Attracting a new generation of teachers (Capitol Update)

In 1981, Congress created a blue-ribbon panel to identify the problems with American education and to propose solutions. The panel, appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, produced a widely heralded 1983 report called, “A Nation at Risk.” It distilled the education issue down to student performance and achievement and made that the metric to evaluate schools and to measure the effectiveness of proposed improvements. 

The report recommended more rigorous content requirements, additional school days, increased hours in the school day, higher college admission standards to inspire higher high school performance, and higher teacher pay to attract top talent. In subsequent years critiques of “A Nation at Risk” have been both favorable and unfavorable, but it reshaped the discussion about education reform and paved the way for multiple iterations of education policy and legislation.

If a blue ribbon study were conducted today, it’s likely the most urgent threats to America’s schools would be (1) not enough people want to be a teacher, and (2) too many students are chronically absent from school. Solutions would be difficult both to agree upon and to implement. 

The thing that brought me to this conclusion is a startling report in Sunday’s Tulsa World by staff writers Andrea Eger and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton. Here are a few of the alarming facts: 

  • Despite offering sign-on bonuses of up to $6,000 for new hires in 2023-24, Tulsa Public Schools still has more than 100 unfilled teaching positions with three weeks left in the fall semester. 
  • As of Thanksgiving week, Broken Arrow had 11 teaching vacancies publicly posted, including seven for special education. Union had 10 vacancies. Jenks, and Owasso each had five and Sand Springs and Catoosa each had two. 
  • Oklahoma City Public Schools’ website lists 49 teacher positions open for applicants, though a district spokeswoman said its actual number of current vacancies is 17. 
  • The state as a whole is on track for another record-setting year of relying on college graduates with no teacher preparation to fill public school teaching vacancies through its “emergency” certification option, which covers a nonaccredited new-hire for a year or two as they pursue either traditional or alternative certification.
  • Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education shows the Oklahoma City district is far more reliant on emergency certifications, which explains the sharp contrast between the second-largest district’s teaching vacancies and those of Tulsa Public Schools.
  • As of late October, Oklahoma City Public Schools had 385 emergency certification requests in, while Tulsa had 235. The districts with the next three highest number of nonaccredited teachers were Putnam City with 184, Lawton with 126 and Broken Arrow with 115.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like as a student to have a long-term substitute or multiple substitutes for a whole semester of high school chemistry or third-grade reading. Or to have three or four different teachers in a geometry class during the school year. And who knows the cost to student motivation and learning from the abundant use of teachers who may be competent in a subject but who are untrained in child development and learning. 

“We’ve seen this coming for some time, but we have a sense of urgency because there are young people in front of us,” said Tulsa Interim Superintendent Ebony Johnson. “For the public, average Tulsans, they may not fully understand the direct impact of the teacher shortage on our ability to make sure kids don’t miss out.”

Then there is the other half of the problem. Extreme rates of chronic absenteeism — students missing 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason — have spiked to include about 45 percent of all Tulsa Public School students, stifling academic growth. Though not as bad as Tulsa, chronic student absenteeism is up across the state. In the 2021-2022 school year, it was 19.5 percent statewide. 

Lack of transportation, housing instability, and homelessness as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are all factors. One must wonder if the lack of consistent, fully qualified teachers teaching a class from August to May doesn’t also contribute to student absenteeism. The relationship between teacher and student is an important motivator for most young people.

As a stop gap measure, Oklahoma has chosen a course of hiring long-term substitutes and recruiting non-certified personnel to teach, then giving them supervision and on-the-job training. But the great challenge of our leaders, both in Oklahoma and the nation, is to make the career of “teacher” one that will attract a new generation of outstanding educators. Our kids deserve no less.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.