OREGON NEWS, SCHOOLS

Oregon schools lean heavily on emergency teachers, including untrained ones

Struggling with staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic, Oregon schools leaned heavily last year on teachers who received emergency licenses from the state. 

During the 2021-22 school year, districts employed 438 emergency licensed teachers, up from 181 the year prior and a low of 134 five years ago, according to data from the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. Emergency licensed teachers can fill a full-time role at one school in a single subject area for up to one year. These teachers are not required to have a bachelor’s degree or any training. Last school year was also the first time the state approved an emergency substitute teaching license following reports of staffing difficulties by individual districts, education service districts and public charters.

The license was good for six months but due to expire at the end of June. Teachers could work in all schools and teach any subject in the district that hired them. Of the state’s 197 school districts, 145 hired emergency substitute teachers, employing more than 1,100 last school year, data from the commission show. 

In April, the license was extended until July 2023, and the six-month limit was lifted. Emergency substitutes, however, are barred from taking any assignment that exceeds 10 consecutive days.

Schools serving predominantly children of color are about four times more likely to be assigned uncertified or under certified teachers, according to U.S. Education Department data. Also, low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers than other students.

The Oregon Department of Education, which oversees equity, access and quality in public education, declined to answer questions or discuss the growing reliance on emergency certified teachers in the state and the impact on students. Instead, the department brushed off multiple requests from the Capital Chronicle. In an email, Peter Rudy, an agency spokesman, said districts themselves and the commission would “be the best folks to talk to about this issue.” 

The state’s second largest school district, Salem-Keizer, employed 200 emergency certified teachers and substitutes, the largest number of any district in the state. Salem-Keizer employs about 2,000 full-time teachers, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

Sylvia McDaniel, the district’s communications director, said schools experienced an increase in resignations and struggled to fill special education positions. 

“We are taking advantage of the flexibility offered by (the commission) regarding substitute licensure,” she wrote in an email. “Having more substitutes has helped with these and all vacant positions.”

More than 45% of students at Salem-Keizer are Hispanic, according to data from the state Education Department. 

McDaniel said parents did not complain to the district’s human resources department about the quality of instruction their kids were getting from emergency certified teachers.

Shortages hit small, large districts

Rural areas tend to face the most difficulty filling teaching positions in Oregon.

Eagle Point, a district of about 4,000 students north of Medford where nearly one-third of students are Hispanic, used few full-time teachers with emergency licenses but employed 57 emergency substitutes last school year. In a district with about 200 full-time teachers, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, the emergency substitutes constituted a 30% increase in teachers in the district. 

“There’s just not enough subs around the state,” said Ryan Swearingen, Eagle Point’s human resources director.

The district first contacted current and former teachers, asking them to substitute. Then it tried to hire teachers working as school education staff, including aides. As a second choice, it tried to find certified substitute teachers. Getting substitute candidates emergency licensed was the last option. 

Swearingen said there are always shortages in certain areas, such as special education and math. Last year, schools also contended with Covid outbreaks, with teachers getting sick. 

The district encouraged para-professionals and classroom aides to get an emergency license, especially if they were interested in becoming a full-time teacher one day. 

“We opened it up to all of them,” he said. “You’re always looking to grow your own teachers and some are now enrolled in teaching programs.”

Because of increased day rates and bonuses for substitute teachers offered by many districts last year, emergency licenses allowed auxiliary classroom employees to make more money for a few days. Swearingen said few taught for long periods.

“Some of them may have done it one time all of last year but still have the license,” he said. 

State legislators look for solutions

Research from economists at Stanford University and Columbia University suggests that a teacher’s experience is more important than credentials. But qualified teachers tend to stay longer. Nationwide, teachers with the least pre-service preparation quit up to three times more than teachers with the most comprehensive preparation, according to research from the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Palo Alto, California.

Nationwide, nearly half of teachers quit within their first five years on the job, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania. In the late 1980s, the typical public school teacher in the U.S. had about 15 years experience. Today, that teacher is in their first year. 

In December 2021, state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, convened a 50-person working  group to study Oregon’s teacher shortages and come up with solutions. The group included teachers; representatives from the Oregon Department of Education; the state’s largest teachers union, the Oregon School Boards Association; the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and several colleges and universities around the state.

The group, which will meet this week, was behind the decision by the Legislature in February to allocate nearly $100 million for schools to spend on teacher recruitment and retention, including bonuses, and to reimburse substitute teachers and instructional assistants for training costs incurred through January 2024.

Nearly every school district and 14 of the state’s 19 education service districts have applied for the money.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.