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More Arkansas school districts hiring unlicensed teachers to cope with staff shortage

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More Arkansas school districts hiring unlicensed teachers to cope with staff shortage

Mar 04, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Antoinette Grajeda
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More Arkansas school districts hiring unlicensed teachers to cope with staff shortage
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One in 12 educators working in Arkansas public schools are unlicensed or teaching outside of their certification area.

That number has more than doubled in the last seven years, an Advocate analysis of state data found, as districts have used additional licensure exceptions to cope with teacher shortages.

Research is mixed about what this trend means for students, but studies have found that certification status isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness.

What is clear: Some schools in the state couldn’t hold classes without the ability to hire unlicensed or under-certified teachers thanks to declining populations and a dwindling educator pipeline.

The number of U.S. education students declined by about a quarter of a million between 2008 and 2020, but that decrease is leveling out, according to Education Week. Arkansas saw a 49% decline in teacher-preparation program enrollees from 2008-2021.

Teacher recruitment and retention can be particularly challenging for rural towns like Marianna, where Lee County School Superintendent Micheal Stone said licensure exceptions are useful tools for filling teacher vacancies. Districts, though, often need to develop unlicensed educators’ classroom skills, Stone said.

“It’s important to have that pedagogy and that understanding of how to teach if you’re going to move that needle of academics,” he said.

Education officials often cite the importance of high-quality teachers, but research shows that licensure is just one factor that may affect teacher effectiveness.

Arkansas education board grants Marvell-Elaine teacher licensure waiver

A report on North Carolina teachers and students concluded that a teacher’s experience, test scores and regular licensure all have positive effects on student achievement. 

Meanwhile, a study of certified, uncertified and alternatively certified New York City public school teachers found that teachers’ certification status, on average, had “at most small impacts on student test performance.” However, among teachers with the same certification status, there were “large and persistent differences in teacher effectiveness.” 

“This evidence suggests that classroom performance during the first two years, rather than certification status, is a more reliable indicator of a teacher’s future effectiveness,” the report says.

Asked if the Arkansas Department of Education was concerned about the increase in waiver usage and, if so, what steps are being taken to address some of the issues that have made it challenging for districts to recruit and hire licensed teachers, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell didn’t respond directly, instead saying, “research shows that the most important factor in student achievement is a high-quality teacher leading instruction in the classroom.” 

Requests by the Advocate to interview the education department’s assistant commissioner of educator effectiveness and licensure for this story were not granted. 

Act 1240 waivers

According to Arkansas Department of Education data, about 8% of the state’s 35,100 teachers have one of five licensure exceptions. Of the four exceptions that don’t require licensure, Act 1240 Waivers are the most common, accounting for about half.

Act 1240 of 2015 allows school districts to petition the State Board of Education for waivers granted to open-enrollment public charter schools, including employing teachers who aren’t licensed under Arkansas’ standard procedures.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, 29 districts employed 117 teachers under Act 1240 waivers, according to data reported to the state. By the current school year, that had steadily increased to 70 districts and 927 teachers. This represents nearly a third of the state’s 234 traditional public school districts and 2.6% of teachers.

Act 1240 waivers can help address teacher shortages in subject matter and geographic areas. An annual report identified 100 traditional public school districts as geographic shortage areas, including the North Little Rock School District, which reported 152 teachers on an Act 1240 waiver this year, the most of any district. 

(The North Little Rock district said the reported number is an error and encompasses more than Act 1240 waivers. District officials said they currently have 81 teachers employed under an Act 1240 waiver, which is still the most of any district this year.)

Jacob Smith, North Little Rock’s executive director of human resources, said the biggest challenge the district faces is the qualifications associated with a teaching license. While individuals might have the appropriate coursework or experience, other steps to obtain a standard teaching license can be cumbersome, he said.

These steps are good for education as a whole, but it still does not change the fact that the aforementioned steps take time to complete,” Smith said. “I believe that the uptick in teachers on waivers and alternative pathways is due to individuals entering education as a profession, but not necessarily going to college for that career path.”

Smith said waivers provide an opportunity to hire an individual who doesn’t have a degree in education or lacks a teaching license, but may be an expert in their career field. 

“Even though they don’t have full license, they obviously have a plethora of experience that would be beneficial for said position, and so we would never want to have to pass up on a candidate like that because of the licensure situation,” he said.

