LLOYD GRAY: Start with the teachers

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Teaching has never been easy, but these may be the most challenging times the profession has ever seen.
The respect once accorded teachers simply by virtue of their position is largely gone. Students and their parents – whatever their economic status or race – have a greater sense of entitlement. Classrooms are more difficult to manage.
Accountability, meanwhile, is the new buzzword, and student achievement as defined by performance on tests is under a microscope. The pressure is constantly on. In school these days, “Drill, baby, drill,” isn’t about oil, it’s about priming students to raise the Quality Distribution Index – QDI – the make-or-break number in judging how well teachers and schools are doing.
Teachers get the blame if it’s low, and too little of the credit if it’s high.
And as soon as one method of instruction and its attendant measurements are mastered, that one is discarded and another introduced from above. Meanwhile the pay, compared with other professions, is still low.
It’s tough, no question about it. Yet at the same time the role of teacher has never been more important and the need for excellent teachers never more pronounced.
In Mississippi, with its high poverty and low educational achievement, this is particularly true. But by and large, the state’s brightest students are avoiding teaching – largely due to the factors cited above. It’s no longer the profession of choice for the top career-oriented women and minorities, as was the case when so few other options were available to them.
So what’s the solution? How do we get more bright young Mississippians interested in teaching children when it’s a high-stress, low-paying, low-prestige job?
There’s no way to eliminate the stress. But prestige and pay are another matter.
Today the Daily Journal begins a six-day examination of teacher quality in Mississippi. It’s the latest installment of our year-long “State of Our Schools” series designed to explore challenges facing K-12 public education in Mississippi and, we hope, to illuminate the ongoing debate about school reform.
Education reporter Chris Kieffer is the lead writer for this week’s series, with help from Capitol correspondent Bobby Harrison and reporters Scott Morris, Michaela Morris and Riley Manning. Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet at Columbia University, will also contribute.
We’ll take a comprehensive look at multiple facets of the issue, including the pay and prestige elements.
We’ll explore how teachers are currently trained, both traditional education majors and those who come to the profession by another track. We’ll see what they’re taught about teaching and what might be missing in their preparation.
We’ll examine the qualities that make a good teacher and visit with a few verifiably exceptional ones. You’ll read about people who went into teaching from another career, as well as those who had enough of the classroom and left it, and what might be done to retain good teachers longer.
We’ll look at the difficulty of getting good teachers into underperforming schools and the non-traditional programs that are working to make it happen.
And we’ll report on legislative and university efforts to raise the bar for entering the teaching profession with the hope that a more selective process will draw more high-achieving students into teaching – presumably to the benefit of students in Mississippi’s classrooms.
As with other components of “The State of Our Schools” series – the most recent one in February on literacy – we don’t presume to suggest it’s the definitive word, but we do hope to contribute to the conversation. In education, teachers are where the conversation begins.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.