This is the second of a three-part series appearing this week on the OK Policy Blog examine the reasons behind Oklahoma’s teacher shortage and what we can do to fix it. You can see part one here and see part three here.
Evidence of the teacher shortage crisis facing Oklahoma has become overwhelming and undeniable. Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut per pupil state aid funding for public schools by almost one-quarter after inflation, the most of any state in the nation. As a result, Oklahoma has not increased the pay schedule for teachers since 2009. The average pay for Oklahoma teachers is now third lowest in the nation and well below that of neighboring states.
At the same time, Oklahoma has had extreme challenges in filling classroom positions: districts started this year with 1,000 teacher vacancies, even after eliminating 600 positions last year. More than one in six teachers in Oklahoma is “unqualified,” meaning they are teaching without a standard certification, according to the Oklahoma Equity Plan submitted to the State Department of Education. This year the state issued close to 1,000 emergency teaching certifications.
An important new study of the teacher shortage by University of Tulsa economist Matthew Hendricks spells out some disturbing consequences for Oklahoma students. More hopefully, the study also provides evidence that a substantial increase in teacher pay, such as the one being proposed by the “Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future” education funding initiative, would significantly address the shortage and improve the quality of education in Oklahoma’s schools. Here are the report’s main findings:
1. Oklahoma teacher pay is falling further behind
Hendricks shows that “teacher salaries are nearly universally lower in 2015 relative to what they were in 2016” when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher with five years’ experience and a Bachelors’ degree earns $34,000 today compared to $36,000 nine years ago, measured in 2015 dollars. Overall, Oklahoma teacher salaries are about 16 percent lower than in Texas and 28 percent lower than median salaries for similar workers in Oklahoma’s private sector.
2. Oklahoma is seeing increased teacher attrition and declining teacher experience
As school districts struggle to recruit and retain teachers, teacher turnover is higher, more teachers are leaving the Oklahoma public school system, and the average experience of teachers is declining. For the period from 2006-2014, about 35 percent of Oklahoma first-year teachers left their school and 17 percent left the public school system altogether; Oklahoma’s 17 percent attrition rate for first-year teachers compares to just 11 percent in Texas.
Attrition rates for more experienced teachers are lower, but still nearly 10 percent of teachers with 10 years of experience left the public school system each year. Since 2006, Oklahoma’s teacher turnover rate has increased for teachers at all levels of experience, with the exception of first-year teachers.
With increased attrition, the average experience of Oklahoma’s teachers has fallen from 12.8 years in 2006 to 11.4 years in 2015 (see data here). The Oklahoma Equity Plan found that 21.6 percent of all teachers in 2014 had three years of experience or less.
3. Low-income students are most affected by the teacher shortage
“Oklahoma’s most at-risk students are taught by teachers who are the least attached to their school.”
The decline in teacher experience and increase in teacher turnover that is affecting all schools, and low-income schools in particular, does real damage to student outcomes. The evidence shows that students perform better with more experienced teachers. Hendricks writes:
Simply put, teacher experience is the only observable teacher characteristic that is consistently related to teacher productivity. Strong evidence suggests that teachers improve with experience, as measured by their contribution to student achievement on standardized tests.
In particular, teacher performance has been shown to improve dramatically in the first four or five years of teaching. “Teachers improve a great deal at the beginning of their careers,” write John Papay and Mathew Kraft in a 2015 study in the Journal of Public Economics, a finding confirmed by earlier studies by Hendricks and by Douglas Harris and Tim Sass. This makes the growing number of inexperienced teachers in our schools, especially those serving the most at-risk students, very troubling.
5. Paying teachers more will help recruit and retain teachers
The research on teacher experience and student performance strongly suggests that Oklahoma students are hurting due to inexperienced and underqualified teachers. Would raising teacher salaries help address the problem? Hendricks answers with an emphatic yes. “If more funds are allocated to teacher salaries, average teacher productivity in the state is likely to improve substantially,” he writes. Hendricks suggests that a roughly 12 percent increase in teacher salaries — which equates to a raise of $4,500 based on the current median annual salary of $37,400 — would be enough to reduce teacher attrition rates in Oklahoma to the same rate as in Texas.
It should be noted that Hendrick’s optimal solution for addressing the teacher shortage is not necessarily an across-the-board raise of an equal amount for all teachers, as would be provided under the current initiative petition effort that proposes a $5,000 increase for all teachers. His research suggests that to decrease turnover, Oklahoma should alter its salary schedule to provide larger salary increases each year to novice teachers, followed by smaller increases for veteran teachers who have already committed to the career. However, an across-the-board raise would provide the largest percentage increase for newer teachers and thus could be especially effective in stopping the flow of young teachers leaving the profession.
Hendricks’ study offers valuable insights into how Oklahoma’s teacher salary structure could be redesigned to boost teacher retention. In particular, if we are to close the experience and turnover gap between teachers in low-income and higher-income schools, the state must be willing to consider paying teachers substantially more – perhaps up to 55 to 65 percent more – for serving the most at-risk populations.
Nonetheless, this research provides compelling evidence that the teacher shortage crisis is harming Oklahoma students, especially the most at-risk low-income students. It also shows that boosting teacher pay is likely to significantly reduce the problem. Oklahoma lawmakers and anyone who cares about the education of our children should pay close attention to these findings.