Our Sunday Long Read is a series of three articles on where the future of public school education is going in red state Trump's America, and it's going straight to hell. First, things are so bad in red states trying to starve black kids of education that Mississippi is putting uncertified teachers in classrooms just to have adult bodies in classrooms.
Not long after Cortez Moss accepted the job as principal of Quitman County Middle School in 2016, he realized that his first months would be devoted nearly entirely to teacher recruitment. He was studying an Excel hiring tracker at home one March afternoon when the reality sunk in: Only four of the school’s 24 teachers would be returning in the fall.
The 26-year-old had to find 20 replacement teachers — as well as a custodian, two secretaries and a guidance counselor — all by the time school reopened in early August.
“I was like, I think I just took the wrong job,” he recalled.
In a state that has been battling teacher shortages for decades, Moss’ struggle is commonplace, especially in the Mississippi Delta.
In over 20 years, the problem has escalated, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education. The teacher shortage is actually six times worse than it was in 1997, shortly before the Legislature addressed the issue with the passage of the Critical Teacher Shortage Act.
The state’s attempt to address the crisis so far has fallen short, leaving local leaders like Moss struggling to solve a problem that some say is out of their control. Cuts to education funding, low teacher pay, and a dwindling supply of teachers interested in working in the rural, predominantly low-income and African-American Delta all contribute to the dilemma.
Indeed, a recent study in the 2017 Mississippi Economic Review found that districts with the worst teacher shortages have a weak local property tax base, a high percentage of black students and are disproportionately located in the Delta.
And in counties with multiple districts, the shortages tend to be far worse in the districts with the highest populations of black students.
For example, in North Panola School District, where 97 percent of the students are African-American, 9 percent of the teachers lacked proper certification in the 2017-18 school year. Meanwhile, in neighboring South Panola School District, where 55 percent of students are African-American, only 2 percent of the teachers weren’t certified.
Without teachers, more and more schools in Mississippi are turning to unproven computer learning programs too.
On most afternoons, Jeremiah Smith, founder of an after-school and summer program called the Rosedale Freedom Project, can be found sitting side-by-side with his students as they peer at laptops, trying to get through their assignments. Posters with uplifting quotes by Henry David Thoreau, Maya Angelou and Mahatma Gandhi decorate the room, but sometimes those positive messages aren’t enough: Smith can spot the exact moment when his students begin to despair.
The teenagers attend high schools and middle schools in the lowest-scoring school district in the state of Mississippi, West Bolivar Consolidated.
Smith can also pinpoint one of the main reasons for his students’ frustration: “The problem is the program.”
The program he’s referring to is an online learning platform, Edgenuity. An increasing number of school districts, including West Bolivar, have turned to Edgenuity and programs like it as they face a critical shortage of certified teachers. During the 2016-17 school year, 71 schools in the state used online learning platforms, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. The following school year, the number grew to 106 schools. Last fall, 91 schools across the state had students signed up to take courses online, a number that could rise if schools add classes this spring.
In the West Bolivar Consolidated school district, 22 percent of teachers weren’t properly certified last year, about 27 out of 124 total. West Bolivar High School had only four certified teachers.
That’s why West Bolivar adopted Edgenuity, said district superintendent Beverly Culley, who began the job last year.
She knew recruiting would be difficult in the ways that it’s typically difficult in the Delta: Her schools are located in isolated rural communities with high levels of poverty, and the pay is low. When she realized that only two of West Bolivar High’s four certified teachers were certified in core subject areas, she said she was shocked.
“I was very concerned about that. It was too late to recruit teachers. We’re tried to find retired teachers to come in. We couldn’t,” she said. The district eventually found one retiree to teach science, in January.
And finally, one of the big problems is teacher certification itself: requiring a four-year degree for a job that pays $30,000.
Cleveland native Toni McWilliams didn’t feel like she was putting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration to good use working as an administrative secretary for a middle school in her hometown. The job, which paid around $19,000, barely brought in enough money to support her two young daughters. So McWilliams decided to try teaching. “My mom had always encouraged me to teach,” she said.
But there was one big obstacle standing in the way: the Praxis exams. Consisting of four to five different tests, Praxis exams measure would-be teachers’ content knowledge in subjects that include math and reading.
When McWilliams first took the Praxis in March of 2015, she easily passed the reading portion but failed the math and writing sections. On her next try, she passed writing, but still failed math.
Over the next three years, McWilliams failed the math portion of the Praxis eight times — often by just two or three points. Her eyes welled with tears as she recalled the struggle.
Then, in May 2017, a friend told her about a new Delta-based nonprofit, Regional Initiatives for Sustainable Education (RISE), which offered tutoring for the Praxis. It proved to be an academic lifeline. McWilliams said she felt convinced that God was answering her prayers.
Mississippi is dealing with a dire teaching shortage. In seven Delta districts last year, at least 19 percent of teachers were uncertified to teach and in some cases the rate of teachers lacking certification was as high as 34 percent. In several districts, the percentage of uncertified teachers has doubled since 2013-14. The struggles McWilliams faced to become a certified teacher help illustrate why the problem is so severe.
To become certified in Mississippi, teachers must meet three requirements: Earn a bachelor’s degree; complete a traditional or alternate teacher training program; and pass the Praxis. The specific Praxis tests required vary. Teacher candidates with a score of 21 or higher on the ACT (the average in Mississippi is 18) can opt out of taking the Praxis Core, which includes the reading, writing and math tests. After passing the core tests, most educators then take one or more of the Praxis II exams, which are focused on various subject specialties (so a would-be high school history teacher would take a Praxis II history test, for example).
The core problem is the teacher shortage, and more and more red states are looking at teachers as the enemy, with Republican lawmakers in states across the country going "We could save millions if we got rid of teachers."
And so they are. Mississippi is the direct result of this.