Mississippi lawmakers are getting closer to approving a pay raise for teachers, and many say it is the only way to alleviate the growing concern over a statewide teacher shortage.
But one very real obstacle the state is facing is knowing how bad the crisis is.
The Mississippi Department of Education does not track teacher vacancies, meaning state officials do not know how many unfilled teacher positions there are for individual districts or for the entire state.
In 2019 the MDE stated that they do occasionally send out surveys to individual public school districts in Mississippi, but completion of the surveys is not mandatory.
The only way to really get that information is to go to every single district and ask them or look on their website,” a state department spokesman said, indicating that interested parties would have to individually reach out to 146 school districts to get a comprehensive understanding of the state’s teacher shortage.
The department again confirmed in February 2021 that it doesn’t track the state’s teacher vacancies.
MDE released a statement saying they do not have vacancy survey data for 2020, because they do not want to burden districts with a survey request while they faced the challenges of the pandemic.
Education experts for years have reiterated that having a firmer grasp on these metrics is necessary to eradicate any teacher shortage. Still, department officials and lawmakers have not made any substantive efforts to better define the problem.
“The purpose of collecting and reporting this data is not to worry about the problem, but to be in a position where those in the field and educational leaders themselves can make smart, data-based decisions about how to ensure that … shortage areas do not persist over time,” said Elizabeth Ross, teacher policy managing director at the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Local education advocates agree. Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said that without knowing the full extent of the problem, they can’t really know what they’re fighting.
“We can say to legislators or we can say to the public, ‘We have a teacher shortage crisis.’ But unless we have numbers and data to support and back that up, we’re just saying things. We need the data there to show people how bad it is in our state,” Jones said.
Many teacher advocates say that without clear data, lawmakers have an excuse to ignore the problem. Teacher pay, for example, has long remained a stated priority for top candidates during election season, but they have passed few substantive pay raises in the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, Mississippi teacher salaries remain among the lowest in the nation, a major contributing factor to the state’s teacher shortage.
Not knowing the full scope of the problem also allows lawmakers to opine that the shortage is being blown out of proportion, advocates say.
While teacher vacancies remain unknown, the Mississippi Department of Education does track how many teachers are not properly certified across the state.
A school district is declared a geographical teacher shortage area if it has 60 or more teaching positions and 10% or more of them are not appropriately licensed. Not appropriately licensed includes teachers teaching out of field, teachers teaching with no certificate, and long-term substitutes.
A school district with less than 60 teaching positions becomes a geographic shortage area if 15% or more of their teaching staff isn’t appropriately licensed.
By this measure, 54 school districts and charter schools, or more than one third of all school districts in the state, are experiencing a teacher shortage.
According to 2019-2029 data compiled, Vicksburg Warren School District was not considered to have a shortage.
In 2017-18, 3% of all teachers were not certified, a percentage six times higher than it was when the teacher shortage issue prompted the Legislature to pass the Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998. The most recent data from MDE for the 2020-2021 school year shows 1.5% of teachers were not certified.
Having specific information about teacher vacancies would “allow us to be able to recruit more, as well as when we’re talking to legislators and have concrete information for them when we’re telling them that certain school districts are experiencing a teacher shortage,” Jones said. “It’s hard for us to do that now without reliable data.”