Walton-funded report finds disparities in teacher certification

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,329 views 

Districts in certain parts of Arkansas have significantly higher percentages of uncertified teachers and offer significantly lower pay than others, a new report funded by the Walton Family Foundation found.

The findings were reported in “Missing Out: Arkansas’ Teacher Shortage and How to Fix it,” by the national nonprofit TNTP that works to address inequality.

A certified teacher possesses a current standard or provisional license from the state Department of Education.

The report found that 4% of teachers across the state are uncertified, which was more than double the national average of 1.7%. In 30 districts, at least 10% are uncertified, while seven districts have more than 30% uncertified teachers. In Forrest City, 52% are uncertified, and in Helena-West Helena, 56% are. Southern and eastern Arkansas, particularly the Mississippi Delta region, have higher percentages.

The report also found that black students are more than five times more likely than white students to be educated in a high-shortage district, defined as one where 10% are uncertified. Forty percent of Arkansas students identify as people of color, but only 12% of teachers do. In high-shortage districts, 69% of students and 26% of teachers do.

There are benefits for African American students when they attend classes led by African American teachers. One study mentioned in the report found that African American students with an African American teacher in kindergarten through the third grade were five percentage points more likely to graduate from high school.

The report notes that no more than 33 percent of Arkansas’ test-takers scored proficient or higher on any of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, in 2019.

The report points to three causes for the certified teacher shortages. One is the lack of area adults having the bachelor’s degrees that can lead to certification. Another is the inadequacy of incentive programs, with which many prospective teachers are unfamiliar.

The third is teacher compensation. Starting salaries range from the state minimum of $33,800 to the state’s highest, $48,282, at the Springdale School District. The top salary in a district paying the state minimum is $45,950, compared to $76,782 in Springdale. A beginning teacher living in the Earle School District, which pays the state minimum and where 43% are uncertified, would earn $42,300, or $8,500 more, by driving 30 minutes to West Memphis, where 8% are uncertified. The report references the Southern Regional Education Board saying Arkansas has the fourth lowest average teacher salary in the 16-state region.

The report recommends three solutions.

One is developing a supportive pathway to licensure for paraprofessionals, long-term substitute teachers, and classroom aides. The state currently lacks that pathway, which would include academic coaching and mental health services and would lead to a bachelor’s degree. The supportive pathway would attract more participants of color than traditional pathways, the report says. Teachers who serve full-time in their district for at least five years would be eligible for loan forgiveness.

The report also recommends increasing teacher salaries across the state and reducing salary inequities, particularly in high teacher shortage districts that have big gaps with nearby districts. It recommends creating a categorical fund in the K-12 education budget to help districts reach the state’s target average salary of $51,822. It also recommends fully funding bonuses for teachers in high-priority districts with 1,000 or fewer students, tripling to $9,000 the maximum federal student loans that could be forgiven for teachers working in critical shortage areas such as the STEP program, and tripling to $4,500 the maximum scholarship available through the Arkansas Geographical Critical Needs Minority Teacher Scholarship Program.

The report also suggests designing a website describing the state’s pathways to teaching and financial incentives.

The report was complied by an eight-member team over four months in an effort to complete it before this year’s legislative session, said Elizabeth Kelly, the analytics director who led the effort. The Walton Family Foundation approached TNTP, which formerly was known as The New Teacher Project. The two entities have worked together in the past.