The State Of Our Schools – Teachers: Quest for the best

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TODAY THE DAILY JOURNAL CONTINUES its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the first installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s stories focus on the challenge of attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching field, teacher-related legislation passed this year and the state’s struggle to increase teacher pay. The next five days will examine teacher preparation, alternate route programs, teacher evaluations, high-performing educators and retention, among other topics.
PAST INSTALLMENTS of the Daily Journal have explored the history of education in Mississippi, the Florida education reform model and the state of literacy education. To view the entire series, visit


Today’s story …

Great teachers may be the best tool Mississippi has to fight its generational poverty.
Education is the pathway to provide new opportunities for children from low-income families, and according to studies, top educators are the most influential factor in improving student performance. That means the poorest state in the nation may have the greatest need for the best teachers.
“If we are to move the needle in education, we have to make certain we have the best prepared teachers with strong content mastery in the classroom,” said Hank Bounds, who heads Mississippi’s university system and formerly served as state superintendent for K-12 schools. “…Addressing teacher quality is one of the most important things we can do.”
The challenge becomes how does Mississippi get more of its best and brightest to enter and remain within a low-paying, demanding profession, particularly during a time when teaching no longer holds the public prestige it once did.
As state leaders seek ways to improve one of the country’s lowest-performing education systems, many argue that this issue should get their greatest attention.
“You can’t have education reform that is meaningful without good teachers and principals,” said Andy Mullins, a longtime public education advocate who currently serves as chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi.
One Tennessee study found that students with the most effective teachers for three years in a row outperformed students with the least effective teachers. A 1998 study of students in Texas found that a high-quality teacher throughout elementary school “can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socioeconomic background.”
“It is critical,” said David Rock, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. “There is no question that the biggest impact on a child and their educational attainment is the teacher in the classroom.”
Mississippi certainly has its share of great teachers among its 33,947 educators. More than 3,400 teachers, or about 10 percent of the state’s teacher force, have earned National Board Certification. Nationally, about 3 percent of teachers earn the distinction. The state has also had 67 educators earn prestigious national Milken Educator Awards since 1991.
What it needs though, are more such teachers.
“There are some people we get into the teaching field that are excellent and are in the Honors College,” said Richard Blackbourn, dean of Mississippi State University’s College of Education.
“There just aren’t enough of them. There aren’t as many as we’d like to see.”
On average, Mississippi is not attracting its best and brightest into the classroom.
In 2012, the average ACT score of graduating students in Mississippi planning to major in education was an 18.2, according to ACT, which asked test-takers about their intended majors. That score was higher than the average for students planning to major in business or health administration but several points below students planning to major in English or science. It also is below the state’s average of 18.7 and the national average of 21.1.
According to Mississippi LifeTracks, an integrated statewide data system, the average ACT score of first-time freshmen education majors at Mississippi institutions of higher learning was 20.76 in 2011. That score has risen slightly over the past decade. The average was 19.94 in 2000.
Although many characteristics define good teaching, researchers have found that teachers with stronger academic skills, as measured by SAT or ACT scores, grade- point average or other measures, tend to perform better in the classroom.
Mississippi LifeTracks recently found a strong correlation between a teacher’s ACT score and his or her students’ performance on state standardized tests.
More than 65 percent of the students taught by educators who had scored above a 28 on the ACT were proficient in math, compared to 52 percent of students taught by teachers who scored between 12 and 15 on the test. Meanwhile, 59.8 percent of students taught by the highest-scoring teachers were proficient in reading and writing, compared to 39.3 percent of those taught by the lowest-scoring teachers.
Those results come from an analysis of 1,770 public school teachers who graduated from Mississippi public universities between 2000 and 2010 and taught third- to eighth-grade English or math during the 2010-11 academic year. Those teachers taught 50,213 English students and 28,620 math students.
The correlation isn’t perfect. Certainly some individuals who score well on standardized tests would not be good at explaining concepts to others, and some who do not score well would be. Regardless, the study underscores the importance for the state to attract more of its smartest students into the education field.
Raising salaries and restoring prestige to the profession are key, experts say.
Mississippi’s average teacher salary of $41,976 for the 2011-12 school year ranks 49th in the country, according to the National Education Association. It sits ahead of South Dakota’s $38,804 average, but trails the national average by more than $14,000.
More important than how Mississippi’s teacher pay compares to that of other states, however, is how that compensation compares to other careers.
The best students have dozens of career opportunities, and most of those other options are more lucrative.
“We know we need their brains and their leadership, but they know they can make more money doing something else,” said Saltillo High School English teacher Janice Fleming.
The problem is not the starting pay, Rock said. First-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree make at least $31,395, not including local school district supplements.
“I’m asked to attract top performers from high school into a profession whose average salary is one of the lowest average salaries in professional areas,” Rock said. “Students understand this when they are in college.
“There are a lot of people who say, and this is true, the starting salary is OK. The problem is if you are the best teacher in the world, it is not as though you can go someplace and make $20,000 more. If you are the best in other professions, you can. The national teacher of the year goes right back to his or her classroom. It is not as if you are going to get a $20,000 raise.”
