Adrienne Hudson speaks to local educators during the RISE Teacher’s Night Out at the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center in Clarksdale Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Reporter for America

CLARKSDALE – Adrienne Hudson was working with a school where more than half the kids read at least two grade levels behind when all reading teachers had their positions eliminated and were moved to English Language Arts, or ELA, she said. 

“Because of the shortage with ELA teachers, [school district leaders] basically took the reading teachers and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to teach ELA now,’” she said. 

Hudson, who runs a nonprofit that helps teachers achieve certification, explained that teaching a class specifically for reading actually isn’t mandatory, but teaching ELA is. All of those teachers who got moved from reading to ELA were certified. 

As a result of the teacher shortage, the students still no longer had reading teachers, Hudson said. But the data that local districts send to the Mississippi Department of Education doesn’t reflect that; state officials said they don’t collect the number of teaching vacancies in every district and they do not know how many teaching vacancies there are across the state. 

“We surveyed districts more than a year ago, but only some districts return the information on the survey. So the only way to really get that information is to go to every single district and ask them or look on their website,” said Jean Cook, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Hudson has seen how not having this data can skew state teacher shortage statistics. Data sent to the state only shows the percentage of certified teachers, along with the different types or levels of certification teachers may have. 

“So it looks like the number [of certified teachers] has actually gone up … and I’m not saying that it hasn’t gone up some. But in a lot of cases it’s not a matter of the numbers going up, as much as it is that [school districts] have eliminated positions that were needed,” Hudson said. 

A decades-long issue

The state has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the teacher shortage crisis. In 1998, the Legislature passed the Critical Teacher Shortage Act, but the issue has only worsened in the past two decades. 

Whereas in 1998, 0.5 percent of teachers were not certified, by the 2017-18 school year that number had increased sixfold, according to archived state department of education data

For years the issue lay dormant. In some cases, solutions-oriented policies became ineffective after changes to certain programs were made, a Mississippi Today three-part series with The Hechinger Report on the teacher shortage found. 

Kymberlee Saddler, Coahoma Early College High School environmental science and geometry teacher, holds 6-year-old Jai Nash as she listens to Adrienne Hudson lead the discussion about educational related topics during the RISE Teacher’s Night Out at the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center in Clarksdale Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Reporter for America

The state education department has implemented numerous programs and policies to address the shortage. For example, the department secured a $4.1 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation to pilot a program where teachers can become certified based on their performance in the classroom not their Praxis score (the test teachers have to pass to become certified). They’ve worked on creating “grow your own” programs that aim to attract teachers back to their native places. Recently, the department hired four people to specifically recruit teachers in Mississippi’s four congressional districts. 

“Our aim is not to simply recruit prospective teachers to fill vacancies. Rather, we desire to recruit prospective candidates who understand the culture and context and have (a) vested interest in serving children in the local districts in which they’ll serve,” said Cory Murphy, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Teaching and Leading.

Murphy wrote in an email that the state monitors the teacher shortage by:

  • Reviewing the voluntary responses received from districts that fill out the Teacher Vacancy Survey
  • Tracking the total number of all emergency licenses a district requests
  • Frequently engaging stakeholders in focus groups across the state to inform policy and initiatives for addressing teacher shortage
  • Regularly monitoring the effectiveness of these policies and making adjustments as appropriate
  • Reviewing other reports that contain teacher prep program completion data

The National Trend

But not knowing exactly how many teachers any given district lacks opens to the door to question about how the state can accurately track whether the teacher shortage is diminishing. 

“The purpose of collecting and reporting these data is not to worry the problem, but actually to be in a position that those in the field and educational leaders themselves can make smart, data-based decisions about how to ensure that … shortage areas do not persist over time,” said Elizabeth Ross, teacher policy managing director at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Ross authored a 2017 report that examined teacher shortages, surpluses, supply and demand in each of the 50 states. Part of the idea is that to truly eradicate a teacher shortage, teacher preparation programs should know precisely where the need exists and in what subject area so they don’t oversupply a geographical area or subject that already has plenty of teachers. 

That report shows that Mississippi is one of 21 states that does not publish teacher production data or hiring statistics. 

Ross points to Kentucky as both a regional and national model for collecting teacher supply-and-demand data and connecting it to teacher preparation program completion data. Keeping this kind of data is essential to dealing with the teacher shortage, Ross said. 

“In order to (address teacher shortage issues), it’s really necessary to have a solid high-quality dataset that’s regularly updated so that leaders can look at whether certain interventions are proven to be more or less effective,” she said. 

People working on the ground to combat the shortage also say having this data would benefit them.

“If I had those numbers … it would be easier to show funders why this is important and why our work is integral to the success of education in this region,” said Hudson, the nonprofit leader. “With that data in front of you, everything is just more powerful.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.