Higher Education

Who should be in charge of licensing Mississippi’s teachers?

Task force calls for independent board to take on that role

State superintendent of education Dr. Carey Wright told the Jackson Free Press that she felt licensing should stay in the hands of the Mississippi Department of Education.

Mississippi’s leaders may consider using an independent board to vet and license teachers and teacher preparation programs in an attempt to ensure teachers are better prepared.

The idea came out of a task force of education leaders and stakeholders, which was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant earlier this year to look at how prepared teachers are for early literacy instruction.

One of the recommendations made within the task force’s 71-page report was that the state create an independent licensing board to issue teacher licenses and vet the state’s educator preparation programs, or EPPs—a responsibility currently handled by the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Education Licensure. This would “establish and enforce rigorous professional performance-based standards for preparation, certification, and responsible and ethical behavior” of the state’s teachers, the report says.

The task force’s recommendations come on the heels of a January report released by the Barksdale Reading Institute, which said teachers generally lack knowledge of best practices in literacy at a time when the state is increasingly focused on making sure students are reading at grade level. That report found that not all teacher training programs in the state are built the same when it comes to reading instruction.

“Generally, there is awareness among (teacher) candidates of the importance of applying scientific research to the teaching of reading,” the authors of the report wrote. “But they have little knowledge about the research or how to apply the research to instruction.”

This year, the advancement of third grade literacy has topped priority lists for education leaders in Mississippi. Most recently, the state established a Mississippi arm of the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to increase access to resources for communities to help young students be better readers.

This move complements the state’s 2013 Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which developed a “reading gate” for third graders before their schools could promote them to the fourth grade. Amid criticism that the test’s low standards could not accurately assess fourth-grade readiness, legislators amended the law this year to raise the bar even higher. Now, students must perform two levels above the lowest “passing” score to be promoted to fourth grade. Last year, 85.2 percent of children passed initially; after retests, 92.4 percent of all students passed.

An Independent Board

The recommendation for an independent board in Mississippi comes from seeing results in 13 other states, eight of which are top-ranked in 2015’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for 4th grade reading.

“Mississippi’s growth on NAEP is not to be discounted and is likely the result—at least in part—from the progressive legislation relative to 3rd grade proficiency. In considering possible ways to improve teacher quality, and thus student achievement, examining how these independent boards contribute to higher standards and efficiency seems warranted,” the task force report reads.

Dr. David Rock, dean of the school of education at the University of Mississippi and a member of the subcommittee of task force members who made the new agency recommendation, says the point is to create a system of consistent standards for all fifteen of the state’s teacher preparation programs. Right now, state’s Institutions of Higher Learning board only governs some of those programs. Whereas national accreditation by the National Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) is now required for all state institutions governed by IHL, it’s not a requirement for private institutions. Teacher prep at Millsaps College, for instance, is CAEP-accredited; Blue Mountain College, a private Baptist university in Tupelo, Miss., is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).  Because of this, it is hard to compare accredited programs, Rock said. That means an “annual, multi-year” review of programs, for which the independent agency would be responsible, is also critical, according to the task force, to make sure all programs are up-to-par with state standards. “The MDE teacher licensing area actually governs licensure so that a person who does complete a degree can actually get a license to teach. If you’re a private institution, IHL doesn’t govern that. I don’t know who would review their program each year,” Rock added.

“We’re not all living by the same standards, so that’s not consistent,” he told the Jackson Free Press.

Separation of Ed and State

Though the Mississippi Department of Education and the Legislature, including Gov. Phil Bryant, have worked together to create recent education legislation, they have not always seen eye-to-eye. The failure of last year’s Initiative 42, which would have forced the state Legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, created bitter divisions not only among lawmakers past and present, but also between the Legislature and education leaders.

This year, after initially deciding to honor the White House Title IX directives that provided protections for transgender students, MDE rescinded its support after letters from GOP lawmakers expressed their disapproval and their wish for State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright to step down if her department did not change its stance.

Wright and State Board of Education Chairwoman Rosemary Aultman disagreed with the task-force recommendations in a letter to Rock and Dr. Devon Brenner, assistant to the vice president for education initiatives at Mississippi State University, after the task force recommendations were made.

“Under the authority of the Mississippi State Board of Education, the Mississippi Department of Education is responsible for educator licensure, educator ethics and review and oversight of all educator preparation programs,” the letter says. “There is no need to establish a separate bureaucracy when the MDE already has the capacity, infrastructure and systems in place to effectively administer all of the work associated with educator preparation, licensure and ethics.”

Wright echoed these sentiments to the Jackson Free Press.

“When we got the recommendation we said we would agree to disagree. I think (MDE) having control over everything that relates to education is really a good idea.”

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow with the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email sierra@jacksonfreepress.com.

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Sierra Mannie

Sierra Mannie is a freelance writer. She was previously an education reporting fellow for the Hechinger Report and the Jackson Free Press. She is a… See Archive

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