Survey Shows Growing Impact of Teacher Shortage

Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has reached an extraordinary level, leaving thousands of students in overcrowded classrooms, without fully qualified teachers and with fewer course options, according to a new survey from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

School districts are actively trying to fill about 1,000 open teaching positions, have eliminated about 600 teaching jobs since last school year despite growing enrollment and are requesting a record number of emergency teaching certificates.

“Saying we don’t have the money for teacher pay raises is no longer an acceptable excuse,” said Shawn Hime, OSSBA’s executive director. “Our state leaders must be bold for our students and our teachers. Every year that we ignore the shortage’s impact on students is an opportunity lost -- our students can’t get that year back.

“Schools are doing the best they can under the circumstances, but we have to ask ourselves: Are we really OK with five- and six-year-olds who will go without a teacher trained to develop young readers? Are we really OK with eliminating high-level science classes because we refuse to pay teachers a competitive wage?”

OSSBA conducted the survey during the first two weeks of August. Districts representing about 80 percent of the state’s public school enrollment participated. Among other survey findings:

  • About 75% of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.
  • The shortages are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.
  • About 60 percent of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.
  • Almost half of districts expect to increase class sizes.
  • About one-third of school leaders said their schools likely will offer fewer courses this school year.
  • Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.
  • School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.
  • Many newly hired teachers need extensive support and training, which increases pressure on school leaders who have limited time and resources with which to provide support.

Those findings, combined with new numbers from the state education department about the number of emergency teacher certificates, paint a bleak picture. Last school year, the state granted about 500 emergency teaching certificates to fill vacancies. The state issued 182 last month alone, and on Thursday, the state board of education will consider 482 additional emergency certification requests.

Last year’s shortage spurred two new laws allowing broader use of recruitment and retention bonuses and easing testing requirements for experienced out-of-state teachers. While those laws are helpful in some cases, Hime said they are no substitute for a long-term commitment to better fund public education so schools can recruit and retain outstanding teachers in a competitive marketplace, make sure districts have the resources to offer robust academic programs to meet the needs of all students and shore up the teacher pipeline.

An effort to raise the cap on how much retired teachers can make when returning to the classroom is still making its way through the legislative process. Several school districts said they believe that change would provide immediate, albeit temporary, relief in some cases.

Hime said Oklahoma also needs a long-term funding strategy for public education that meets three key goals:

*Enables a meaningful increase in teacher compensation that’s regionally competitive and empowers schools to hire and keep outstanding teachers.

*Provides resources schools require to meet the needs of today’s students and students of the future.

*Rebuilds the teacher pipeline so it’s filled with capable, passionate educators through the launch of a bold, statewide scholarship or loan forgiveness plan for future educators.

Meantime, school leaders throughout the state say they are making painful decisions.

“The truth is we have been repeatedly pushed into a position where every time we turn around we’re forced to make a decision to either get a warm body or make kids go to larger classes,” said El Reno schools Superintendent Craig McVay. “Neither of those options is what’s best for kids in this state.”

McVay said El Reno got an early start on recruiting. However, the district eliminated several positions it could not fill after last school year, and over the summer, two teachers moved to north Texas for better paying teaching jobs.

Teachers at one El Reno elementary school decided they would increase their class sizes rather than hire someone who had not received the additional training other teachers had received in early literacy and STEM areas. After being unable to hire a life sciences/biology teacher last spring, El Reno is partnering with Redlands Community College to share a science teacher.

Moore Superintendent Robert Romines’ desk has been covered in the paperwork required to apply for emergency teaching certifications. Historically, the district hasn’t struggled to find qualified teachers. But last year, he canceled a college-preparatory physics class because he couldn’t find a teacher. Moore won’t offer that class again this year, but cancellation isn’t an option for required classes like algebra and geometry.

“We won’t have any choice but to pile kids into those classes,” he said. “We will do our best to give them the best learning experience possible, but it’s far from ideal.”

As a superintendent, Romines has significant heartburn at the reality of first-grade classes with up to 28 students or upper elementary classes with 30-plus students. “I have a fifth grader so one of those students will be mine. As a superintendent and a parent, it’s nerve-wracking.”

Hiring large numbers of inexperienced teachers is taxing. Romines hopes to improve the quality of his young teachers with a new grant to develop a robust training and mentoring program aimed at new teachers and struggling teachers with less than five years experience.

Duncan Public Schools Superintendent Melonie Hau is working with the district’s education foundation to craft an incentive plan to attract teachers in STEM areas. She’d also like to grow the district’s world language program to give students an academic advantage, but the teacher shortage has made that goal unrealistic. The district will continue offering a $500 stipend to veteran teachers who serve as mentors.

Duncan eliminated 15 teaching positions for this school year because of the shortage and budget concerns. Last year, the district couldn’t find a teacher for the family and consumer science classes and is no longer offering the program. The district expects to have at least six teachers with emergency teaching credentials.

Hau worries principals will find it difficult to provide the additional support new classroom teachers need to be successful and that the pressure could push a growing number of administrators out of the profession. The combination, she said, could lead to a negative impact on student achievement.

Despite the challenges, Hau said she and Duncan’s educators are trying to stay upbeat. Like other school leaders, she is grateful for those teachers who are stepping up to fill gaps. The district also recently launched a community-wide strategic planning initiative to help develop a five-year plan for the school district she believes will help build on the district’s strong tradition of academic excellence.

In Claremore, Superintendent Mike McClaren has cut about 30 teaching positions during the last three years even though enrollment has remained mostly stable. Citing both a financial crunch and lack of qualified teachers, he said class sizes are growing, the burden on teachers is rising and more programs are in danger of cuts.

Many of the district’s kindergarten classes have 25 or 26 students, and the district had curtailed the elementary school art program so it could continue to offer vocal music.

McClaren said 75 high school class sections have 29 to 32 students. “If you’re asking an English teacher to grade writing samples and essays, there’s a vast difference between 30 students and 23 students,” he said.

The district is paying a high school math teacher to forgo a planning period and teach an additional class. McClaren said he even though the teacher in her second year, she’s a talented teacher “who will do a great job.”

Claremore sought and received one emergency teaching certificate last year. This year, the district is seeking at least five emergency certificates.

Last year, Holdenville Public Schools reduced the number of class sections at the elementary and secondary level. This year, Holdenville Superintendent Randy Davenport said the district didn’t restore any positions but is fortunate to have filled its vacancies. Only one person applied for a math opening, and no one applied for an English teaching position, which the district filled after shuffling staff.

The district also is working with Seminole State College to offer classes on its Holdenville campus. For some courses, students receive both high school and college credit.

“This is my 17th year as a superintendent, and it’s a night and day difference in the number of applicants. We used to have 30 to 40 applicants to teach in elementary school even when we didn’t have an opening. Now, we have to go hunt for people.”

While districts are in fierce competition for teachers, Davenport said they are also working together in the best interest of all students by sharing information about potential applicants when possible.

“I’m really afraid that we’re just at the beginning of the teacher shortage crisis, and this will take more than a short-term fix,” Davenport said. “With our operational costs skyrocketing, it’s also a budget issue. We are a long way from this crisis being over.”