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Teacher Shortage Prompts Some States to Lower the Bar

To ease a worsening teacher shortage, several states around the country are loosening requirements for teaching credentials.

By

Joseph De Avila and

Tawnell D. Hobbs

In the face of a worsening teacher shortage, several states around the country are loosening requirements for credentials that will make it easier to teach in public school classrooms.

Minnesota, Arizona and Illinois each revamped their licensing process this year to deal with a scarcity of educators. Utah did so last year, and Connecticut now is weighing whether to overhaul its certification process for the first time in two decades.

Kansas has relaxed the requirement for public-school teacher candidates in certain fields, no longer requiring them to complete a preparatory program before licensing as long as they have a bachelor’s degree, relevant work experience and a job offer from a school district. Arizona and Utah have given more discretion to local districts.

Oklahoma and California have turned to issuing more emergency teaching certificates as a way to fill vacancies. “This is something that absolutely is growing exponentially,” said Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s elected state school superintendent, a Republican.

A dearth of teachers has plagued U.S. public schools across the nation for the past two decades, mainly in hard-to-fill disciplines such as math, science, special education and English as a second language. All 50 states and Washington, D.C., have reported teacher shortages since 2005, according to federal figures.

The shortages come at a time of low unemployment, with industries from construction to trucking to prisons struggling to find workers. Recruitment is especially difficult for teaching, known for its low salaries and difficult state-issued credentials, say experts and state education officials. Some school administrators say that higher teacher wages could help offset vacancies, but such a recurring cost could strain already tight budgets.

In Colorado, where the unemployment rate is the second lowest in the country, rural towns are having an especially hard time finding teachers.

Thinning Ranks / Change in number of K-12 students enrolled in public schools and number of teachers enrolled in preparation programs since the 2009-10 academic yearSources: National Center for Education Statistics (students), Department of Education (teachers)

Kendra Anderson, superintendent of schools in Otis, Colo., said it was particularly tough this year to fill positions in her district in a ranching town in the northeast corner of the state. She had no luck finding candidates at job fairs this year, which in the past turned up several good prospects. “This was by far the most difficult” year, Ms. Anderson said.

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  • Colorado’s Rural Towns Struggle to Find Teachers

The district, which has 245 students, ended up hiring two teachers on substitute licenses who are in the process of applying for emergency credentials, said Mr. Anderson. A third teacher she hired has a substitute license and is pursuing full teacher credentials, she said.

Typically states require certification for public school teachers to ensure that educators have proper qualifications. But enrollment in teacher preparation programs has also plunged 42% to 418,573 in the 2014-2015 school year from six years earlier, according to the latest figures from U.S. Department of Education.

The drop in qualified applicants has forced states to take action. Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in May giving local school administrators the power to determine teacher certification. The new system allows candidates who have a higher-education degree and significant experience in a subject matter, including having taught a related course for the past two years, to get credentials.

“No longer will an outdated process keep qualified, dedicated individuals out of the classroom,” Mr. Ducey said in a statement at the time.

The measure was opposed by the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, a Republican.

“In my opinion, lowering the standards for new teachers is not the way to correct the problem,” she said in a statement before the bill’s passage. “Instead, I have recommended that we focus on increasing teacher salaries to help retain and attract the best candidates.”

Some education advocates in Arizona also said the state’s changes would reduce teacher quality.

“No profession improves in response to lower standards,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman with Save Our Schools Arizona, an advocacy group that represents parents and supports public education. “It goes against the fundamental notion of competition to lower standards as a way to achieve greater results.”

Minnesota Education Department commissioner Brenda Cassellius had similar concerns about legislation passed in May overhauling the state’s licensing program.

The new Minnesota system establishes four different tiers of licenses with varying requirements. For instance, the least restrictive tier requires either a bachelor’s degree or in some cases, an associate degree or five years of relative work experience or other qualifications. The district must demonstrate it couldn’t find a teacher at a higher tier and the license is only good for a year and may only be renewed three times.

Licenses can be granted to candidates who have never enrolled in a teacher preparation program for one of the higher tiers, according to the education department. These higher-tiered licenses can renewed indefinitely.

Ms. Cassellius said at the time the law passed that it would “lessen the professional licensing requirements of teachers and threatens our ability to have a highly trained professional in every classroom.”

For Dixie Meyer in Oklahoma, the ability to get an emergency certificate allowed her to take on a second career teaching high school biology. In Oklahoma, emergency applicants must pass the state’s requested subject area test or show they registered to take the test.

Ms. Meyer, who is beginning her third year of teaching and now is fully certified, said teaching wages in Oklahoma, where entry-level salaries start at $31,600, make it hard for many schools to recruit qualified candidates to teach math or science. But Ms. Meyer, 56 years old, said she took the job to give back to her town not for the money.

Oklahoma’s Ms. Hofmeister wants to virtually eliminate the need for emergency certificates by 2025. She said she is bolstering professional development programs to try to draw more interest in the profession and has launched a social media campaign to attract more candidates.

With no end in sight for Connecticut’s teacher shortage that has been worsening for the past five years, Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of Connecticut’s Education Department, said she wants to simplify the teacher certification process, such as allowing teachers to instruct more than one subject in science.

Ms. Wentzell said it is important for every teacher to be prepared to teach, but added it is equally important to make sure students have enough teachers.

“Right now we aren’t getting that right,” Ms. Wentzell said. “We’re erring on the side of caution at the certification level.”

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com and Tawnell D. Hobbs at Tawnell.Hobbs@wsj.com

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