Emergency Certification in Oklahoma

December 22, 2016

Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education has issued 1,082 emergency teaching certificates so far this fiscal year. Some use this data as a way to bang the drum on an alleged teacher shortage. However, a study published in October by the 1889 Institute found that the evidence of a shortage is scant.

The authors look at multiple data points to come up with their finding, including emergency certifications. The following is an excerpt from 1889's study on teacher supply. In it, the authors discuss how the amount of emergency certifications issued does not indicate that Oklahoma has a significant teacher shortage.

Emergency Certifications
Many point out that 906 teachers (2.1 percent of total public school teachers) do not have regular certification, but rather have “emergency certification.” They argue the fact 2 percent have emergency certification is evidence of a major teacher shortage. This assumes emergency certified individuals are not qualified to be in the classroom, and that administrators hire them out of desperation. However, no evidence is presented to back up this assumption.

To be unqualified, the holder of an emergency certificate should lack adequate content knowledge and/or teaching experience. It is true some lack teaching experience, but none should lack content knowledge. The teacher certification law clearly states “the Board shall issue a certificate to teach to a person who has successfully completed a competency exam used in a majority of other states.”7 The Department of Education states that emergency certification requires “[v]erification that the applicant has either passed the requested subject area test or is registered for the next available test date.”8 A request for emergency certification must come directly from the school district wanting to hire the uncertified applicant. An administrator must believe an individual would perform well in order to begin the process of requesting a certification on their behalf. Further, the district Superintendent writes a letter of support explaining why the Board should approve the certification. Many emergency certified individuals, no doubt, go on to become fully certified in the traditional sense. Thus, emergency certification recipients are a legitimate part of the teacher supply pipeline. The existence of teachers with emergency certification is not evidence of a teacher shortage. Emergency certification is merely a much-needed alternative pathway for individuals to gain a traditional teaching credential.

The authors’ examination of two calendar years of emergency certifications that came before the Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE) for approval confirms that emergency certification process serves as a pipeline for subject-qualified individuals to teach. All monthly approvals from January 2015 through September 2016 were included for analysis. During this two-year period, over 2,100 individuals were alternatively certified – roughly 1,000 certification exceptions, or less than 2.5 percent of all Oklahoma teachers, for each year. Some of the 2016 emergency certification monthly reports included data on the number of certifications that were renewals from the previous year. For example, in July of 2016, 304 emergency certifications were granted, but 122 were renewals.9 All these renewals indicate the school district found the emergency certified teacher satisfactory, and many emergency certified teachers are interested in long-term employment.
Over 36 percent of all certification exception requests came from only three school districts: Oklahoma City, Putnam City, and Tulsa. While these are large districts with 19 percent of Oklahoma’s students, they use emergency certification at almost twice the state average. This is consistent with anecdotal evidence that these three districts are avoided by experienced teachers and also points out that circumstances other than pay strongly impact a district’s ability to recruit and retain teachers.

Figure 1 shows the distribution of emergency certificate holders by subject taught. It reveals that the bulk of emergency certification requests come, not from Science, Math and Special Education where shortages are constantly forecast and complained of, but from Early Childhood and Elementary Education. Forty-one percent of all emergency certification requests are for these two subject areas. All the sciences combined constitute only 9.2 percent of emergency certifications for 2015 and 2016. To some extent the use of emergency certification is caused by Oklahoma requiring separate certifications for Early Childhood and Elementary Education. So, a teacher switching in the summer from teaching 3rd grade to kindergarten may need to be emergency certified.


Given the anecdotal evidence of a serious shortage of Special Education teachers, it is surprising to see zero requests for emergency certification in Special Education. Perhaps this is due to Special Education being reported as a sub-category of subject areas, or perhaps because the state does not have a good emergency certification program for Special Education.
Figure 2 shows the educational background of the emergency-certified teacher. While a news report was accurate in stating that some English teachers have degrees in Anthropology, this is not common.10 The bulk of the recipients teach in an area related to their educational backgrounds.


We analyzed educational background using both strict and relaxed criteria for matching teaching and degree subject areas. For example, in determining the percentage of English certification exception recipients with solid English backgrounds, the strict test counted only those with degrees in either English Education or English Literature. Under the strict criterion, only Chemistry majors were considered to have adequate chemistry backgrounds to teach Chemistry. Overall, forty-three percent of emergency certified teachers met this extremely strict requirement.

The relaxed test acknowledged those meeting the strict standards as well as those with degrees in a relevant area, such as Journalism for English, and Biology for Chemistry. In Advanced Math, English, Chemistry, and Science, 70 percent are subject-qualified under the relaxed criteria. In fact, many emergency certifications were granted to individuals with master’s degrees, several with doctoral degrees, and two with MDs.

Of the emergency certifications that did not meet the relaxed education criteria, several were for people with degrees in sports, kinesiology, or physical education. Here, perhaps the school is more concerned with filling coaching positions rather than a pure teaching position

The bulk of certification exceptions (emergency certifications) go to individuals who have educational backgrounds highly relevant to their area of certification, with many meeting the strictest requirements. Highly technical and traditional upper-division academic subjects constitute a small percentage of emergency certifications, and most of these clearly have relevant subject matter expertise. There are no grounds for suggesting that a large proportion of emergency-certified individuals are not knowledgeable enough to teach the subject matter they were hired to teach.

As to teaching experience, few new entrants to the teaching profession have significant teaching experience. At most they have been student teachers. However, often applicants for emergency certification have teaching experience. As noted earlier, many have actually held the same teaching position in the prior year. Some of the newcomers have taught in other states and are working through a certification process that is different from other states. Others are already certified in Oklahoma, but in a different subject, e.g. a certified elementary education teacher is emergency certified as an early childhood teacher, or vice versa.

As to those who do not have any teaching experience, El Reno superintendent Craig McVay stated to NewsChannel 4, “We can teach them how to teach.”11 There are a variety of approaches a school can take to “teach how to teach.” They can range from self-study and informal mentoring to the structured, two-month summer boot camp used by Teach for America.

The low rate of use of emergency certification, and the quality of teachers who are emergency certified, shows the emergency certification program addresses a credentials/jobs mismatch, not a skills/jobs mismatch. While the state might consider some modifications to the emergency certification system, it appears to be effective. Certainly, the low percentage of the work force employed through the emergency certification process does not indicate that Oklahoma has a significant teacher shortage.

8 “Certification,” Teach Oklahoma, website,
9 For the other months where renewal information is available, 125 out of 426 certifications were renewals (29.34%).
10 Fultonberg, Lorne, “Oklahoma Approves 500 ‘Emergency’ Teachers,” August 27, 2015, NewsChannel4,
11 Ibid.