ROSEDALE, Miss. — On most afternoons, Jeremiah Smith, founder of an afterschool 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.
“There’s just this moment where you’ve asked enough questions that the student has no idea how to answer and gotten enough blank stares that there’s just defeat. Defeat hangs in the room,” said Smith.
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. Last year, the number grew to 106 schools. This fall, 91 schools across the state have 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.
Armon McKenzie is a senior at West Bolivar High School. When he wasn’t at football practice, he spent most evenings last year at the Rosedale Freedom Project, taking advantage of the program’s free, in-person tutoring. Two of his core courses — English and history — were delivered online.
“I really do want teachers because I’m trying to get to a better college and I’m trying to maintain a 3.5, and I can’t do it with a computer [teaching me],” McKenzie said.
He said the lack of an in-person expert teacher, who can answer questions, lead discussions, and spend extra time with students who are struggling, has taken a toll on his education. “It’s hard because ain’t nobody really teaching,” he said. “We’re just going over some of the facts that we should know and it’s kind of difficult. If I’ve got question to ask, how you do that? I can’t ask the computer and the teacher that up in there, she don’t know it.”
McKenzie worries the online program has set him back. “It makes me feel sad because my GPA is low. If I try to make up a goal to go to a college it probably won’t accept me for what I got,” he said.
In classes that rely on Edgenuity, a “facilitator,” who may or may not have knowledge of the content being taught through the program, oversees classes. Culley said the district tried to identify facilitators with at least 18 hours of undergraduate credit in whatever subject was being taught, but she acknowledged that there were problems with facilitators who didn’t know enough about the content.
Culley said it hurt her to hear how much students struggled with the program. But ultimately, she said, Edgenuity was a better option than a long-term sub who might not know anything about the content the students needed to learn.
Online learning can be a useful tool for districts facing stubborn teacher shortages, because it can help fill teacher vacancies with instruction from high-quality professionals, according to recent research from the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that supports the increased use of technology in education. But for the best results, the program must be used in combination with direction from a teacher knowledgeable in the content areas, said Tom Arnett, a K-12 education researcher for the group.
“The upside of using a company like Edgenuity is that it takes teachers time to build those resources. In some ways, it’s nice to just have something that you can pull off the shelf and use when it comes to curriculum, lesson plans, and resources,” said Arnett. But, he added, if “teachers are not familiar with the activities that students are completing, that diminishes their ability to support students.”
At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Mississippi needed to hire 701 certified teachers to fill all of the state’s open positions and slots currently occupied by fill-ins, including long-term substitutes. Using a program like Edgenuity can help districts avoid being put on probation or risk a state takeover when teacher numbers sink.
Over a year ago, at an October 2017 meeting, the West Bolivar board approved spending $102,500 on 360 Chromebooks to be distributed districtwide. The Edgenuity program cost $53,000.
Students access their courses in Edgenuity through an online portal, which includes lessons (like proportional relationships for seventh grade math) and sub-lessons (such as unit rates and cross products) made up of five elements: warm-up, instruction, summary, assignment and quiz. The instruction segment consists of a series of short videos of a teacher talking and working out problems on the screen, followed by practice problems. At the end of all of the sub-lessons there’s a unit test.
Lucas Rapisarda, director of operations for the Rosedale Freedom Project, said the program doesn’t always give clear guidance on how to complete assignments. Rapisarda, who holds two bachelor’s degrees and is also pursuing his master’s degree, recalled one evening last year when he and the student he was helping were stumped by a lesson on how to write a geometrical proof.
“We don’t know how we’re supposed to submit an answer because there’s really not been directions,” Rapisarda recalls. So the student went online, found the answer on a website that offered solutions to Edgenuity questions, and pasted it in.
“He told me that his grade in Edgenuity was perfect because he was cheating the whole time,” Rapisarda said. “I don’t blame him for not caring. Online learning platforms like that where you don’t have a teacher just scream, ‘Nobody cares about you.’”
In an emailed response to questions about the program from Mississippi Today and The Hechinger Report, an Edgenuity spokesperson said the company tries to cut down on confusion by working directly with school and district leaders when they first implement the program, and then stays in regular conversation with those leaders.
