Lawmakers urged to follow Texas model on teacher hiring
September 24, 2019
Oklahoma teacher salaries have surged in the last two years, yet reports of a teacher shortage persist. Members of the House Common Education Committee recently met to consider how to address that challenge, and were encouraged to follow the Texas model, which involves heavy reliance on alternatively certified teachers.
Rep. Mark Lepak, the Claremore Republican who requested the study, said he fears salary increases aren’t enough to quickly reduce teacher staffing challenges at state schools.
“We now have competitive salary, and more generous benefits package than surrounding states, and next session I anticipate we’ll pass the cost-of-living increase for the teachers’ retirement system,” Lepak said. “Nevertheless, even with better compensation and benefits, I’m not optimistic that the teacher pipeline will refill organically anytime soon.”
The teacher shortage is not due to a lack of qualified teachers, however. Officials said the state has sufficient teachers to address classroom needs. The problem is that those individuals are not seeking school employment.
“We have 30,000 individuals that are certified to teach in Oklahoma that aren’t in our classrooms,” Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma Department of Education, told lawmakers. “So they’re either in some other profession or they’re in some other state or doing something else, but they continue to pay to renew their certification every five years.”
Dave Saba, chief development officer at Teachers of Tomorrow, an organization that works to help adults make a mid-career shift to teaching through alternative certification, encouraged lawmakers to rely more on programs like Teachers of Tomorrow.
“Fifty-five percent of our teachers in Texas now come through alternative certification—fifty-five percent,” Saba said. “So we do not have a teacher shortage because as enrollment in traditional programs has dropped off, alternative certification has come up to feed that need.”
Saba said Teachers of Tomorrow will certify 6,000 teachers in Texas this year and 700 new teachers in the other seven states. Over its 14 years of existence, Teachers of Tomorrow has placed over 58,000 teachers, including 7,000 special education teachers, 3,700 math teachers, 2,500 bilingual teachers, and 2,200 science teachers. The most recent Texas Teacher of the Year came through the group’s program.
Studies have shown that 70 percent of alternatively certified teachers that come through the Teachers of Tomorrow program in Texas remain in the classroom five years later, Saba said. That’s a higher retention rate than what Oklahoma achieves with traditionally certified teachers who graduate from colleges of education.
Saba said trends in Oklahoma show the need for more alternative certification.
“As you look at the landscape in Oklahoma, the enrollment in Oklahoma teacher preparation has dropped from 8,500 in 2010 to 3,900 in 2016,” Saba said. “And as you look at the landscape, also, 72 percent of your teachers that are enrolling in programs are white.”
In Oklahoma, teachers can obtain traditional certification by graduating from a college of education. They can also obtain alternative certification, or they can obtain “emergency” certification. The latter option has surged in recent years.
Those receiving alternative certification must have a bachelor’s degree and two years of qualified work experience and must pass state tests, but the emergency certificate process is less onerous. Lepak’s study was focused on how to increase the number of alternatively certified teachers, as opposed to the current trend of rising emergency certified teachers.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa said the roughly 3,600 emergency certifications granted last year exceeded the number of all other forms of teacher certificates issued “combined” during the same time period.
Robin Fuxa, director of the Professional Education Staff at the Oklahoma State University College of Education, Health and Aviation, said over 3,000 emergency certificates were issued last year, compared to 1,200 certificates granted to people who went through traditional college programs.
“That’s almost three-in-four of the brand-new teachers who were emergency credentialed,” Fuxa said. “We are working to support their success, absolutely, but that trend is not sustainable.”
Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, told lawmakers teacher-shortage challenges are “an issue that’s going on not just in Oklahoma, or not just in SREB, but across the country.”
“We have to always balance between quality and quantity,” Pruitt said. “And I think the challenge is that we often look to approach teacher shortages with ‘we need to get more people in the classroom.’ But I think the reality is we need to make sure we get good teachers in the classrooms.”
Saba also stressed that Oklahoma is not unique.
“Across the country right now, there are massive shortages,” Saba said. “You are not alone. I mean, a lot of states throughout this country, everybody’s dealing with this same thing right now. You have to make changes in order to meet the needs, to make sure every child has a great teacher.”
Based on his experience in other states, Lepak said he had the impression Oklahoma’s requirements for alternative certification are more cumbersome than those used elsewhere.
“I’m seeking to make sure the path is straightforward and efficient, so we get the biggest and best pool of candidates from which to choose our classroom teachers,” Lepak said, “and I want to remove any stigma that may come from such alternative certification.”
Lepak also noted the negative publicity surrounding teaching in Oklahoma may have created a cycle in which people don’t seek Oklahoma teaching jobs because they are always hearing how bad teaching is in Oklahoma, regardless of actual wages or work environment.
“I’m concerned we’ve oversold how bad things are,” Lepak said, “and we need to do something about that. The self-talk is important.”