Mark Lepak

Greetings from the state capitol! What does “emergency certification” mean to you? We see news reports and editorials focused on the number of emergency teaching certifications in Oklahoma, and how they continue to be a problem, but I’ve come to understand that not all such “emergencies” are the same. They don’t necessarily mean these individuals aren’t qualified to teach. Furthermore, the numbers offered can confuse us because the classifications under the generalized “emergency” are often used interchangeably with the words “non-accredited”, or “unqualified”, or “alternative certified”, all of which are very different things. Confused? That is my point.

The Speaker of the House approved 96 of the 145 Interim Study requests from various members. I submitted one request: Possible Revisions to Alternative Certification Process and Teacher Recruitment Initiatives.

So let’s step back and frame the issues I want to explore. We have seen the statistics and heard the stories of teachers leaving to pursue other opportunities, whether moving to a higher-paying district, either in Oklahoma or in another state, or to another career choice altogether. And we have been told that things are better now that teachers received pay increases the past two years, funded via tax increases and an improved energy economy. We’ve also seen several pieces of legislation passed to create additional incentives for teachers. And don’t forget the big pay raise for the senior teachers has also extended the career of those close to retirement as many seek to drive up their pension benefit by staying a few more years. But I’ve also been told by superintendents that it is still hard to fill certain positions because there just aren’t enough qualified candidates in a particular area. And, the media reports mentioned above still point to a high number of emergency certifications.

My study proposal has several components. The first is to simply clarify what it takes to become certified to teach, including the various paths considered “emergencies”. The second is determine if there is a way to broaden the pool of qualified candidates. My idea is to explore “alternative certification”, including what other states might be doing that would be useful here. More on that below. The third is to review the use of the term “emergency certification” to determine if there is a more accurate way to categorize candidates at different stages of completing their certifications. And the fourth is to review SDE teacher recruitment efforts.

So let’s consider the kind of candidate I’m thinking about. An engineer wants to become a teacher after working in his field, perhaps for 30 or more years. He doesn’t want to quit working, but something has him looking (e.g., job relocation to another city, layoffs, burn out, or just a simple desire for a change). I suspect that individual could teach any high school or junior high math class, and most science classes. He knows he must pass a couple of tests, one to assure he has the general education chops, and one for each subject area he will teach. However, he finds he must also take several more college courses of “professional education”, including courses on “classroom management” and “pedagogical principles”. The expense and time required might just not be worth it. But I wonder, depending on the candidate, how much of that requirement is necessary. I’d hate to lose a good candidate over an unnecessarily expensive or time consuming process. I’m told there are ways around these requirements. I’m seeking to make sure the path is straightforward and efficient so we can get the biggest, best pool of candidates from which to choose our classroom teachers. And, I want to remove any stigma that may come with such alternative certification. Does someone with those credentials sound like an “emergency” to you? Does that fact that he might come through the alternative certification door assign him a status less regarded than that of someone out of the college of education?

And, for the public, the assortment of circumstances labeled “emergency” just doesn’t sound right to me. Some of these people are actually certified teachers who are coming to speed in another subject area. Others are teachers whose certifications have lapsed for some reason, and they are reentering the workforce. Those are entirely different dynamics when one considers what “qualifies” a teacher. As for the teacher shortage itself, we have a nationwide problem, which suggests there is more to the story than compensation.

Nevertheless, I believe Oklahoma’s initiatives to fill the teacher pipeline shouldn’t depend on compensation alone—we should be oriented towards recruiting the best qualified teachers for Oklahoma’s classrooms. I believe the teacher pipeline will be slow to refill organically, so I think it wise to bolster the opportunities for qualified non-traditional candidates. We can’t wait years for a new crop of teachers to enter the college of education and graduate.

Which leads me to the last aspect of the study, the actual recruitment of excellent teachers, traditional and non-traditional. We now have a competitive salary and a more generous benefits package than surrounding states. And next session, I anticipate we’ll pass a cost of living increase for the Teachers Retirement System. What are we doing to sell these and the other benefits of a career in the classroom? Let’s find out.

State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) can be reached via email at mark.lepak@okhouse.gov.

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