Universities warn teacher standards plan too tough

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, March 2, 2013

Some university leaders are warning that a plan to tighten academic requirements for becoming a teacher could create a shortage in Mississippi.

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, wants to raise the minimum requirements for students to enter teacher preparation at Mississippi’s eight public universities.

Under bills pending in the Legislature, students would have to score at least 21 on the ACT college test and earn at least a 3.0 GPA in recent college courses. Now, some universities have lower requirements for GPA and ACT scores, and students can take another standardized test, the Praxis, instead of the ACT.

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College Board figures show that 49 percent of students admitted in the 2011-2012 school year wouldn’t have qualified under the proposed standards, and universities are trying to seek changes.

Bryant told The Associated Press Wednesday that improving teacher quality is a key goal.

“The center of this, if we could look at one thing that will have a transformative effect, is getting a better teacher in the classroom,” he said.

Freshman education majors at Mississippi public universities averaged 20.8 on the ACT in 2011.

Current teacher education students would not be affected by the proposed new rules.

Bryant’s advisors point to an analysis by a Mississippi State University data center that shows students statewide in grades 3-8 have better state test scores when taught by teachers who scored higher on the ACT. While only 39 percent of students taught by teachers who scored from 12 to 15 scored at proficient levels in reading and writing, 60 percent of students taught by teachers who scored from 28 to 32 on the ACT were proficient.

“If you had above a 20, your kids are 40 percent more likely to score proficiently. It’s a pretty significant gain,” said Lori Smith, Bryant’s education advisor.

Daniel Watkins, dean of education at Jackson State University, is among those worried about Bryant’s minimum standards. He said the ACT is meant to predict how a student will fare in college, not how a student will fare as a teacher. Watkins also said that requiring a 21 could turn off many aspiring education majors, including those who now attend community college.

“All of the deans of education in Mississippi, none of us are opposed to rigor,” Watkins said. “We want the best candidates in the classroom and we feel we turn out high-quality candidates.”

Now, JSU requires a 2.75 GPA and passage of the first-stage Praxis teacher certification test. Students who score above 21 on the ACT are exempted from the test. Watkins said a majority of students who were in teacher preparation at Jackson State last year wouldn’t have qualified under Bryant’s standards.

Andy Mullins, the founder of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, an alternative teacher certification program at the University of Mississippi, said a decrease in hundreds of students a year entering teacher education programs could cause trouble.

“What you might have is an unintended teacher shortage in two or three years,” he said. Mullins added that more students could choose to seek alternative certification, where there would be no such requirement.

The state Department of Education said there are enough teachers to go around statewide today, but says there are already shortages in certain parts of the state and in certain subject areas.

A group of education deans met Friday at the College Board to explore alternate ideas, Watkins said. One solution would be to delay implementation.

“Phase it in,” Mullins said. “Maybe go up to 19 ACT, 20 after a couple of years. Give them a warning.”

Smith acknowledged that the new standards could be an “impediment” to teacher education programs and said Bryant doesn’t oppose a short delay. But she predicted that motivated teacher candidates would repeat the ACT to try to raise their score.

“Realistically, a phase-in makes sense, but I don’t think a phase-in over five to 10 years makes sense,” Smith said.