emergency teaching certificates
A student practices vocabulary words at a Norman elementary school. (Megan Ross)

(Editor’s note: The following piece was authored by Mike Brake for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and appears here as Funded Content, a form of digital advertising.)

When the Oklahoma State Department of Education announced it had issued a record 2,153 emergency teaching certificates for the 2018-19 school year, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister lamented that “we are now experiencing the full impact of the teacher shortage.”

Indeed, these certifications have surged in recent years, from just 32 in 2011-12 to 97 the following year, 189 in 2013-14, and 505 in 2014-15. The biggest jump came in 2015-16, when emergency certifications topped 1,000 for the first time. By the end of the 2017-18 school year, they had reached 1,975, with the new record tallied this fall.

Hofmeister said it “will be difficult, if not impossible, to fully lift academic outcomes for all kids if we continue to fill classrooms with untrained and untested teachers who are learning on the job.”

Conventional wisdom holds that putting a large number of teachers who have not followed the traditional certification path into classrooms is a bad thing. But according to some experts and a number of studies, that may not be true. What seems to matter most is who is doing the teaching.

For example, a Tulsa TV station reporting on the upsurge in emergency certifications cited a new fifth-grade teacher who had a master’s degree and was a former Army drill sergeant, both fairly high qualifications, but who required emergency certification.

The News on 6 segment linked above also quoted a school principal, Tasha Johnson, as noting of the emergency certified teachers, “I can teach you how to teach. I can’t teach you how to care,” indicating that many of those receiving emergency certification do sincerely want to make a difference in the classroom.

In addition, some of those receiving emergency certification are actually formally trained certified teachers who simply lacked certification in a specific subject area that needed to be filled, as when a science teacher receives emergency certification to teach math.

According to Hofmeister, there is “a significant difference” between teachers who have received certification under emergency provisions and those who followed an alternative certification path.

“An emergency certification is granted to an individual who has been recruited by a district who has yet to be tested in the subject or grade prior to teaching students,” she said. “However, alternative certification is entirely different, as these individuals can apply to become alternatively certified and are tested prior to teaching children — even though they do not have a degree in education.”

Asked if there is any empirical evidence to show that giving emergency certification leads to poor educational outcomes, Hofmeister said, “Unfortunately, there is a dearth of evidence on that topic.”

In fact, Oklahoma is not unique in issuing large numbers of emergency certifications. While the 2,153 total for this year is a significant number, it is still not a high percentage of the more than 42,000 teachers employed by Oklahoma schools.

Recent research by the Learning Policy Institute found other states with high numbers of emergency certifications and corresponding teacher vacancies. Most of the data is for the 2015-16 school year.

Arizona, with 48,124 teaching positions, had 1,831 emergency certifications and 2,476 vacancies.

New Jersey had 4,083 emergency certifications in a teacher workforce of 115,067.

New York reported 14,735 emergency certifications, with some 203,781 total teachers.

In Texas, 22,791 teachers were at work under temporary or emergency certificates, while another 14,555 were teaching under provisions of a probationary certificate as part of that state’s alternative teacher certification program. Texas reported 342,257 total teaching positions.

Virginia had 6,626 teachers at work under emergency certificates, of nearly 90,000 positions.

‘Traditional teacher certification is not a guarantee of quality’

Oklahoma’s teacher pay issues played a role in the recent upsurge of emergency certifications, and fall of 2018 is too early to see a major impact on teacher staffing from the pay raise passed a few months ago. But is an increase in emergency certifications really the crisis it has been painted to be?

According to Robert Maranto, professor of education at the University of Arkansas, it depends on who is doing the teaching.

“There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that non-traditionally certified teachers are better or worse,” he said. “In fact, there is some evidence that those who come into teaching through the non-traditional Teach for America program have students who do better.”

Teach for America places recent college graduates in largely urban and minority-heavy schools for a year or two of teaching before they begin their non-teaching careers.

“I don’t think that having a lot of emergency certified teachers is a bad thing,” said Maranto, who also serves on the Fayetteville school board. “Traditional teacher certification is not a guarantee of quality.”

The question, Maranto said, is “how are educational administrators using it? To get really bright people or just to get a warm body in the classroom?”

He cited one teacher in a district he was associated with who entered the classroom through an alternative certification program and wound up becoming the local teacher of the year.

‘The bar for certification is actually pretty low in most states’

The traditional teacher certification model has changed little in decades. It involves attending college with a focus on both core subjects in the area an aspiring teacher hopes to instruct and classes on the art and science of teaching, followed by a student teaching stint of some weeks. Aspiring teachers then must pass a basic literacy test in most states, plus one or more subject matter exams in the subject areas involved, like English or science. New teachers then serve a probationary period that varies from state to state.

“The bar for certification is actually pretty low in most states,” Maranto said.

In fact, under Oklahoma’s emergency certification rules, teachers receiving emergency certification must still pass the same subject-matter certification exams regular teachers take. So when one hears that a teacher in a nearby classroom has received emergency certification, that does not mean he or she is entirely unqualified.

That is why many states, including Oklahoma, have been comfortable in implementing alternative certification programs that bypass at least portions of the traditional pathway to attract new blood to the classroom. Oklahoma’s alternative certification program allows those with at least a bachelor’s degree and some professional experience in a related field to teach provisionally while they complete a specified number of education courses and professional development programs. It’s basically on-the-job training.

And some studies have indicated that those who enter the classroom by various side doors may do just fine. A study of alternative certification programs in Florida schools by Jim R. Sass for the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research showed that “In general, alternatively certified teachers have stronger pre-certification qualifications than do traditionally certified teachers.”

That is not surprising since many of those pursuing alternative certification are mid-career professionals who may have advanced degrees.

Sass also noted that alternatively certified teachers scored better than their traditionally trained peers on certification content exams, with most passing those tests on the first try.

A 2016 study by the Education Commission of the States noted that as many as 20 percent of new teachers are entering the profession through alternative certification pathways, and that those who do are often more heavily male and from minority populations. Alternatively certified teachers also seem more willing to work in urban and other underserved schools.

So if even 10 percent of those 2,153 teachers working under emergency certification this fall in Oklahoma schools decide to pursue a long-term alternative certification path and become career teachers, that could do much to alleviate any future teacher shortages.

Mike Brake recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin. He writes for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.