A notice on the Oklahoma State Department of Education website has this warning for school districts looking for guidance on filling teaching jobs: “Emergency certification should only be requested when the district has exhausted every option to find an appropriately certified person for the open position.”
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for emergency certified teachers—or ECTs—whom districts are permitted to hire only when they have critical shortages of certified teachers. Qualifications for these unlicensed teachers vary by state, but generally, they require little more than a bachelor’s degree and a background check before being assigned to a classroom.
In spite of such a low bar, dependence on emergency teachers in some states is growing, alongside a trend in declining numbers of certified teachers that started well before the pandemic and the acute staffing shortages of the last year.
From state to state, there’s wide variation in how many emergency certified teachers are in use, as evidenced by a summary compiled from teacher workforce reports in 40 states during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. For instance, none of Iowa’s 35,684 teachers held emergency licenses in 2015-16. During the 2016–17 school year, Michigan had 1,136 ECTs among its 85,038 teachers. That same year, Oklahoma issued 1,160 emergency credentials among a statewide workforce of 42,073 teachers.
In Arizona, the state education department issued 644 emergency certificates in 2015-16. That number nearly doubled the following year, to 1,856. And by 2017-18, the number jumped to 3,286, according to reports from a statewide database. Simultaneously, Arizona saw a 9 percent dip in standard teacher certificates issued between the 2015-2016 and 2017-18 school years.
In Oklahoma, 75 percent of teachers held a standard certificate during the 2020-21 school year, down from 80 percent in 2016-17. Meanwhile, the percentage of ECTs in Oklahoma grew by 200 percent during that period, with the state approving 2,673 emergency certificates for the 2021-22 school year, according to Oklahoma Watch.
Judging by these statistics, the need for emergency teachers isn’t likely to recede any time soon—despite some school officials’ desires otherwise.
Oklahoma’s state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has said she wants the state to reduce the use of emergency teachers by 95 percent by 2025. But even though the number of approved emergency certificates did drop from 3,321 to 2,673 between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years, the state isn’t on pace to meet the superintendent’s goal. Further, The Economic Policy Institute—a nonprofit think tank that conducts economic research and is affiliated with the labor movement—projects that, by 2024, the number of available certified teachers nationwide will equal only one-third of the total demand for new teachers.
If that projected gap transpires, districts are going to need more options for filling those roles.
A critical tool for filling in the gaps
Hiring emergency certified teachers, though a last resort, does help fill these gaps created by teacher shortages. And in many states such as Oklahoma, these shortages continue to be a huge challenge.
Hofmeister has reported that Oklahoma loses nearly 50 percent of its teachers in the first five years of their careers, and that those who exit often point to lack of support as a reason for leaving. Additionally, the state ranks near the bottom in the nation in teacher salaries and the amount spent per student, factors that experts believe push teachers to exit the profession early or avoid entering it altogether.
“I think teachers have been beaten up, for a while, and not respected in their profession,” said Pamela Huston, chief human resources officer for the Mid-Del school district in Midwest City, Okla. “We lose sight of the successes.”
Huston said she’d like to see more done to promote the teaching profession and its rewarding aspects, like the satisfaction of witnessing students as they learn to read or gain other academic skills.
But as long as the teaching profession remains a less attractive option than careers requiring similar training and education, ECTs will likely remain part of the educational landscape.
Attrition rates don’t tell the whole story
Critics of ECTs point to higher attrition rates compared to certified teachers. ECTs in Oklahoma, for instance, have an average three-year retention rate of 19 percent compared to around 40 percent for traditionally certified teachers, according to a 2021 report by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, say some.
Tracking the whereabouts of ECTs once they leave a given assignment isn’t easy, explains Huston. The Mid-Del district hired 54 emergency teachers for middle and high school positions last year, 18 of whom are no longer employed in the same capacity. That could mean a variety of things, Huston said. Either they completed their certification criteria and became fully certified, decided they didn’t want to teach at the secondary level and switched to elementary, moved to another district, or quit completely.
“We don’t have that data,” Huston said.
Some of the attrition among emergency teachers is connected to the challenge of becoming certified, explains Huston.
Oklahoma, like other states, grants one-year emergency certifications in districts that prove they have been unable to fill teacher vacancies with certified teachers. But the ECTs hired are expected to pass two state-issued tests by the end of their one-year contract in order to meet certification requirements that would allow them to remain teaching.
“They [the district] found that at the end of the first year, some people who were doing a good job weren’t able to pass the tests,” Huston said. This led to the district extending the time frame required to retake the exams successfully, sometimes by several years.
“Passing a test doesn’t mean they’re going to be great teachers,” said Huston, who notes that the Oklahoma State Department of Education is in the process of modifying ECTs testing requirements to include portfolio submissions that demonstrate classroom experience.
Setting unlicensed teachers up for failure?
The traditional path to becoming a teacher can take tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money, and at least four years in a college program. It’s not surprising, then, that the practice of hiring ECTs at the same salary as new, fully certified teachers can rankle their colleagues.
“As a former elementary teacher who went the traditional route, I was a little bothered that a person with just a bachelor’s degree could walk in and start teaching,” said Huston, who now works to ensure that the emergency teachers that her district hires are offered the same support from mentors as any new teacher.
But it’s unclear whether a supportive professional environment is enough, say some.
“I’ve worked with several emergency certified teachers. Some are wonderful,” said Monica Hiller, a traditionally certified 5th grade teacher at Rollingwood Elementary School in the Putnam City district in Oklahoma City. “But even if they have a big heart for kids, they don’t have the classroom management or the pedagogical background.”
Hiller said she’s seen ECTs resign in frustration just weeks into the job.
“I worry that we are fixing broken dams with Band Aids, not setting up these emergency certified teachers up for success,” she said.
Emergency certification implies something of a rare and urgent nature. It was under those circumstances that districts began hiring ECTs. But as teacher vacancies have become increasingly commonplace in many classrooms, so too have ECTs. As districts’ reliance on ECTs grows, perhaps so should support that will increase their chances of success.
“If they’re being a good teacher, reaching kids, involving parents,” Huston said, “that certification isn’t going to make or break what kind of teacher they are.”