“We offer schools and districts comprehensive, in-person and online Professional Development training for their teachers, counselors, program leaders and administrators. These include workshops and support sessions on product training, best practices and policies,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, we provide a comprehensive student orientation video to ensure students can navigate the program with success.”
Preventing cheating is the district’s responsibility, according to the company’s response, but the program does have settings that allow teachers to proctor assessments. The company offers a “Secured Experience,” for example, in which districts “can control how much access to the Internet students have while they’re taking their Edgenuity coursework.” The Secured Experience program is running in 30 districts, according to the spokesperson.
According to its spokesperson, Edgenuity is designed to keep students from falling through the cracks. “[T]eachers have data dashboards that let them know which students are struggling with every topic in the program and which students are ready to delve deeper into the content and take on more advanced problems.”
The state has approved eight different vendors (including Edgenuity) to provide online classes. Before an online course can be approved by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), local school districts must submit an application proving that the vendor’s “content, curriculum, and assessments are aligned to Mississippi’s course standards,” the state’s guidelines explain. It’s up to local districts to determine how the courses will be funded. In West Bolivar, the program was paid for by a combination of district and Title I funds and a school improvement grant administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Students and parents have complained that children who primarily receive instruction through Edgenuity — even kids who were high achievers — have seen their grades decline.
“I don’t think it’s about their ability, I think it’s just because they didn’t understand how to run Edgenuity and they couldn’t do it at home because they don’t have computers,” Rapisarda said. He said many students came to the Freedom Project every day for tutoring when their grades started to drop. “That’s the only reason their grades came back from where they were at the beginning of the year, but a lot of kids’ grades tanked.”
The Edgenuity spokesperson said that grades are ultimately given and determined by the district, not Edgenuity.
Use of the online program also makes it difficult for students to do homework. Many students don’t have access to a computer at home: To finish homework they either stay at school after hours or go to the Rosedale Freedom Project. Those 360 Chromebooks West Bolivar purchased have to stay in the schools because there aren’t enough in the district for each child to have one. Even access at school isn’t always reliable. There have been days when the district was without internet after a storm came through, and students couldn’t access the online lessons at all.
Culley, the district’s superintendent, said students are given extra time to catch up on work and can stay after school; teachers from other schools within the district also come in to help students work through the program, she said.
The problems run deeper than shortcomings with the computer program, said Smith, of the Rosedale Freedom Project. When students don’t have qualified teachers investing in them, the way they evaluate their dignity and ability to learn is affected, he said.
“It’s a broader trend for how we treat kids in the Delta and kids in Title I schools and black kids and kids who grew up in poverty,” he said. “It’s just this general sense that the best that you could do is to check boxes.”
MDE officials have introduced numerous initiatives to address the teacher shortage since reporting for this story began in January 2018.
“We’re truly serious about really tackling it and making certain that we find solutions that are all geared toward the bottom line. That’s what’s best for children. That’s why we’re moving with a sense of urgency but really being careful so that we don’t do anything to adversely affect our children,” said Cory Murphy, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Leading at MDE.
Margaret Walker, a former PTO president in the Coahoma County School District, where the number of non-certified teachers increased from five to 19 between 2014 and 2017, said parents have come to her complaining their children are discouraged about learning.
“I got one lady, she was telling me … how depressed [her child] was because she’s not learning anything,” Walker said of a student who was enrolled in an online course. “She’s not challenged.”
The Clarksdale Municipal School District also turned to online programs to make up for its teacher shortage. Clarksdale had 38 non-certified teachers last year, more than four times as many as in 2014-15. The school district contracts with Edmentum, which is similar to Edgenuity. The district renewed its 12-month license term with Edmentum in September, using $18,090 in Title I funds. Clarksdale High School, which has been using the program for nine years, is the only school in the district that uses Edmentum, said Manika Kemp, federal programs director for the Clarksdale district.
Angelina Carr graduated from Clarksdale in the spring. She said she had to rely on herself to learn the concepts she needed to pass classes that lacked consistent instruction, as multiple teachers cycled through, and the one course she took via Edmentum. “The only thing we got is a computer to tell us what we got to do,” she said.
