s critical teacher shortage

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Some teachers will lose their jobs because of an administrative issue at a time when the teacher shortage is at an all-time high.

Toward the end of the school year and after settling into her new life, a Mississippi Delta-based teacher let her family back in India know that the time was right for them to sell most of their belongings and move to join her. Just a few days after that, she learned she would not be eligible to teach again next year.

“I just broke down … because it’s really, really difficult,” she said. The elementary school teacher asked not to be named for fear of potentially losing her visa and fear of retribution.

She can’t come back to teach in the Mississippi Delta next year because of an issue with meeting requirements to renew her teaching license – an administrative matter that will cost dozens of others their teaching jobs in an area of the state already experiencing a severe teacher shortage.

“You cannot even imagine the kind of stress I’m going through right now. I was … sure that I was going to be here so there wasn’t any problem with my family (moving to Mississippi). But right now we’re in a big mess because I cannot enroll my daughters in school or in university because of the situation of not having a job,” the teacher said.

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) says that the issue of dozens of non-traditional teachers in the Delta – perhaps more around the state – potentially being ineligible to renew their licenses is a result of school district leaders misunderstanding the license requirements. Others in the education community say the elementary school teacher’s situation is symptomatic of enduring confusion on how these licenses are administered, with little clarification coming from MDE.

There are several different types of licenses would-be teachers can get that will allow them to teach in Mississippi. The one at the center of the confusion is called a “Special Non-Renewable License for Non-Traditional Teachers.” That means someone who graduated from college but didn’t major in education can teach for three years with this license, as long as they re-apply for it each year and meet the necessary guidelines for reapplication.

To be able to keep teaching after the three years that this type of license allows, the teacher candidate has to have passed all Praxis requirements (the statewide certification exam) and completed an alternate route program (which is several courses that teach educator-specific skills like classroom management).

The Special Non-Renewable license was specifically designed to let “non-traditional” teachers start teaching without having met those requirements before starting their first year of teaching.

This is where the confusion comes in.

Education leaders like district superintendents and college deans of education thought that candidates had all three years to meet the requirements, and only had to show that they were making progress toward completion in order teach with the Special Non-Renewable license.

Because of that, many teachers using this license went through their first year of teaching without passing the Praxis.

“They (district administration) just told me to appear for the Praxis and to enroll (in an alternate route program) … whether I pass or fail it doesn’t matter. Now they are telling me it’s not that way, the rules have changed,” said the elementary school teacher from India.

The “rule change” she’s referring to is one that says teacher candidates must pass all Praxis requirements before reapplying to teach for a second year – not pass it some time before their three years with this license are up.

Teachers affected – the state hasn’t been able to say how many – can potentially try to pass the Praxis in July and come back at the start of the school year, but the Praxis has become known as a difficult exam requiring proper preparation. Barring being able to pass the July Praxis, the teacher who moved from India to the Delta cannot come back to teach; neither can an estimated 30 other teachers in her district.

Mississippi Today

Mississippi Department of Education headquarters in Jackson.

For its part, MDE officials say the rules have always been that a second year candidate must be fully admitted in an alternate route program (which requires passing all Praxis requirements for entry).

They say this confusion is happening because of an incident that occurred back when this license was introduced in 2016.

“We found there were some institutions that decided to forego state board requirements for admissions to programs. So what we decided to do as a department was to address that concern directly with the institution and not penalize the candidates,” said Cory Murphy, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Leading at MDE.

Murphy said that MDE allowed just that one group of candidates to have all three years to meet the requirements, but that group was to be the exception, not the rule.

Although Murphy said emails were sent and meetings were held with superintendent groups alerting them of this, many education leaders were unaware of it.

“It is a change because at the beginning, as I understand it, (teacher candidates) had those three years to complete the coursework for the alternate route program and to finish all the licensure exams. What they had to do was just show progress at the end of each year, but now at the end of the first year they have to have passed the licensure exams,” said Ben Burnett, former superintendent of Meridian Public School District and dean of the William Carey University School of Education.

Indeed, there are several other factors at hand that could have led to the confusion:

• August 2016 general instructions for this license makes no mention of passing the Praxis. It does say that candidates must be enrolled in an alternate route program, but at the time some universities did not require candidates to pass the Praxis to enter the program.

• The law on this license does not say that non-traditional candidates have to pass all Praxis requirements before getting accepted to a program. The guidelines also say the license will “allow the candidate three years to meet all certification requirements.”

• May 2017 general guidelines for the candidate’s first year say they must meet all licensure requirements “by the end of the third year.”

• A memo was sent to superintendents in May 2017. The memo did not specifically mention that candidates would need to have passed the Praxis by the end of their first year. However, guidelines were attached in the same email as the memo for second year candidates. On the last page of the guidelines in bolded type it says that after 2017-2018 candidates have to pass all Praxis requirements to come back a second year.

Factoring in that superintendent turnover is high in the Delta, makes it possible that superintendents who came in during 2018 would have missed this memo and potentially not have closely read the licensing requirements.

Regardless of why the misunderstanding happened, it remains that teachers will be losing their jobs because of it at a time when the critical teacher shortage is at an all-time high. In 2018 there were more than 2,100 teaching vacancies and 2,256 uncertified teachers across the state.

The crisis is concentrated in the Delta, where in some districts as much as 30 percent of the teaching staff may not be certified.

While Burnett acknowledged that teacher candidates having to pass the Praxis by their second year would overall benefit the school system, it will also have immediate negative repercussions.

“In the short term I could easily see that it’s going to widen the gap in our teacher shortage,” he said. “As we all know, the teacher shortage is massive across the state in all areas of the state. So districts who may have had several candidates in this situation, it could potentially make that worse for those school districts.”