By Steve Gunn
JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is determined to produce higher quality K-12 teachers in his state.
That’s why he proposed tougher acceptance standards for college students who want to become teachers in the state’s eight public universities.
And that’s why he was so angry when the state College Board refused to accept his proposed standards a few months ago.
In an unusual appearance at a monthly College Board meeting, Bryant apparently read members the riot act over their lack of cooperation.
“I’m very unhappy with it, I sure am,” Bryant said after the meeting.
In the end the governor settled for a compromise, which was included in a sweeping education reform package he signed in April. The new standards will require college students to have at least a 2.75 grade point average and a minimum score of 21 on the ACT test or a passing grade on the Praxis Core Academic Skills test.
The education reform package also includes money for 200 scholarships for outstanding students who plan to become K-12 teachers and pledge to teach in Mississippi for at least five years.
Other major parts of the package include a large expansion in the number of charter schools allowed in the state, a third-grade reading standard designed to end social promotions, and a pilot merit pay program that will eventually help state schools identify and compensate the most effective educators.
“The changes enacted by this legislation will help the state create and retain the best teachers, create public charter schools of excellence that will help give students in failing schools access to higher quality education, and create reading practices that will stop the exercise of social promotion,” Bryant said at the signing ceremony.
Bad ACT scores a cause for concern
Why such a push for higher teacher standards in Mississippi?
“With 46 percent of Mississippi third-graders not proficient in reading, it makes sense to look at all areas of education to seek areas for improvement,” a statement from Bryant’s office said. “Research shows that teacher quality directly impacts student performance. In Mississippi, these teacher candidate and licensing standards had not been adjusted or updated in many years.”
Bryant’s office referred to a study by Lifetracks, a state system that that tracks education performance, regarding the connection between teacher quality and student performance.
The study found that students with teachers who had entry-level scores of 21 or higher on the ACT are 41 percent more likely to be proficient in writing and reading than students whose teachers had scores of 20 or less.
It also found that students whose teachers had an ACT score of 21 or higher are 29 percent more likely to be proficient in math.
“The evidence was clear – higher teacher education standards created better teaching candidates, which directly impacts student learning in Mississippi,” the statement said. “Teacher quality is the best predictor of student success. For these reasons, Gov. Bryant continues to pursue higher standards for teachers along with higher salaries.”
In the beginning Bryant proposed a simple standard for those hoping to become teachers – a minimum score of 21 on the ACT test and a 3.0 GPA on pre-major coursework. Those standards are still shy of the recommendations of the National Council for Teacher Quality, which calls for a minimum ACT score of 24 and a 3.0 GPA.
Members of the state college board were reportedly sympathetic to Bryant’s proposal, yet did not approve it because, they said, more than half of the students accepted into teaching programs in 2011-12 wouldn’t have qualified under the governor’s standards.
The fact is that Mississippi college students don’t rate very well when it comes to ACT scores. The average score for students majoring in education was only 20.8 in 2011. The average score for all students entering the University of Mississippi in the fall of 2012 was 23.9.
The average ACT score for all students across the nation was 21.1 in the fall of 2012. The average score for all Mississippi students was 18.7, the worst in the nation.
So Mississippi college students lag behind their peers across the nation, and the brightest among them don’t appear interested in becoming teachers. That doesn’t bode well for the state’s K-12 schools.
Bryant was aware of that when he proposed his new standards, and was deeply disappointed by the college board’s initial lack of cooperation. And based on media reports, he didn’t hide his disappointment.
“That was quite a tantrum Gov. Phil Bryant pitched at the College Board recently, criticizing its members for voicing concerns about his effort to increase standards for education majors,” one newspaper editorial said.
“The Associated Press reported that Bryant … accused members of wanting to keep teacher standards low. As if the people in charge of setting broad policies for the state’s eight public universities want lesser-qualified students in their education programs.
“Bryant’s idea was sound. Mississippi needs smarter and better teachers. But so was the response from universities: that up to half of current education majors would not qualify for the program under those guidelines.
“Bryant ultimately agreed to a compromise that seems reasonable – but not before grumbling about it.”
Using scholarships to attract top students
In the end Bryant accepted a compromise that was not far off from his original plan: students need a minimum 2.75 GPA and a minimum ACT score of 21, or a passing grade on the Praxis Core Academic Skills test.
His education reform package also included a measure to convince more top college students to go into K-12 education. The state will be offering 200 scholarships per year for students who have a least a 3.5 GPA and at least a 28 ACT score, as long as they agree to teach in Mississippi schools for at least five years.
Those who agree to teach in critical needs areas, like science and math, can also qualify for a $6,000 stipend, according the governor’s website.
“I am very excited about this bill and the opportunity I may have ahead,” said Kaylee Craft, a college student with a 28 ACT score and a 3.98 GPA. “Now I get to apply for a scholarship to become a teacher … and meet the governor! I really can’t believe it at all.”
Other major components of the reform package include a requirement for school districts with less than an 80 percent graduation rate to submit a restructuring plan to the state. Another creates a pilot merit pay program to help develop better compensation systems in public schools.
There is also a “Third Grade Gate” reading requirement which prohibits the social promotion of third- graders who are not reading at grade level. Resources will be made available to provide extensive assistance for kids who are in danger of missing the mark.
“State tests show that nearly half of all third-graders are not proficient in reading,” Bryant said. “We also know that a lack of reading ability increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out and increases the likelihood he or she will need public assistance.”
Another major part of the reform program is House Bill 369, which would allow for the establishment of up to 15 charter schools per year in low-performing public school districts without local school board approval. Currently all charters need local school board approval before they can open their doors.
Any child from any school district will be allowed to attend charter schools, but public schools with higher academic track records will still be able to keep the schools from building in their districts.
“I believe public charter schools will help Mississippi’s educational challenges, and I have simple belief that competition is an innovative way of introducing new ideas to the classroom,” Bryant said.