CLARKSDALE, Miss. — 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. “I was just a secretary fighting to be a teacher,” she said.
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).
For many candidates, like McWilliams, the scores needed to pass the Praxis I core requirements are too high.
Erica Webber-Jones, 15-year Praxis trainer and secretary-treasurer for the Mississippi Association of Educators, said the organization hosts monthly and sometimes weekly training sessions for teacher candidates. Usually half of the 30 or so recruits who attend are secretaries, teaching assistants and substitute teachers who would like to become classroom teachers. Yet they frequently struggle to pass sections of the Praxis or finish alternate route training programs, which are not typically offered at times or places that are convenient for working professionals.
“People shouldn’t be taking this test 10 times,” said Adrienne Hudson, a longtime educator from Coahoma County who created RISE. There is a literal price to these repeat attempts: The Praxis Core exam costs $150.00; a retake on one section is $90.00. Non-core subject area tests average around $120 for a two-hour test. For those who need to take the test more than once, the costs can add up quickly. Clarksdale native Tameka Walker, 24, who previously worked as an uncertified teacher at Clarksdale High School, said she has spent about $4,500 taking — and retaking — parts of the Praxis.
After years in which little action was taken to address the teacher shortage crisis here, Mississippi has recently taken some steps to help more candidates qualify to become teachers. In July 2018, the state hired a full-time employee to focus on teacher recruitment and retention. The new staffer helped expand Praxis preparation programs across the state, and secured a $4.1 million grant to create new pathways for teachers to get licensed.
These efforts by the state and others to help teacher candidates become certified are still in their infancy. Currently, two small but ambitious nonprofit efforts, RISE and the William Carey University School of Education’s alternate teacher-training program, are struggling to fill the training void.
Both programs provide would-be teachers like McWilliams more resources to help them become certified, including Praxis tutoring, workshops and more convenient access to teacher training. If these programs can succeed in their mission to expand the teaching workforce, experts say they could fulfill two critical needs: easing the teacher shortage and bolstering economic development in the Mississippi Delta. An increase in the number of qualified teachers not only means more teachers in schools, it means more people earning middle class salaries.
“We developed a plan that if we can train our own educators, we could, No. 1, help with the teacher shortage and, No. 2, help retain teachers in the state of Mississippi because at that time, we weren’t receiving any pay raises for educators,” said Webber-Jones, the Praxis trainer.
After assisting RISE with Praxis tutoring for three days last summer, Webber-Jones, said she was impressed with Hudson’s passion for getting Delta teachers certified and “growing our own.”
“In the Mississippi Delta, it’s hard to get people to move to that area, but if you get people who are already there that’s willing to change and help mold the community, it’s a win-win situation for everybody involved,” said Webber-Jones.
One new teacher at a time
Hudson, a former teacher and assistant principal, created RISE two years ago while at Delta State University, writing her dissertation on the teacher shortage in the Delta. As she worked on her doctorate, she decided to volunteer with an organization focused on addressing the issue. To her surprise, she couldn’t find one.
“I felt like I had to become a revolutionary — the Fannie Lou Hamer for education in the Mississippi Delta,” she said, referring to the legendary voting rights activist.
Hudson set out to build an organization that could help aspiring teachers on multiple levels: In addition to tutoring for teacher candidates, she offers professional development opportunities for teachers and sponsors conferences on how to alleviate the teacher shortage.
During RISE’s first year of operation, Hudson had a staff of three, 12 volunteers, and a $25,000 budget: No one got paid.
The organization still has a small staff, but they now have an annual budget of about $125,000 from donations, conference registration fees, and a $90,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Family Foundation is one of many funders of Mississippi Today.) Hudson said the group has worked with about 80 teachers at Praxis and ACT training and workshops; it has also hosted 240 teachers and aspiring teachers at what RISE leaders hope will be an annual conference.
And so far, RISE leaders say they have helped 30 educators pass at least one of the Praxis exams.
Toni McWilliams became one of those educators last summer. When she began attending RISE’s programs, she needed help, in particular, with math word problems. Her instructor showed her how to identify key words to make the problems less confusing.
Within days of her last study session in June, McWilliams took the Praxis at the University of Mississippi, on a Friday. The ninth time was the charm: She passed. Finally. “When I passed that Praxis, I went in there and got on my knees,” she said. “Beforehand, my mind was everywhere … worrying about how I’m going to take care of my babies.”
Hudson always pushes candidates to keep going after they pass the first hurdle, the Praxis I. So McWilliams was back in class last September, listening as Hudson explained to a room of four candidates, three women and one man, that there’s a severe shortage of special education teachers in the Delta, meaning there will always be jobs available.
McWilliams’ 6-year-old daughter ran around the room playing while her mom flipped through sheets detailing what she could expect on the Praxis II special education test. (One of the convenient aspects of RISE is that the mostly female participants can bring children or grandchildren to the sessions when they lack child care.)
