Promising Mississippi Pilot Program Offers a New Pathway to the Classroom

Oliver: Qualified paraprofessionals & other staffers get to demonstrate what they can do rather than take a test. And it's working.

(Annenberg Institute)

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

The U.S. has long had too many barriers that keep talented prospective teachers out of the classroom, including the cost of a degree, low pay and limited growth opportunities. But perhaps one of the biggest — yet solvable — impediments is the reliance on exams to determine candidates’ readiness for teacher licensure. Thousands of promising educators, who are otherwise qualified to teach, are kept out of classrooms solely because of test results and the lack of alternative ways for them to demonstrate their readiness for the profession. 

As the nation faces a teacher shortage that has reached an all-time high — with at least 36,000 vacant teaching positions — why not tap into a talented pool of educators who could help close that gap? The Mississippi Department of Education created a Performance-Based Licensure pilot to do just that, and the results are encouraging. Students assigned to teaching candidates participating in the pilot performed just as well on average as peers taught by traditionally certified teachers on state standardized tests, and even outperformed them in math.  

A few years ago, the department asked district leaders and principals how it could help them address teacher vacancies. School leaders lamented that they had outstanding paraprofessionals and other staffers who wanted to be teachers, wanted to continue to live and work in their communities and had fulfilled every prerequisite to becoming a teacher except the licensure test. If only there were a way for these educator candidates to demonstrate their subject matter knowledge and pedagogy in a performance-based manner. If only there were an alternative pathway to get them into teaching positions. 

The department responded by launching the three-year pilot in fall 2019. It was designed for school employees who had a bachelor’s degree and classroom experience as a long-term substitute, paraprofessional or emergency-licensed teacher. Nominated by their principals, 126 staff members from eight school districts participated, serving as teachers on a special, non-renewable license established specifically for the pilot. The program utilized performance-based measures to determine candidates’ readiness for licensure, including their students’ achievement and growth on standardized tests such as the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program.

The department partnered with Mary Laski, a researcher at Harvard University, to conduct an external evaluation of the pilot. Laski examined how the candidates’ students performed on state standardized tests compared with students of traditionally certified teachers selected at the outset of the pilot; students of teachers in other classrooms in the same school, grade and subject; and students of teachers holding emergency licenses. The study was designed so observed differences in test scores between pilot candidates and teachers in the first and second groups could be attributed to the pilot candidates themselves, not simply to differences in student assignment. The third group was included because, if not for the pilot program, most of these vacancies would be filled with emergency-certified teachers. 

When looking at average scores across all standardized test subjects, students assigned to pilot group candidates performed just as well on state standardized tests as those taught by educators in each comparison group. And, in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, students assigned to pilot candidates scored roughly 0.2 standard deviations higher on the state’s standardized math tests than peers in the same grade and subject in their school. This translates to roughly six months of learning — a significant and impressive increase. Additionally, and importantly, the research found that the pilot candidates were more likely to continue teaching in their district in subsequent years than teachers in comparison groups.

In November 2023, buoyed by these results and positive stakeholder feedback, the Mississippi State Board of Education approved the department’s recommendation to officially create a Performance-Based Teacher License. This new pathway will initially be available to candidates teaching a state-tested subject in grades 5 through 8 so the department can continue to examine student academic growth data.

As policymakers and state, district and school leaders explore ways to address teacher shortages, they should take note of Mississippi’s willingness to try something new and its methodical, phased approach. After all, the current reliance on licensure testing alone isn’t cutting it. Students — and schools — would be better served by licensure pathways based on an individual’s demonstrated ability to help students learn. The country has an enormous opportunity to tap a talented pipeline of educators who are being kept out of the classroom. What are we waiting for? 

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today