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.

“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.”

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.