Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is not just about salaries (Guest Post: John Lepine)

John Lepine
John Lepine

This is the first of a three-part series appearing this week on the OK Policy Blog that will examine the reasons behind Oklahoma’s teacher shortage and what we can do to fix it. You can read part two here and read part three here.

John Lepine is an OK Policy Research Fellow. He is pursuing a M.Ed. in Educational Administration, Curriculum, and Supervision at the University of Oklahoma. He is also a reading specialist and English department chair at the McLain Magnet High School for Science & Technology and a research associate with the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy.

The Oklahoma teacher shortage is well documented; reports describing the crisis have made news for nearly two years. The state began the school year with over 1,000 unfilled teaching positions, and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister recently announced that nearly 1,000 emergency teaching certificates* had been issued for the 2015-16 school year — over 25 times the number of emergency certified teachers approved just four years ago.

Oklahoma’s teacher pay undoubtedly contributes to the ever-deepening teacher shortage. Even after adjusting for the state’s relatively low cost of living, Oklahoma teachers are paid almost 15 percent less per year than their counterparts in other states, with an average public school teacher salary ranked 49th out of the 50 states and DC. However, teacher pay is not the only issue behind the shortage. Research shows that improving teacher working conditions — via state law, district policy, and building-level leadership — is equally important to retaining a stable, high-quality workforce in Oklahoma schools.

The consensus among researchers is that salary does play a critical role in combating teacher turnover—but it is not the most important factor. According to teacher turnover expert Richard Ingersoll, more teachers leave the profession because of “job dissatisfaction or the desire to pursue a better job, another career, or to improve career opportunities in or out of education” than any other single factor — including retirement, pregnancy, child-reading, family moves, and health problems.

Teacher job dissatisfaction has four major causes — teacher salaries, administrative support for teachers (especially new teachers), student discipline problems, and levels of faculty influence on decision-making and autonomy. In other words, if teacher attrition is a problem, teacher working conditions are the greatest lever to address it. Research has found that first-year teachers were 3.44 times more likely to leave when they perceived a major increase in problematic student behaviors, while they were 16.9 percent more likely to stay with every significant increase in perceived support from school administrators.

[pullquote]”Low per-pupil spending often translates into larger class sizes, less money for professional development, and fewer support staff. That means fewer opportunities for teachers to receive the training, mentoring, and other supports that are proven to reduce turnover.”[/pullquote]Other studies have found that mentoring programs for new teachers and other programs that promote collegial relationships among teachers can reduce turnover substantially. Importantly for Oklahoma (with our looming budget shortfall), such programs can save considerable sums of money on recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training new teachers to fill the vacancies caused by turnover.

It’s important to note that even though salaries are not the whole problem, education funding is still a big factor. Low per-pupil spending often translates into larger class sizes, less money for professional development, and fewer support staff. That means fewer opportunities for teachers to receive the training, mentoring, and other supports that are proven to reduce turnover. Low per-pupil spending also means fewer supplies, older textbooks, less access to technology, and inferior building maintenance — other conditions linked with teacher attrition, especially at high-needs schools.

Another aspect of teacher working conditions in Oklahoma is the prominent role of high-stakes testing and test-based accountability in education. State law now bases a portion of teachers’ formal evaluation scores on the performance of their students on standardized tests. In the Tulsa Public Schools district, students spent approximately 135 hours of the 2014-15 school year on district-mandated tests.

A 2014 survey of over 10,000 parents, teachers, and superintendents conducted by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s team identified addressing over-testing and other testing problems as the number one policy priority of Oklahoma educators and parents. Robyn Venables, a 31-year veteran in Sand Springs School District, explained to KOSU that her retirement from education was driven by the culture of high-stakes testing: “The testing is just ridiculous, the paper work is growing by leaps and bounds. The stuff that you’re expected to do just gets added on and added on and added on…”.

If Oklahoma is to fix our teacher shortage, we must address both compensation and working conditions. Fortunately, school districts are taking steps to reduce testing, and State Superintendent Hofmeister is calling for replacing the state’s seven End-of-Instruction exams with the ACT (which could save the State $4.5 million annually).

District and building leaders can also fight turnover by prioritizing the kinds of administrative support that keep teachers from leaving. While Oklahoma’s current A-F School Grades emphasize student test scores above all else, many districts (including Tulsa and Union Public Schools) have partnered with the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy to conduct climate surveys that give schools a more holistic picture of school capacity — what  their organizational, social, and instructional strengths and weaknesses are. Do teachers feel isolated in the workplace? Do students feel safe in the classes and hallways? Do parents trust the school? With this kind of information, school leaders can support teachers in the ways they need it most, keeping them from burning out of their careers early.

