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Miss. stacks up poorly to other states’ teacher requirements

The good news and bad news is that the quality of education is not solely determined by the amount of money a state can budget for its public school system.

Poverty is a huge barrier to education in Mississippi, as many students beginning school are not ready to learn. But the quality of student performance also depends on the quality of teachers. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. While Mississippi certainly has many excellent and dedicated teachers, some only meet the minimum requirements necessary to obtain a teaching license. And Mississippi has some of the lowest requirements in the country.

Obtaining a teaching license anywhere in the nation requires standardized testing. Mississippi is one of 40 states that uses the Praxis test to screen teachers. While states are required to test, the states also have the authority to determine the minimum scores that they will accept.

The Praxis tests are created by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which also issues the ACT and SAT.

Mississippi has the lowest required Praxis I score in math in the country — at only 169. The highest scores are required by Virginia (178) and Maryland (177).

Mississippi is also tied with Nebraska for requiring the lowest score on the Praxis I in reading.

On the portion of the Praxis II, which tests teachers on the principles of learning and teaching, Mississippi also has the lowest score requirements nationwide.

Some recent good news, however, is that during the past year, Mississippi began requiring the highest Praxis scores nationwide for administrators. Now those applying to be superintendents, principals, assistant principals and athletic directors in Mississippi will be held to higher standards.

When asked if teacher licensing standards would become stricter in coming years, a state Department of Education spokesperson said “Mississippi’s current teacher standards reflect national best practices and requirements.”

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tom Burnham was not available for comment at press time.

How to Become a Teacher in Mississippi

Mississippi has long struggled with teacher shortages. After an acute shortage in the 1990s, the state Legislature created Alternate Route Programs for licensure, which have been extremely successful in recruiting new, stable teachers to the workforce.

The traditional route for becoming licensed to teach in Mississippi requires a four-year college degree in education, Praxis testing and student teaching.

With an Alternate Route Program, those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree in education can become licensed by passing the Praxis tests, enrolling in an Alternate Route Program and completing a one-year teaching internship.

During the past couple of years, Alternate Route Programs have started producing more teachers annually than the traditional route programs, according to Cindy Coon, director of educator licensure for the Mississippi Department of Education.

An additional advantage to Alternate Route teachers is that they tend to stay in the system longer.

“Alternate route teachers are a little older. They’ve made a conscious career change, and so generally they will stay in it longer. So our retention rate in alternate route right now is higher,” Coon said.

The National Center for Alternative Certification evaluated Mississippi’s alternate route programs in 2008 and found that “these programs are effective in bringing quality individuals into teaching and school leadership positions who otherwise would not likely enter the profession.”

Only 20 percent of individuals who have entered teaching through Mississippi’s alternate routes said they would have gone back to college and completed a traditional teacher education program if the alternate route had not existed, the Center said in a report.

More than 1,400 people became licensed to teach via alternate route in Mississippi during the 2009-2010 school year.

Teach for America

Of those certified last year via Alternate Route, 200 were Teach for America (TFA) teachers. This marked Mississippi’s largest TFA presence to date. TFA is a national non-profit that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in low-income communities throughout the country.

“(TFA teachers’ Praxis) test scores are off the charts,” Coon said.

In June 2010, Delta State University hosted its first Teach for America (TFA) teacher training institute with more than 500 teachers in attendance. TFA has seven other teaching institute locations at universities in urban centers with populations in the millions — Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Delta State is its first rural site.

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