Emergency teachers failing to finish

OKLAHOMA CITY — A growing number of emergency certified teachers are dropping out of school and failing to complete a state program that allows them to become trained and licensed educators.

The number of nontraditional teachers who go on to receive full certification in their emergency subject area is plummeting, according to data compiled by the State Department of Education in response to an open records request filed by CNHI Oklahoma.

Fewer than 1 in 3 teachers who were emergency certified during the 2017-18 school year have completed their requirements, according to the data. Just three school years earlier, more than half successfully finished the program.

And last school year, of the nearly 3,000 teachers who were emergency certified, just 12.5 percent have received their nonemergency certification, according to the data.

“I think it’s a clear indication that this not the pathway to becoming a teacher, nor has it ever been the intention to make emergency certification a pathway to becoming a teacher in the state of Oklahoma,” said state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

Still, in an effort to solve the state’s persistent teacher shortage, Oklahoma offers potential educators an alternative route into the classroom through the state’s emergency certification program. For two years, aspiring teachers are able to gain both classroom and instructional experience while working on their certification tests.

But even as the state’s education board continues to approve record numbers of emergency teaching certificates, Hofmeister said she plans to reduce them by 95 percent by 2025.

“These statistics underscore why that is the right priority and the right goal,” she said.

Indirectly, the issue is about kids and ensuring they’re thriving in the classroom with a well-equipped and prepared teacher, she said.

The statistics are further evidence that those teachers need greater preparedness and support before entering the classroom for the first time, she said.

“There are some exceptional individuals who have stepped up to fill the void, the great need to fill the teacher (vacancies) where we have students ready to learn, but each of those individuals deserves to have the training and the support to be able to effective,” Hofmeister said.

Emergency requirements tightening

Education officials, meanwhile, are tightening emergency teaching requirements. This school year, nontraditional pre-K through third-grade teachers must complete training on the science of reading and effective instructional processes, she said.

Next school year, the state board won’t place emergency certified teachers in pre-K through fifth-grade classrooms without a teacher certificate, she said.

During the 2011-12 school year, the certificates were relatively unheard of — only 32 teachers were using them. But as districts struggled to find teachers, the number of emergency certificates has jumped by nearly 9,400 percent.

“They’ve kind of saved education because a lot of them have stepped up. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to be an emergency certified teacher,” said Alberto Morejon, a Stillwater Public Schools teacher and public education advocate.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the number (of completions) is dropping,” he said. “You kind of burn them out so fast because they don’t have the training, and they don’t have the experience. I feel like I would be overwhelmed and not be prepared.”

On the surface, it’s “a troubling statistic” that so few are finishing the process, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association. At the same time, Hime said he wonders how many of those not finishing are already certified teachers in other subject areas.

“But big picture, what it tells me (is) that we need to make sure we’re investing resources in training our emergency certified teachers so that they’ll have the tools and feel comfortable staying in that position so that they’ll become fully certified,” Hime said.

Because if these emergency teachers aren’t there to fill the gaps, the alternative is far worse — rotating substitutes or larger class sizes, he said.

“Emergency certifications have to be part of the picture until we can solve the bigger problem (of the teacher shortage crisis),” he said.

‘Teach, reach and inspire kids'

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said a lot of well-meaning people tried to get into the classroom, but they discovered that it’s more than just knowing a subject.

“They found out either they couldn’t survive on the salary (or) couldn’t master the art of teaching,” she said, adding that some may have lacked the support to have classroom success.

On one level, Priest said she “was shocked” by how many are failing to complete the program.

“But on another level, I know how many people exited quickly from emergency certifications that (didn’t last) even a week,” she said. “To see the numbers so plainly, it is eye-opening, but I don’t think it’s that big of a surprise.”

Priest said it means state officials need to continue to invest in public education, continue to increase pay for educators and find ways to incentivize people to go to college to become teachers, allowing educators to learn how to “teach, reach and inspire kids.”

She said the plan to phase out the program shows that education officials understand that emergency certified instructors aren’t necessarily best for children.

“In the meantime, our students are losing years of learning, and so we’ve got to get supports to those emergency certs that are in the classroom now, and we’ve got to make sure we’re doing right by the students of Oklahoma,” she said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.