Oklahoma Representative Rhonda Baker of Yukon studies teacher shortage

Oklahoma City – Finding innovative approaches to Oklahoma’s teacher shortage while improving teacher quality was the focus of an interim study held Monday (October 11) before the House Common Education Committee. The study’s host, Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon. Baker chairs the committee.

“Oklahoma, like most of the nation, faces an acute teacher shortage,” Baker said. “I first wanted to examine our certification process compared to some of our regional neighbors. I also wanted to look at how we incentivize people to go into education and get them excited to stay, including rewarding our highly effective teachers.”

Baker asked a variety of speakers to address the teacher certification process to perhaps find efficiencies and cost savings for teacher candidates. She also wanted to see what other states might be doing differently and whether Oklahomas approach is a hindrance to attracting and retaining quality teachers.

Cody Allen, a policy analyst and committee liaison for the Southern Legislative Conference, first discussed teacher certification exams and legislative reforms in the south. He said some states allow college degrees in a subject area to replace passing a content exam. Others allow work experience. Some states allow initial licensure and only require additional certification exams be passed after a teacher has gained several years of classroom experience. He also explained alternative pathways to achieving teacher certification.

Allen said all approaches are needed to address the critical teacher shortage, particularly in hard-to-fill subject areas such as math, science, special education and elementary education. He also explained a barrier to recruiting new teachers is high student loan debt combined with the additional cost of certification exams. Allen said more than 21% of Oklahoma educators are age 55 or older and many of those will retire in the near future. The cost to educate and train replacements will be in the millions, so it’s imperative to find solutions. Some legislative recommendations are to address elementary licensure tests, set test scores to the industry standard and update content knowledge requirements, among others.

Rep. Baker, a former English teacher, said it’s important to balance the fairness of ending unnecessary requirements with still ensuring knowledgeable and qualified professionals are teaching students.

Michelle Exstro, director of the education program for the National Conference of State Legislatures, spoke about long-term policy measures needed to get the right teachers into the classroom to help Oklahoma students be more competitive with students from other countries as they prepare for future jobs. She said if we are going to raise teacher salaries, that should come with higher performance expectations, but the opposite is also true. If we expect teachers to achieve better student outcomes, we have to offer better compensation and other incentives.

Exstro also explained some differences in America’s education models compared to other nations. Other countries treat teachers as experts, she said, and they give constant formative assessments and fewer summative, end-of-year assessments. Our graduation rates also are not as high as in other countries, she said. And some countries, such as Finland, are much quicker to intervene when students aren’t doing coursework – such as reading – on grade level.

Brandon Tatum with Connected.org and Superintendent Craig McVay with El Reno Public Schools gave a presentation that showed how paraprofessionals can transform into certified teachers to help address the teacher shortage. Tatum suggested that instead of a teacher shortage program, Oklahoma perhaps has a pipeline problem. He explained that many of the 11,437 paraprofessionals in Oklahoma classrooms today who are working alongside teachers and have been for many years make less than teachers, but they love students equally. These professionals are working every day, he said. Many have families of their own, and they can’t afford to quit their jobs and go through a teacher preparation program.

Tatum and McVay told a success story of a paraprofessional in the El Reno School District that went through El Reno’s “grow-your-own” teacher certification program and now is ready to enter the classroom as a certified teacher.

Tatum said teachers that go through programs such as this tend to be more committed to their hometowns. According to the House staff press release, “They also are a more prepared workforce. They know what it’s like to be in a classroom every day.”

Additional speakers in the study addressed recruitment and retention efforts such as increasing teacher pay, micro-credentialing so teachers can more easily move between grades and subject areas, or recruiting veterans or college-degree holders to the classroom through alternative certification paths.