The class then took an eight-question practice test. Afterward, Hudson reviewed content that the test takers would need to know for the special education Praxis, including questions on potential classroom scenarios and federal privacy laws. “Everything about SPED is private,” Hudson told the group.
Although RISE leaders helped 30 candidates become teachers, the Delta region still needs at least 402 teachers to solve the shortage crisis here.
William Carey University in Hattiesburg joined RISE’s efforts to help teachers become certified in October 2017. Ben Burnett, former superintendent of Meridian Public School District and dean of the William Carey University School of Education, spearheaded a program that sends professors to school district campuses to teach classes after the regular school day ends. Local residents interested in becoming teachers can take advantage of the free courses and avoid taking out a loan, or having to locate a college that offers the necessary alternative route program. In return, they promise to teach in the school district for three years after they get certified.
The response to the program was huge. As soon as the university began recruiting candidates, mostly people already working in schools as teaching assistants or substitutes, there were immediately “about 60 or 65 who were interested,” Burnett said.
William Carey provides the instructors for the program, and a grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation helps fund tuition for the prospective teachers.
So far, about 55 people have graduated from the university’s new alternate training programs, according to Burnett.
One of the William Carey program’s first collaborations, which primarily helped candidates who currently worked at a school, was with the Meridian Public School District, Burnett’s home district. The benefit of working with people who are already school employees is that “they’ve already got a hook to want to be in Meridian schools,” he said. All they need is help navigating the certification process, which Burnett said is a “pretty hard process” to get through.
Rubria Moss, who has been working as a long-term substitute teacher in Meridian, enrolled in the William Carey program last March. As an undergraduate, she majored in social work, but wants to move into teaching special education full time.
“I was excited because already having an undergraduate degree, I didn’t want to have to take out any more loans and thought maybe this could help me get my foot in the door,” she said.
William Carey has brought similar programs to Pearl River Community College, the Ocean Springs School District and four Delta school districts. Burnett said he wants to see the programs continue to grow, and for other universities to adopt the model.
“We hope to replicate our own program across the state, any place that we can,” he said.
The state acts
Educators have been frustrated that the state did little to address the mounting teacher shortage crisis for years, but, recently, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) rolled out several policies that could make a difference. In November 2017, the department created a provisional, one-year license for teachers who haven’t yet passed the Praxis. To renew the license for a second year, teachers who don’t already have a degree in education must pass the Praxis and enroll in an alternate training program.
Hudson, of RISE, called that change a “Band-Aid fix,” noting that the state has tried temporary licenses in the past without much success. “It is the same thing that we’ve done over and over and over again for the last 20 years,” she said.
But Cory Murphy, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Leading at MDE, said the provisional license is meant to be more of a recruiting tool than a permanent fix.
“It is a way to get individuals who have the potential to become fully certified in the pipeline,” he said, adding that during the grace year the new educators’ salaries are much larger than they would have been if they had continued working as assistants or substitutes.
In May 2018, the state board of education approved a measure to lower the cutoff Praxis math score needed for certification. In July it also hired former school administrator Cortez Moss to focus solely on teacher recruitment and retention. He’s forging partnerships with colleges, exploring new pathways for high schoolers and college students to become teachers, and in August announced that MDE would partner with the Mississippi Association of Educators to offer free Praxis training. Moss said that 1,067 candidates have signed up. In January, the MDE announced that it would hold four more Praxis training sessions across the state during the spring semester.
In September, Moss announced that his office was working on two pilot programs that could potentially open up two different routes for teacher certification. A $4.1 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation will allow MDE to implement these pilot programs in four districts. (The Kellogg Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
The state says it’s committed to increasing teacher recruitment and retention, even if it takes years of effort. “It’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight,” said Murphy.
Hudson said she hopes the new state efforts also include educating high school students about the viability and value of teaching as a long-term career. “We’re not fostering that and nurturing that at a young age,” she said.
She and others said that, even as the state expands its efforts, there will always be a place for localized and personalized aspects of programs like those offered by RISE and William Carey. When it comes to the Praxis, “you’ve got to have somebody go alongside you and tell you what your scores have to be, what you need to take,” said Burnett of William Carey.
Indeed, McWilliams and others say the personalized nature of RISE and other programs is part of what makes them so helpful.
That personal attention helped McWilliams pass not only the Praxis math test, but also the special education Praxis II exam. She got the good news on December 5.
“God used RISE to [help] people like me,” said McWilliams. She is grateful to Hudson, but realizes her journey isn’t over. In the future, McWilliams plans to volunteer with RISE. And now that she finally has a classroom of her own — teaching business to high schoolers — she also wants to inspire students, who are so often taught by unqualified, transient teachers, with her story.
This story about the teacher shortage in Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with Mississippi Today. Sign up here for the Hechinger newsletter and here for the Mississippi Today newsletter.