Oklahoma School Districts Struggling with Teacher Shortage

Aug. 19, 2014

Christy Watson
Director of Communications & Marketing

Oklahoma School Districts Struggling with Teacher Shortage

Oklahoma school districts are hundreds of teachers short as the school year begins, and school leaders say students are paying the price, according to results from a new survey conducted by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Districts representing nearly three-fourths of the state’s public school enrollment completed the survey during the first two weeks in August. Among the findings:

· Districts reported more than 800 teaching vacancies.

· More than half of districts with vacancies said they have sought emergency certification for teachers who aren’t fully qualified to teach the subject and/or grade level for which they were hired.

· About half of the districts also said they will use long- or short-term substitute teachers to fill vacancies.

· Even many districts that reported no vacancies said they have hired short- and long-term substitutes in place of full-time teachers.

· The shortage is hitting districts of all sizes in every area of the state.

· Special education is the most difficult teaching area to fill, followed by elementary education, high school science and high school math.

· A handful of districts offer incentives to improve teacher recruitment and retention, but most districts do not, citing financial constraints.

· Not only are local school officials deeply concerned about the scarcity of applicants, they are worried about the quality of educators who do apply.

“Local school officials have been saying for a while that finding qualified teachers is difficult,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the OSSBA. “This survey put actual numbers to the problem — and the results should concern every parent and policymaker in the state. Having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom is the most effective strategy for academic improvement, but as a state, that’s not where we’ve chosen to invest our time, energy or resources. It’s short-sighted because it limits the effectiveness of any other plan Oklahoma puts it place.”

State education officials approved 71 emergency certifications in July. They have received 175 requests that could be considered by the state Board of Education this month, according to the state Education Department. If approved, the total for those two months would exceed the number of emergency certificates approved for all of last school year.

In addition to seeking emergency certifications and substitutes, some districts said they are simply “absorbing” teaching vacancies and hiring classroom assistants to help teachers manage the larger class sizes. More students may also be placed in online classes. In the words of Choctaw-Nicoma Park Schools Superintendent Jim McCharen: “We’re doing a little bit of everything to fill vacancies. None of them are great for kids.”

Hime said common and higher education officials and policymakers need short- and long-term solutions to a number of issues raised by school officials in the survey, including:
· The lack of reciprocity of teacher and administrator certification between Oklahoma and contiguous states.
· The timing of certification test results that aren’t available until after the school year has begun.
· Teacher compensation packages that allow districts to successfully compete with other states and other professions.
· Restrictions on the earnings of education retirees who want to return to the profession, particularly in hard-to-fill positions.
· The dearth of early childhood-certified teachers to staff the growth of full day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.
· Incentives to increase recruitment of students into colleges of education and to keep college graduates teaching in Oklahoma public schools.

“We are asking our students to know more and do more than ever before — and that’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Hime said. “But the question is whether we as a state are providing school districts the support they need to make that happen. The obvious answer is no and that has to change to truly reach the goal of providing quality educational experiences for every child."

The vacancy numbers change daily as districts desperately search for teachers. Together, the state’s two largest districts — Oklahoma City and Tulsa — reported about 200 vacancies as classes started for the year. Tulsa schools Superintendent Keith Ballard mentioned the shortage last week and how it might have impacted student achievement as measured by test scores.

The shortage has been less severe in many of the state’s high-performing suburban districts. But even in those districts, officials said they are struggling like never before to find highly qualified teachers at the same time academic expectations for students are on the rise.

“Our district faced a significant challenge this year in that we didn’t have nearly as many quality applicants as we have had in the past,” said Norman schools Superintendent Joseph Siano.

He said Norman principals worked hard throughout the summer to find high-quality teachers, but he’s worried about the future.

“This seems to be a trend in our state, and without significant attention to teacher recruitment and retention, the state is going to find itself in a very challenging position to meet the academic benchmarks we’ve set for students.”

Rural districts throughout the state — particularly those along the state line — say it’s just too simple for teachers cross the border for higher pay, and often, lower class sizes. In western Oklahoma where the oil business is booming, local superintendents said they couldn’t match salaries when educators can easily double their pay or more by working in the energy industry.

Only a handful of districts reported they have the financial wherewithal to offer special incentives to recruit or retain employees. In the tiny Reydon district that borders the Texas panhandle, the district has more than a dozen housing units where district teachers can live rent-free. Last year, employees received a $5,000 Christmas bonus. Teachers also receive free dental insurance and a $50,000 life insurance policy.

Still, Superintendent Phil Drouhard was unsuccessful in finding a full-time high school science teacher. The school’s principal has science certification. A retired math teacher is coming back to help. Together, the pair will make sure students receive the science education they need.

“You would think all of these incentives would really help attract teachers," Drouhard said. “They might bring some people from a neighboring district to work here. But it’s not enough to convince anyone to choose the teaching profession. As long as they have other choices, not even a $2,000 raise is going to change that.”

Other districts attempt to entice teachers with iPads, paid moving expenses, additional retirement contributions, tuition reimbursement and signing bonuses. Even then, some districts reported they are hiring students who haven’t yet finished college as teachers.

Districts also said they are less likely than they once were to release teachers from contracts to take another teaching job because they have so few applicants.

Just days before school started, Western Heights Public Schools in south Oklahoma City was still hunting to fill four teaching positions. Longtime Superintendent Joe Kitchens said his district has never had such a difficult time finding qualified teachers.

The challenge, he said, is more than just finding someone with a teaching certificate. Last year, a newly hired middle school math teacher stayed only six weeks, creating chaos for students and a burden for the teacher whose class size ended up doubling.

Superintendents throughout the state echoed Kitchens’ concern that a lack of applications means districts sometimes hire teachers they would have bypassed in previous years.

“A good, quality teacher is absolutely essential. That is the core of what makes a difference in the classroom and academic achievement,” Kitchens said. “When we can’t have the type of teachers that our children need, it impairs the whole business of student learning.”