*Emergency certified teachers must have a Bachelor’s degree and pass a criminal background check, but are not required to have any training as teachers or qualifications in the subject matter they teach.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

10 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is not just about salaries (Guest Post: John Lepine)

  1. Well said! There is so much more to retention, especially of great teachers, than money alone. Care for faculty by administration helps. Unrealistic expectations like high stakes testing hurts. You nailed it.

  2. Our neighbor, a teacher and coach, is quitting his job after this year. His wife,also a teacher, is giving it one more year then leaving. When I responded that yes, teachers and state employees have horrid pay compensation they agreed…then said pay was not the number one issue. The number one issue is the children (and we are in a top school district). Parents are not parenting, children lack respect for teachers, administration, and it is impossible to discipline (including receiving positive proactive response from parents). Add to this the concern about safety, budget cuts, paperwork/bureaucracy, testing, etc. and it just is not worth the stress.

  3. Blaming.parents for the overall bleak work atmosphere is short sighted. We must dig deeper to the root problems in this state. Bottom line? Similar themes are taking place across all employment. Parents, like all Oklahoma workers, are underpaid and expected to do more with less. They are under-appreciated and beleagured to do the ultimate job with no time for family or other worthwhile pursuits. We Oklahomans need balance and we need to state to stop working against us, passing laws that hinder our health, our way of life, and our protection, safety, and overall job satisfaction and ability to carry out our responsibilities. Want parents to parent? Give them.the tools, like quality affordable healthcare, time for good relations with schools and teachers, the ability to function in a society that seems to have forgotten that we need cooperation in order to flourish. We need to demand that our industries stop inundating us with stress-inducing, mental and physical-health affecting byproducts with no responsibility to our people. And we need to understand that our children are more vulnerable to being affected by these inundations. We need to demand that our human rights be reinstated and that federal protections be observed and enforced, instead of allowing the state to place blame on the wrong entities. Our teachers deserve better; from the content of their own college curriculum, to the administrations they work under. Kids are not to blame, neither are parents. The whold ystem is being brought down and only we can demand a stop to it. So tired of Oklahoma being so poorly ranked. Even more tired of blindness to the root causes of these issues. Open your eyes Oklahomans! We deserve so much better!

  4. If we viewed teaching the way we do coaching, we wouldn’t have to have these discussions. We expect to pay coaches appropriately, provide equipment, and assume they can do their jobs unless it comes time to reconsider. We also expect that sports will take a lot of practice. Teachers, not so much. We talk them down, push them out of the way with one mandate after another, send our kids to school unprepared – and don’t support the teachers’ efforts — and then we complain when our kids aren’t champions. Unless we agree that education is about the most important gift we can give our children, we’re not going to get anywhere. I hate seeing us sell ourselves so short, but low expectations seem to be the culture here. We have wonderful people here; we can do so much better.

  5. I studied teacher stress in my building for my capstone research project. Student behavior is the number one stressor in my urban high school, followed closely by pressures to prepare students for standardized tests.

  6. Lynne’s comment is the most accurate although the others are certainly true. It comes down to respect. Our policy makers (leaders), their backers, the media, and as a result the public in general, do not respect us as professionals. In past decades, lawmakers often told us that they were sorry they could not pay us more because of budgetary constraints but that they considered us highly important to the well-being of society and that they valued us. They supported us genuinely and sincerely. And we could live with being paid less than other states because teachers will work together as a team and get things done if they feel they are supported in other ways. After all, we didn’t become teachers to seek fortune or fame. The teacher-shortage task force’s recommendations reflect their (the right-wing’s) attitude toward teachers. They think money, supply and demand tactics, etc. are the answer. They think schools should be run like a business in spite of obvious cultural differences. I applaud John’s article. It shows that people are beginning to wonder why the task-force recommendations are only a small part of the solution and won’t work on their own. Oklahoma has a small window of time left to rebuild its teacher corps as seasoned veterans retire or move on to greener pastures. But if the conditions are not right, it won’t happen.

  7. As a retired educator and life long Oklahoman, any conversation about education should begin with why a well educated, certified, highly trained job such as teaching, would not pay enough to begin with to keep their family from qualifying for food stamps! All the other things matter also, but food, rent, transportation, your child’s healthcare and education matter the most. Do you people in a cave?

  8. Here’s my dilemma.
    I would love to teach elementary but, being the only wage earner, it has to be all online.
    I can get that taken care of to get my bachelors but, with not having a nest egg to count on, how do my bills get paid during the 12 weeks of demonstration teaching?
    I live around small towns so emergency certification isn’t something I would want to depend on after going through and paying for 4 years of school just to not be able to afford DT.

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