For the better part of the last decade, as I have engaged with my fellow superintendents from across the country regarding the most challenging issues confronting public education, the looming teacher shortage was always high in the topics discussed. Over the last few years, this issue has risen to the top of critical issues that need to be addressed as the vast majority of schools nationally opened this academic year without being fully staffed. By next year, it is predicted that there will be over 300,000 teacher vacancies in the US, with traditional university education programs suffering declining enrollments and not being able to close the gap.
This crisis has led to many states allowing more flexibility to hire uncertified teachers. While these provisions have always existed, they were designed for truly hard-to-fill/hard-to-staff positions in areas such as special education or career technology. Today, they are being used at scale for almost any position. Some states, such as Indiana and Florida, allow candidates to stay in emergency hire status for over five years while only having to show minimal progress toward getting their certification. This issue is most pronounced in Texas, where through a special provision of the law, known as the District of Innovation, uncertified candidates can be hired for an unspecified period and not have to show any progress towards getting certified. Last year, a staggering 31% of the 55,000 new teachers hired in Texas were uncertified. This percentage is expected to grow over the next several years.
Trying to help address this issue is why I left the superintendency recently to lead the largest teacher alternative certification program in the nation. Alt Cert programs have always been a great way for districts to bring in career changers, who tend to be more diverse than traditional university programs and come with real-world experiences. Now, such programs can play an important role in addressing this crisis.
As I have continued my conversations with superintendents across the country, I have been impressed with how many have shared that even though legislation and policies often allow for the hiring of uncertified candidates, this is not what they want for their districts and students. They have articulated strong reasons that they only want to hire uncertified teachers as a last resort and, even then, work to get those individuals certified as soon as possible. Some of the most common reasons provided are:
- Hiring uncertified candidates does not allow a district to fulfill its sacred commitment of putting the best teachers in front of students. These candidates often come into the classroom with no experience or preparation and struggle greatly with classroom management, lesson design, and overall pedagogy.
- Uncertified teachers leave the profession at a much higher rate than certified teachers. Recent data shows that over 60% of uncertified teachers leave the profession within five years. This churn creates an unsustainable workforce for schools to manage and instability for students.
- Relying on uncertified teachers presents potential equity issues. For many reasons, there is a disproportionate number of uncertified teachers in high-poverty and majority-minority schools. Having the least experienced and qualified educators with students who need highly accomplished teachers will undoubtedly increase the achievement gaps schools have been trying to close.
- Uncertified teachers present challenges for meeting state-mandated accountability. With the sheer volume of uncertified teachers entering the profession, schools can no longer avoid having these candidates not teach tested subjects. With schools needing to meet ever-increasing academic standards, it is not the time to rely on an unproven workforce.
- Laws may change that put more restrictions on hiring uncertified teachers. While current policies and laws have veered toward flexibility for districts in this area, as this issue gets more media attention, it is expected to shift to systems that require teachers to attain certification within a specific period, prompting proactive superintendents to get ahead of this.
- Parents expect certified teachers in the classroom. It’s very hard to explain to parents why they should be excited about an uncertified educator teaching their child. As media attention increases in this area and, inevitably, laws catch up to requiring schools to notify parents of certification issues, many school leaders want to be ahead of this potential PR issue.
- In a world of school choice, hiring certified teachers is a competitive advantage. Thoughtful school leaders, who understand the importance of marketing and branding in an environment of competition, can share proudly the focus they have on only hiring certified teachers. Private schools and many charters do not always make this a mandate of employment.
All of these reasons are important, and they also include another truth that proactive leaders are recognizing — hiring uncertified teachers diminishes the profession. While the urgency of the moment may require school leaders to hire some uncertified teachers, there is a recognition that if this becomes normalized, the profession will suffer. We would never accept uncertified doctors, lawyers, dentists, or accountants to perform important tasks for our families. How can we accept lowering standards when it comes to teaching our children?
This issue is complex and will require many thoughtful solutions. Yes, districts will be forced to hire some uncertified teachers over the next few years while many stakeholders need to come together to truly address the growing teacher shortage. In the short term, districts, certification providers, and policymakers will need to work together to ensure that uncertified teachers get into programs and complete their certification. Our children deserve no less.