Back to School Without a Qualified Teacher

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Last week, as school got underway in Oklahoma, the state Board of Education approved its 2,153rd emergency teaching certificate for the school year, enabling a record number of non-certified teachers to teach in its public schools.

Seven years ago, only 32 were issued.

“We appreciate Oklahomans willing to step in and fill the gap, but it begs the question: why do we have this gap at all?” asks Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest. “Our growing number of emergency certifications is a symptom of a greater sickness—a sickness caused by chronic underfunding, a decade without raises and a culture of disrespect toward education.”

Across the nation, but particularly in states like Oklahoma and Arizona where educators have long been frustrated or deterred by a lack of classroom resources and extremely low pay, the teacher shortage has grown acute this year. Hundreds of thousands of students across the U.S. are being taught this year by unqualified or under-qualified instructors, estimates the national non-profit, nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute (LPI). The consequences for students, who strongly benefit from high-quality teachers, is likely to be enormous.

“It’s a serious problem that districts in almost every state in the nation are struggling with,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emerita of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and LPI chief operating officer.

Recently, LPI published a report, “Taking the Long View: State Efforts to Solve Teacher Shortages by Strengthening the Profession,” which offers evidence-based policies that some states are investing in to strengthen their workforce and address teacher shortages. These include student loan forgiveness; high-retention pathways into teaching, like residency programs; and more effective mentoring for new teachers.

These strategies also have been championed—and in many cases, piloted and paid for—by NEA’s Great Public Schools (GPS) grant program. For example, a three-year, $600,000 GPS grant to Florida’s Brevard Federation of Teachers helped create a teacher-led, union-run orientation program and a meaningful mentoring program.

The LPI report also notes that short-term strategies, like hasty certification programs, likely worsen the problem. Under-prepared teachers leave at two to three times the rate of well-prepared teachers. LPI also notes that students of color, and students in low-income communities, are most likely to be assigned uncertified or inexperienced teachers

A National Epidemic of Untrained Teachers

“There’s a good chance the teacher in front of your child’s classroom this year, isn’t fully trained to teach,” the Arizona Republic announced last month, after its reporters analyzed state Department of Education teacher certification data.

In the past three years, the Republic found, the number of certifications granted to teachers who aren’t fully trained to teach has increased by more than 400 percent in Arizona. Meanwhile, the state has cut funding to Arizona schools by more than $4.5 billion since 2009.

Studies of the relationship between teacher preparation and teacher turnover suggest teachers with little to no pedagogical preparation are 2 to 3 times more likely to leave the profession than those with the most comprehensive preparation.” – Learning Policy Institute, “Taking the Long View: State Efforts to Solve Teacher Shortages by Strengthening the Profession” 

This past spring, angry Arizona educators held the largest walkout of educators in history, demanding state legislators find the funds to pay for textbooks, air-conditioning, classroom repairs, and pay raises. They won the pay raises, but continue to press hard for increased state funding.

In Florida, as school opened last month, a Florida Education Association (FEA) review of teacher job vacancies found 4,063 job vacancies. Two years ago at this time, the number was about 2,400. “That’s the acceleration in the teacher shortage you need to be looking at,” a FEA legislative specialist told the state Board of Education.

In Colorado, the Denver Post reported that as many as 3,000 new teachers are needed to fill existing slots, especially in rural communities, while the number of graduates from teacher-prep programs in the state has declined by 24.4 percent over the past five years. In April, its teachers held a one-day #RedForEd walkout, protesting decades of legislative neglect. Half of Colorado school districts can’t afford five days of school a week and have switched to four.

As part of its dive into teacher shortages, LPI also has published interactive state maps, which include ratings for teacher pay and working conditions, as well as teacher qualifications and teacher turnover, in every state. It is clear that these variables are inter-related. For example, Arizona earns the lowest possible ratings for teacher turnover, qualifications and pay. By contrast, Pennsylvania, which earns the highest possible score for teacher turnover, also has the best rating for teacher qualifications and pay.

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