Edward Hawkins, left, assists a student as she takes a math test at West Bolivar High School Monday, October 29, 2018. West Bolivar Consolidated School District is classified by the Mississippi Department of Education as critical teacher shortage area. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The Mississippi Legislature is taking aim at teacher pay raises this year, something lawmakers say is a first step in addressing the state’s critical teacher shortage. 

But even if educators do see a pay increase this year, there is a bigger issue in solving what is considered one of the biggest problems facing the state: no one knows the full scale of the crisis.

The Mississippi Department of Education does not track teacher vacancies, meaning state officials — lawmakers included — do not know how many unfilled teacher positions there are for individual districts or for the entire state.

In December 2019, Mississippi Today asked MDE how many teacher vacancies there were. A spokesperson said that MDE surveys for that information, but individual school districts aren’t required to send it in. 

“The only way to really get that information is to go to every single district and ask them or look on their website,” she said, indicating that a reporter would have to individually reach out to 146 school districts to get a comprehensive understanding of the state’s teacher shortage. 

The department again confirmed in February 2021 that it doesn’t track the state’s teacher vacancies.

“The MDE does not require districts to submit teacher vacancy data, though we periodically survey districts to help estimate vacancies statewide,” a district spokesperson wrote in an email. “We do not have vacancy survey data for 2020. We did not want to burden districts with a survey request while they faced the challenges of the pandemic.”

Education experts for years have reiterated that having a firmer grasp on these metrics is necessary to eradicate any teacher shortage. Still, department officials and lawmakers have not made any substantive effort to better define the problem. 

“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 in a 2019 interview with Mississippi Today.

Local education advocates agree. Without knowing the full extent of the problem, they can’t really know what they’re fighting, said Mississippi Association of Educators President Erica Jones.

“We can say to legislators or we can say to the public, ‘We have a teacher shortage crisis.’ But unless we have numbers and data to support and back that up, we’re just saying things. We need the data there to show people how bad it is in our state,” Jones told Mississippi Today this month.

Without clear data, some advocates fear, lawmakers can continue to avoid meaningful solutions to the problem. Teacher pay, for example, has long remained a stated priority for top candidates during election season, but they have passed few substantive pay raises in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, Mississippi teacher salaries remain among the lowest in the nation – a major contributing factor to the state’s teacher shortage.

Not knowing the full scope of the problem also allows lawmakers to opine that the shortage is being blown out of proportion, advocates say.

While teacher vacancies remain unknown, the Mississippi Department of Education does track how many teachers are not properly certified across the state.

A school district is declared a geographical teacher shortage area if it has 60 or more teaching positions and 10% or more of them are not appropriately licensed. Not appropriately licensed includes teachers teaching out of field, teachers teaching with no certificate, and long-term substitutes.

A school district with less than 60 teaching positions becomes a geographic shortage area if 15% or more of their teaching staff isn’t appropriately licensed

By this measure, 54 school districts and charter schools — or more than one third of all school districts in the state — are experiencing a teacher shortage.

In 2017-18, 3% of all teachers were not certified — a percentage six times higher than it was when the teacher shortage issue prompted the Legislature to pass the Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998. The most recent data from MDE for the 2020-2021 school year shows 1.5% of teachers were not certified.

But that statewide average hides disparity gaps. For example, in some school districts like Picayune School district, 20% of the teachers were not certified in 2020-2021.

This metric also doesn’t take into consideration that students might not have someone teaching a class who knows the content the students are learning. 

If a school district doesn’t have someone to teach a specific subject, even an uncertified teacher, it will often enroll the students in “distance learning” programs. That means the extent of a student’s education in a subject area will be completing assignments, tests and quizzes for a class, but the student would not have an actual teacher to go to for questions or help.

This often results in situations where students have to complete geometry homework, for example, after reading geometry lessons, but there is no teacher who can answer questions if they get stuck.

Before the pandemic, kids in these distance learning programs would usually have a facilitator in the room, earlier reporting from Mississippi Today found. This person monitors student behavior and may try to answer questions, but typically doesn’t know anything about the content the students are trying to learn. 

By contrast, an “uncertified” or “under certified” teacher might not have met all of MDE’s requirements to be properly licensed by the state, but they likely know the content they’re teaching.

Having specific information about teacher vacancies would “allow us to be able to recruit more, as well as when we’re talking to legislators and have concrete information for them when we’re telling them that certain school districts are experiencing a teacher shortage,” Jones said. “It’s hard for us to do that now without reliable data.”

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she works as one of our Mississippi Delta-based reporters 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.