An earlier version of this article misquoted Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and incorrectly identified the public office Jessica Garvin holds. The story has been updated.
When students returned to class this year, a growing number of them were greeted by adults with no teacher training and, in some cases, no more than a high school diploma.
States desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements. Public officials are openly challenging the idea that a degree in education should be a prerequisite for getting into the classroom and are aiming to undo long-standing license rules. Some states now permit people to teach without finishing college in certain cases, and many increasingly rely on substitutes — who are usually not required to have college degrees — to fill teaching jobs full-time.
The pandemic created staffing crises in many schools. In other places, such as Oklahoma and Arizona, those crises existed long before 2020, driven in part by low teacher pay, cuts to school spending and less interest in the teaching profession.
The moves to address those problems today come as right-wing politicians paint schools and universities as bastions of liberal ideology. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who had previously called a college degree “a magic piece of paper which likely would have cost too much anyway,” recently introduced programs to put community college graduates and military veterans in classrooms with mentor teachers.
“The teachers that become great teachers don’t become great teachers because they’re sitting in some university lecture hall listening to some professor bloviate,” DeSantis said when he announced an initiative to allow community college graduates to teach under a mentor teacher for two years. “What makes a teacher great is actually being there, doing it, watching experienced teachers and seeing what they do that works, working directly with students.”
Many states have loosened job criteria over the years to draw more people into the teaching profession. In 2019, only 15 states required that candidates pass a basic skills test — which measures whether they have a grasp of math, reading and writing — according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. Many states allow people to work on short-term licenses while they are still in teacher preparation programs. In the pandemic, more states loosened requirements, some just temporarily.
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Critics of these moves worry about the consequences of putting adults without proper training in front of students at a time when school closures have cratered academic outcomes. Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that high-poverty schools have less-experienced and less-qualified teachers than wealthier ones and that teacher shortages are more acute in high-poverty schools.
“So we put our least prepared, least qualified, least experienced teachers into the schools where students need the most,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She said states have been eroding prerequisites for years, with many doing away with requirements for exams that test whether aspiring educators actually know the material they want to teach. “When we do this, we ignore in the research on how you should teach kids specific skills like reading or early numeracy or the knowledge base that exists for successfully serving students.”
School officials say emergency-certified teachers need far more support than other first-year educators and are often surprised at how difficult and time-consuming the work can be. They underestimate how technology has changed school, and how less-than-intuitive skills, such as managing Google Classroom, are now necessities.
“There’s that old saying that everyone thinks they know everything about schools because they’ve been to school,” said Chris LeGrande, the principal of Guthrie High outside Oklahoma City. He has managed emergency-certified teachers who did not know how to plan lessons that filled class time and left students to their own devices if their lessons ended early. “I see a lot of kids on phones,” he said, “which I consider wasted instructional time, which ultimately is not beneficial to our students.”
Florida — where shortages in some places are acute and where teachers labor under a raft of recently passed laws that restrict how they talk about race and sex education — has boosted teacher pay. It also introduced an initiative that will permit military veterans to teach alongside a credentialed teacher for two years and then lead classes alone, provided they’ve served four years of active duty, acquired 60 college credits, and enter a five-year teacher’s license program. As of Friday, 341 people had applied to participate in the program.
Arizona’s state board of education voted this year to permit substitute teachers, who need only a high school diploma, to serve as full-time classroom teachers for an entire school year in response to its state staffing pinch. Under a law passed this year, it also allows those earning bachelor’s degrees to teach with the guidance of a mentor for two years.
“Schools are struggling to find substitute teachers, which is causing learning disruptions for students and placing pressure on teachers and administrators,” the board members wrote.
Paul Tighe recently left his job as the superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified School District on the outskirts of Phoenix. During his tenure, he said, it became so difficult to find qualified teachers that an elementary school ended up hiring two parents who were working on their education degrees to teach elementary school classes by themselves. The term “substitute teacher” has become a misnomer at many Arizona schools, because many end up teaching full-time to fill vacancies, instead of being a backup for teachers who are out.
“We basically gave them on-the-job student teaching,” Tighe said.
Oklahoma has introduced an “adjunct teacher” program that allows school boards to hire anyone who passes a background check as a teacher, so long as state education officials also sign off. According to John Waldron, a state lawmaker who represents Tulsa, there have been 248 applications for adjunct teachers this year.
Oklahoma state Sen. Jessica Garvin (R) said she believes teacher preparation is important, but she also thought the state’s requirements were too rigid — and were excluding people in other careers who had the potential to be great teachers. So she introduced a bill to expand the program, which previously permitted such candidates to work only part-time.
She was partly inspired, she said, by her doctor, who told her he was working on getting his teaching credentials so he could teach anatomy at a local high school. She was shocked that he needed a credential.
“I was like ‘You could amputate my leg, but you can’t go teach anatomy?’ ” Garvin said. “I just felt like that was so restrictive.”
The program has no minimum requirements. Garvin said she trusts that school boards will be prudent in whom they hire.
Waldron, a former history teacher now serving as a state representative, worries that desperate school districts will hire people unfit to be in classrooms. Waldron ran for office in 2018 after budget cuts and low teacher pay prompted a statewide teacher walkout that eventually led state lawmakers to increase education funding and raise teacher salaries. It has done little to stem the shortage, Waldron said.
“We hit rock bottom, broke through and found a whole new bottom,” Waldron said of the new teacher adjunct law.
Oklahoma, which has long contended with acute teacher shortages, passed a law a little more than a decade ago permitting districts that had exhausted all means of finding qualified educators to get an “emergency certification” for anyone who held a college degree, even if the person had no training.
America faces catastrophic teacher shortage
It was meant to be a stopgap in extraordinary circumstances — in the program’s first year the state issued 32 licenses — but the emergency seems never to have ended. Last school year, the state board of education issued more than 3,600 emergency teaching licenses, a record, according to KOSU, an NPR affiliate in the state. It is on track this year to break that record, increasing the proportion of untrained educators among the state’s 45,000-member teaching corps.
At a roundtable with reporters last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that to draw people into the teaching profession — and to retain them — working conditions need to improve. He listed the challenges facing teachers: They feel under attack, micromanaged and disrespected; they are not given the resources they need to help their students succeed; and they sometimes have to take on second jobs just to make ends meet.
“Better working condition also means that we revisit normalizing that teachers could work in classrooms that are 95 degrees all day with a class of 27 students,” Cardona said. “If we’re serious about lifting the profession, if we’re serious about lifting education, we must invest in our educators.”
In a letter to school leaders in December, Cardona spelled out ways for schools to recruit and retain teachers, including using coronavirus relief funds to boost teacher compensation, focusing on the well-being of staffers and bringing more people into the profession by covering the cost of their teacher preparation courses in exchange for a commitment to teach in a district. He also urged states to set up teaching apprenticeships — programs that pay for aspiring teachers’ education and allows them to work and be paid while they earn their degrees.
But nowhere in the seven-page letter did he suggest doing away with job requirements.
“When the nation’s report card is showing that our students have dropped drastically — to provide educators who are not qualified or trained in the pedagogy of teaching is a slap in the face to the profession,” Cardona said.