As schools across the South grapple with vacancies, many turn to those without teaching certificates or formal training to serve students.
Alabama administrators increasingly hire educators with emergency certifications, often in low-income and majority Black neighborhoods. Texas, meanwhile, allowed about 1 in 5 new teachers to sidestep certification last school year.
In Oklahoma, lawmakers expanded an “adjunct” program that enables schools to hire applicants without teacher training if they meet a local board’s qualifications. And then there’s Florida, where military veterans without a bachelor’s degree can teach for up to five years using temporary certificates.
Read more Ed Lab stories in this series:
Teacher shortages are real, but not for the reasons you’ve heard.
These states provide a window into the patchwork approach across the South that allows those without traditional training to lead a classroom. Officials must determine if it’s better to hire these adults, even if they aren’t fully prepared, or let children end up in crowded classes or with substitutes.
“I’ve seen what happens when you don’t have teachers in the classroom. I’ve seen the struggle,” Dallas trustee Maxie Johnson said just before the school board approved expanding that district’s reliance on uncertified teachers. He added, “I’d rather have someone that my principal has vetted, that my principal believes in, that can get the job done.”
A Southern Regional Education Board analysis of 2019-20 data in 11 states found roughly 4% of teachers -- which could be up to 56,000 educators – were uncertified or teaching with an emergency certification. In addition, 10% were teaching out of field, which means, for example, they may be certified to teach high school English but assigned to a middle school math class.
By 2030, as many as 16 million K-12 students in the region may be taught by an unprepared or inexperienced teacher, the Southern Regional Education Board projects.
“Lowering standards and lowering the preparedness, the training and the supports for teachers has been happening for at least a decade, if not longer,” said the nonprofit’s Megan Boren. “The shortages are getting worse and morale is continuing to fall for teachers.”
Districts need immediate fixes
The trustees in Dallas, for example, leaned into a state program that allows districts to bypass certification requirements, often to hire industry professionals for career-related classes. But Texas’ second-largest district had to fill elementary classrooms and core subjects in middle and high schools. DISD hired 335 teachers through the exemption as of mid-September.
Texas’ reliance on uncertified new hires ballooned over the last decade. In the 2011-12 school year, fewer than 7% of the state’s new teachers – roughly 1,600 – didn’t have a certification. By last year, about 8,400 of the state’s nearly 43,000 new hires were uncertified.
In Alabama, nearly 2,000 of the state’s 47,500 teachers — 4% — didn’t hold a full certificate in 2020-21, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s double the state’s reliance on such educators from five years earlier.
And almost 7% of Alabama teachers were in classrooms outside of their certification fields, with the highest percentages in rural areas with high rates of poverty.
Ongoing problems in Alabama
Many states have loosened requirements since the pandemic hit, but relying on uncertified teachers isn’t new.
Nearly all states have emergency or provisional licenses that allow a person who has not met requirements for certification to teach. Such licenses are renewable in many areas, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The rush to get more bodies into classrooms only delays the inevitable as such teachers don’t tend to stay as long as others, said Shannon Holston, the nonprofit’s policy chief. Meanwhile, student learning suffers because the quality of education takes a hit, she added.
“It has some unintended consequences down the road that in the immediacy of us trying to perhaps fix a staffing challenge for the 22-23 school year has greater or more taxable consequences down the line potentially,” she said.
In a 2016 study, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 1.7% of all teachers did not have a full certification. It went up to roughly 3% in schools that served many students of color or children learning English as well as schools in urban and high-poverty areas.
The use of such educators can be concentrated in certain fields and content areas. One example: Alabama’s middle schools.
Rural Bullock County, for example, had no certified math teachers last year in its middle school. Nearly 80% of students are Black, 20% are Hispanic, and 7 in 10 of all students are in poverty.
Christopher Blair, the county’s former schools superintendent, long struggled to recruit teachers. Poorer counties can’t compete with higher salaries in neighboring districts, and statewide recruiting initiatives often aren’t enough to increase the teacher pools when fewer and fewer educators are graduating from traditional programs.
Blair, who resigned from his post last spring, had launched a program in Bullock County to help certify its math and science teachers.
“But that’s slowly changing as the teacher pool for all content areas diminishes,” he said.
In Montgomery, seven of the 10 middle schools had rates higher than 10%, and three of those exceeded 20%. Birmingham had three middle schools where more than 20% of teachers had emergency certification.
Birmingham spokeswoman Sherrel Stewart said district officials seek good candidates for emergency certifications and then give them the support needed through robust mentoring.
“We have to think outside of the box,” she said. “Because realistically, you know, that pool of candidates in education schools has drastically reduced but the demand for high quality educators is still there.”
Prior to 2019, an emergency certificate in Alabama could only be used for one year. But after a teacher shortage task force recommended changes, lawmakers changed to a two-year certification and gave educators the option to extend an additional two years.
The prohibition against using such certificates in elementary school was lifted, too.
Since then, the number of teachers holding emergency certificates increased dramatically in rural, urban, and low-income schools across the state.
The highest percentage of teachers on such status in Alabama during the 2020-21 school year was in rural Lowndes County in an elementary school where seven of 16 teachers — 42% of the teaching force — had an emergency certificate, up from three the previous year.
Most of the school’s 200 students, about 70%, are from low-income families. Only 1% of students tested reached proficiency in math that year.
The National Council on Teacher Quality recommends states not offer emergency certifications, but if they do, they should only be good for one year and nonrenewable.
Texas’ flexability on certifications, training
Dallas principals look for “highly-qualified” individuals committed to teaching who have strong academic backgrounds, said Robert Abel, the district’s human capital management chief. “For us, it’s about the passion, not about the paper.”
Dallas’ uncertified hires — who must have a college degree — participate in ongoing district-specific training on classroom management and effective teaching practices.
Abel said the district is getting positive reports so far as many who came in through this pathway have achieved academic distinctions with their students.
Texas lawmakers have embraced policies that give public schools flexibility in hiring uncertified teachers.
In 2015, the state loosened teacher certification requirements under a program called Districts of Innovation.
More than 800 public school districts — out of over 1,000 — have the flexibility to allow non-certified people to teach in specific areas.
Charters, a growing sector of public schools that operate independently from traditional districts, also have leeway in certification requirements.
Some teacher groups worry about inconsistent expectations for teacher candidates.
“You’re dealing with children’s lives, and you have very extreme and important responsibilities related to children,” said Andrea Chevalier, a former lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “Having the certification demonstrates the professionalism that is required for that.”
Texas officials didn’t provide information on where these teachers are concentrated and what subject areas they’re teaching. It’s unknown how the influx of uncertified teachers impacts students.
A great teacher needs sensitivity and empathy to understand how a child is motivated and what could interfere with learning, said Lee Vartanian, a dean at Athens State University.
They must know how to keep a child’s attention, engage them, and ensure the information sticks, he said.
A certification helps set professional standards to ensure teachers have those qualities as well as content expertise, said Vartanian, who oversees the Alabama university’s College of Education.
Uncertified teachers may have some of that knowledge, he said, but not the full range.
“They’re just less prepared systematically,” he said, “and so chances are they’re not going to have the background and understanding where kids are developmentally and emotionally.”
The Alabama Education Lab’s Rebecca Griesbach contributed to this report.
This story is part of a national collaboration between Education Labs and journalists at The Associated Press, AL.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News in Texas, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com is supported through a partnership with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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