Clarence Hayes, Clarksdale High principal, said the district is doing its best but he “can understand [Carr’s] pain because ‘I got used to this teacher and can’t connect with this teacher.’”
That connection was important to Carr, because she dealt with bullying from her peers and a stressful home life. She often felt she had nowhere to turn. “You go to school and see these people that’s supposed to give you this emotional support, this educational support and they don’t,” she said. “They don’t give you either and now you’re like, ‘Why leave my house? I don’t have any purpose.’”
“Teacher shortages and equitable access to quality instruction are real problems that students, teachers, and administrators experience, and Edmentum partners closely with passionate educators all over Mississippi to find innovative solutions for their unique challenges,” said Edmentum CEO Jamie Candee in an emailed statement. “Educators in Mississippi are doing everything they can to support the success of students, despite limitations that they face, and we are proud to work with such hard working, student focused teachers and administrators every day at schools like Clarksdale High School.”
In the statement, Candee said the PLATO Courseware program used in Clarksdale “supports teachers by helping them individualize learning for every single student – never standing in for, or replacing them.” She added, “In unfortunate situations where schools are faced with teacher shortages, one of our top priorities is to make our AdvancED accredited, EdOptions Academy program available. Although, our academy’s high quality, state certified teachers trained in best practices for online learning are laser focused on supporting students every step of the way, our ultimate goal is to provide a bridge where no student goes without high quality instruction while we work with the district to build a sustainable model with their own highly qualified teachers.”*
Arnett, the Christensen Institute researcher, said there’s an important element of teaching that is relational — providing meaningful relationship-building between students and teachers — that cannot be replaced with an online course.
“I’ve seen examples where online learning gets used to help the teachers have a more positive impact as they work with students on some of those issues related to trauma, social and emotional challenges,” Arnett said. Ideally, he said, an online platform can help deliver content, allowing teachers to “focus on really meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, really working with the challenges they’re facing individually.”
But that sort of balancing act often requires a high-quality, stable teaching force, something that’s largely absent in the Mississippi districts using online programs. Research shows that teacher quality is the main in-school factor that impacts student achievement. And teacher turnover can be detrimental to student achievement, especially when effective teachers are replaced by those who are less experienced or effective, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research. Other predictors of student achievement include the quality of the relationship between teachers and between teachers and students, the study said.
One basic marker of quality is certification, meaning teachers have been trained in the subjects or grade level they’re teaching. Generally, schools with a higher population of at-risk students — those who are low-income, English language learners, or students of color — tend to have more teachers who lack full state certification. In Mississippi, 3 percent of all teachers are not properly certified. While that percentage is similar to rates in other states, the number hides the gravity of the teacher shortage in historically underserved areas.
The 10 Mississippi school districts with the most severe teacher shortages are concentrated in the Delta. In these districts, between 19 to 34 percent of the teaching staff isn’t certified. Every single one of the schools in these districts receives federal Title I funds, provided to schools with high percentages of kids coming from low-income homes.
In September 2017, Kacie Neville, a former West Bolivar district teacher, spoke to the school board at a meeting, asking them what solutions were being offered to address the shortage locally.
Culley, who had taken over as superintendent a few months prior, responded by saying the district tried to recruit teachers, offered $5,000 signing bonuses for new teachers. She said not enough teachers are coming out of undergraduate teacher preparation programs and not enough are passing their licensure exams.
Neville said she didn’t blame the district. “What I’m saying is that we all know that’s the situation. What more can we be doing or what are some new, innovative ways to get teachers beyond what we have been doing?” she said.
Online courses may be part of the solution, but Arnett said it’s not “a silver bullet or a panacea.”
“There’s a lot to still be figured out,” said Arnett. “Let people know, here’s the potential opportunities, but here’s where it can go wrong. Don’t get overhyped about it. Take a thoughtful measured approached to it.”
This year, Culley said West Bolivar has significantly decreased its use of Edgenuity by consolidating some classes and increasing class sizes to about 20, allowing more students to be taught by teachers.
Rapisarda was glad more students will have teachers, but worried about those who’ve already received much of their education via computer. “You still just think about all the time lost,” he said.
*Update: This story has been updated with a response from the Edmentum CEO.
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 for the Hechinger newsletter and here for the Mississippi Today newsletter.