Richard Boyd, who served as Mississippi’s superintendent of education during the mid-1980s, remembers when the Legislature had an annual goal to bring Mississippi’s average teacher salary in line with the Southeastern average. Those conversations have diminished, he said.
“When is the last time that anybody in the halls of the Capitol said we need to reach that level?” he said. “In effect, we’ve just given up on that.”
Mississippi’s Legislature did approve this year a pilot program that would allow merit pay, meaning the best-performing teachers will be able to earn more money.
“We have a lot of very talented young people coming along, many of whom would choose education as a career, except they do not see the financial awards there that enable them to be attracted to it,” said former Gov. William Winter, a longtime education advocate.
Krystle Scales, who teaches fourth grade at Tupelo’s Rankin Elementary, said she would favor bonuses for teachers based on student performance.
“It awards the teacher for making such a great accomplishment with her students and her class, and it provides motivation,” she said.
At the same time, the profession isn’t held in the same esteem as it was when it was the most highly sought career option for the best-performing female and minority students. Today, those individuals have many more opportunities than they once did, and the education field has much more competition in trying to get their services.
The field doesn’t have the same luster it once held.
“It will really require a change in mind-set from the citizens of Mississippi,” said Mooreville High School English teacher Belinda Bruce. “I think we’ve gotten out of the idea of teaching being a professional occupation and we’ve lost the respect that teaching really deserves … We have to get back to the idea that this is a professional learning community and is something you want to be involved in.”
With increased school accountability since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law and recent state school reform efforts, teachers say they now feel the weight of frequent criticism for low student performance. And, Fleming said, smart students see the pressure their teachers face.
“I’m really tired of the teacher bashing you see, not just here but all over the nation,” Mullins said.
Teachers also play an important role in making the profession appear more desirable to their students, said Tupelo High School teacher Brookes Mayes. When they vent and complain about their job in their classroom, they can do great damage.
“Students hear teachers complain, and when they hear the negative stuff, they don’t want to do that for the rest of their life,” she said.
Raising the profession’s prestige, some say, could help attract more individuals into the field, even if the pay remains low. Such has been the mission of programs like Teach For America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps, which each lure top-caliber graduates from prestigious universities and colleges to become teachers for at least two years.
Some of those individuals agree to accept lower salaries than they could have received from other jobs because it is only a short-term commitment. But others do remain in education. About 66 percent of Teach For America’s alumni are still working somewhere in the education field, and the Mississippi Teacher Corps generally sees about 35 to 40 percent of its members remain in the classroom after completing their commitment.
Ron Nurnberg, executive director for TFA’s Mississippi Delta Region, said the organization does not use low pay as an excuse but finds ways to attract the best potential educators by selling the desirable qualities of the teaching field.
“We are trying to say through this work, these schools which are thought to be so under-performing can be the showcase of what is possible in the nation,” Nurnberg said.
“Marketing sounds like so much of a crass term, but how do you provide the shift in mind-set for why this work is so important?”
Mullins, who also serves as co-director of Mississippi Teacher Corps, suggested a statewide video or marketing campaign to play to the idealism of smart individuals who have a sense of mission.
“It is not just idealism, it is making a difference in children’s lives,” he said.
Both organizations also actively recruit top students and are highly selective, which makes participation in them feel more prestigious and attractive. Some say that this is exactly why the state needs to raise entry-level standards for teaching and that doing so would make the profession more appealing to students looking to be challenged.
Mississippi lawmakers did begin that effort this past session when they passed legislation that will increase the score teachers must reach on the state licensure exam.
Perhaps a combination of increased compensation and elevated prestige is needed.
Nancy Loome, who heads the Parents Campaign, a statewide school-improvement advocacy organization, noted the key to Teach For America and Mississippi Teacher Corps attracting individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have been teachers is their prestige and appeal to mission-oriented work. If the pay were better, she said, participants would be more likely to remain in the profession longer. Or, perhaps, they would even discover their passion for teaching at an earlier age.
“I think the prestige and the mission-oriented work are very attractive,” Loome said.
“If they had both of those things and they knew they were going to be compensated well, I think you could get them to stay in the classroom longer. And you could use those same features to recruit people into schools of education in general, instead of the backdoor approach.”
The state Department of Education recently conducted a survey asking ninth-grade students about their career choices, and about 1,800 – or about 75 percent – showed an interest in teaching. The question is how to ensure that those students, particularly the brightest among them with the most career options, don’t change their mind.
“Can we identify those students and help them see opportunities there,” Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said. “I just think we have to have a more cohesive approach to growing our own.”
Former Gov. Winter said improving the quality of Mississippi’s teachers is a long-term problem and will not be solved in a single legislative session. It is one that requires a purposeful and broad solution, he said.
“I think it is absolutely essential to create a public atmosphere that puts teaching on a pedestal equal to any other profession,” he said.

Other stories today …

Click here for Legislature strengthens teacher standards

Click here for Regional teacher pay average still eludes Mississippi

Click here for LLOYD GRAY: Start with the teachers

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