State of Our Schools: Preparing teachers – Subject-area knowledge, use of data gain importance

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

When Tupelo High School teacher Brookes Mayes led a class for the first time three years ago, she found that much about her preparation at Mississippi State University had readied her to instruct THS’s Apple Tech class.
But as the school year progressed, she began to discover duties she wished she was better prepared to handle, responsibilities like strategies for contacting parents.
“As a 22-year-old talking to someone possibly in their 40s, it can be intimidating talking to them about their own kids when they are looking at you like you are a kid,” Mayes said. “They tell you you should communicate with parents, but it would be great to have more strategies for how do you go about doing that.”
Mayes said she felt well-prepared for speaking to a large group and for preparing lesson plans, but the problem was the lesson plan format she had spent so much time developing in college was different from the one used by her school district.
She also wished she had more familiarity with finding inexpensive resources for students, especially during a time of tight budgets.
“I feel like I had multiple classes that touched on these areas, but there was never one class that just nailed it in one of these areas,” she said. “They could have one class and cover all of these areas and focus on them.”

In Mississippi’s education reform efforts and its attempts to get the best and brightest teacher corps, one emerging question is how well is it preparing those who now go into the field. It is a question experts say carries much significance.
“If you are going to improve schools, you first have to bring teachers into the classroom who are better prepared, they’ve been trained by outstanding faculty, they know what to do and they have a commitment to doing it,” said Tom Burnham, former state superintendent of education and former head of the University of Mississippi School of Education.
Rankin Elementary second-year teacher Krystle Scales said she wishes she learned how to understand student test data beyond just seeing who scored well and who didn’t.
“One thing that should be added is teaching teachers how to interpret, analyze and use student data in order to devise a plan to move students from where they are to the next level,” she said.
Also, Scales said, she would like to see teacher candidates receive more training on ways to devise tests that simulate state tests in their rigor and ways they phrase questions.
Nancy Loome, who heads the Parents Campaign, a statewide network of public education improvement advocates, agreed teachers need more help in analyzing data. Today’s technology gives them access to information that educators of past years would have been thrilled to have had, she said. But teachers must know how to use it.
Loome also called for greater rigor in teacher prep programs and a greater focus on content-area knowledge and on the fundamentals of reading. Many others, including Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden, agreed that teachers need to know more about the subjects they are teaching, especially as the new Common Core State Standards require them to go more in-depth.

David Rock, dean of the University of Mississippi’s School of Education, said Ole Miss teachers do get much subject-area knowledge, citing that math teacher candidates have the same requirements as the university’s math majors with the exception of two courses.
Both he and MSU Education Dean Richard Blackbourn said one challenge they face as they try to offer more courses to students is they are not allowed to require more than 124 hours for graduation. Since students don’t enter their education programs until their junior year and because there are a lot of other general class requirements, it is difficult to add more.
Rock said he would like to be able to have students begin taking education courses as sophomores and substitute them for other general electives.
Hank Bounds, the head of the state’s university system and a former state superintendent of education, said he would be open to such flexibility.
“I’ve asked the university presidents to make teacher education a priority and to try to break down any institutional barriers, and I think the presidents are committed to that and the deans are committed to that,” he said.
“From my perspective and the board’s perspective, I think any proposal that was brought to us that put more emphasis on subject area content and appropriate experience-based learning would be positively received.”
Bounds, who also spent about 10 years as a principal and was later a district superintendent, said content mastery is vitally important for teacher candidates. He’d also like to see them with more expertise in literacy instruction.
“If I were king for a day, if I could snap my finger and change how we prepare teachers, I think we would have a much stronger focus on literacy everywhere, in all grade levels,” he said.
One of the pushes of this year’s legislative session was Gov. Phil Bryant’s proposal to increase the entry standards into teacher education programs, only allowing those with a 21 on the ACT and a 3.0 grade-point average to enter. That legislation was amended to require anyone licensed to teach, starting in 2015, to have either scored at the nationally recommended passing score on the Praxis, a pre-profession skills test for teachers, or have scored a 21 on the ACT. Plus, the applicant would have needed to have a 2.75 grade-point average in pre-major coursework.
Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House said she favors the higher standards. She’d also like to see teacher candidates to get more hands-on experiences.
“If I could pick two things that I could do to change teacher prep, one would be admission to the program, making it more selective, and the other would be more field experiences,” she said. “If you learn about a reading strategy today, tomorrow you get to apply it in a classroom with real children, or tomorrow you see it being applied by a master teacher and then you get to apply it the next day.”

Mississippi State University education senior Elizabeth Vaughan of Okolona is currently completing her coursework by student teaching at Saltillo Elementary School. She said such classroom experiences have been the best part of her training.
“Experiencing the actual day-to-day routines has helped me prepare,” she said.
Meanwhile, other teachers, such as Saltillo High School’s Janice Fleming and Thomas Street Elementary’s Tritina Siddell, said teachers also would benefit from mentor programs once they are on campus.
“When I started teaching I had a very strong mentor,” Fleming said. “Even though she was in biology and I was in English, she guided me and she was my sounding board, and I think that is very important.”

About the Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the second installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s stories explore ways to better prepare teachers for the classroom and a new program designed to attract more high-performing college students to the field. The next four days will look at alternate route programs, critical needs districts, teacher evaluations, high-performing educators and retention, among other topics.
To view the entire series, visit

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