The majority of geographic shortage areas are located in south and east Arkansas, rural regions that have historically struggled with teacher recruitment and retention.

“Without this waiver, schools in our area of the state would simply be unable to fill open teacher positions,” Star City Superintendent Jordan Frizzell said. “There are simply not enough candidates in the pipeline. This waiver has been very beneficial to our district, and we have had a high success rate in hiring candidates and getting them licensed as teachers.”

Act 1240 waivers can be tailored to a district’s specific needs. Teachers hired under Star City’s waiver, for example, must have at least a bachelor’s degree, be enrolled in a teacher licensure program and have a three-year plan to complete all requirements to become licensed in the area they’re teaching, Frizzell said.

The Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperative applied for a waiver in 2017 on behalf of a dozen districts it served, including Star City. 

Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperative Interim Director Norman Hill said a lack of jobs in the region has contributed to a declining population. As districts lose students, they receive less state funds and offer lower salaries than other parts of the state, especially Northwest Arkansas, Hill said. 

The lack of a local four-year college where students can earn certification also hurts the region’s ability to produce homegrown teachers, he said.

“Our young people that leave the area to attend college usually do not come back to our area to teach because of the salaries and job opportunities for their spouse,” Hill said.

Licensure exceptions

A public school may apply for an exception from the requirement for a licensed educator “if it imposes an undue hardship for a school to timely fill a vacant position with a qualified individual licensed in the required licensure content area and level of licensure,” according to ADE.

In addition to Act 1240 waivers, districts can apply for an Aspiring Teacher Permit, Emergency Teaching Permit and Long-Term Substitutes.

Created by Act 732 of 2023, an Aspiring Teacher Permit allows students completing a traditional internship through an approved Arkansas university to teach. Districts apply for the permit and interns apply for positions with districts.

Eighteen students participated in the new program last fall, and 10 are participating in the spring semester, according to the education department. 

An Emergency Teaching Permit allows educators to teach without a license. Applicants must have relevant work experience in the content area and a bachelor’s degree.

They must also meet one of the following requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree or advanced degree in the content area they’ll teach
  • A bachelor’s degree or advanced degree that contains a minimum of 18 college credit hours in the content area they’ll teach
  • Successful completion of a content area assessment approved by the State Board of Education for the content area they’ll teach
  • Be a National Board Certified Teacher for the content area they’ll teach

A long-term substitute teacher takes the place of a contracted teacher for longer than 60 consecutive days and must have at least a bachelor’s degree or be licensed to teach by the state of Arkansas. 

Unlike these four exceptions, an Additional Licensure Plan does require a license. This exception allows an educator to be employed out of their licensure area for up to three consecutive school years with state board approval. 

Nationwide challenges

Using licensure exceptions to address staffing challenges is not unique to Arkansas.

Oklahoma, for example, set a new record for emergency teaching certifications when the state issued an all-time high of 4,676 from June to December 2023, according to the Oklahoma Voice.

The certificate permits a person with at least a bachelor’s degree to work in public schools without having any teacher training in the grade level or subject area they want to teach. 

The need for emergency certifications and licensure waivers can be linked to nationwide struggles with teacher recruitment and retention.

While teacher retention in Arkansas improved slightly from the 2022-2023 to 2023-2024 school year, turnover remains above pre-pandemic rates, with 76% of teachers staying at the same school compared to 79% pre-pandemic, according to research from the University of Arkansas Office of Education Policy. 

Higher turnover continues to be driven by teachers switching into non-teaching roles or leaving public education altogether. The report also found that teacher retention continues to be lowest in the southern and eastern regions of the state. 

High-poverty districts in southeast Arkansas are also where Act 1240 waiver teachers are most prevalent, according to a 2023 Office of Education Policy study

Josh McGee, Office of Education Policy associate director, said locations with a higher proportion of unlicensed teachers tend to be places that face a lot of other challenges, including high poverty rates and declining population.

Waivers are not creating the challenge, they’re simply an indication of the challenges those communities face, he said.

“The use of waivers and the use of unlicensed teachers is highly correlated with childhood poverty…now how do we solve that? I think it is a complex problem that’s going to take multiple approaches,” McGee said. 

According to the 2023 report, determining the relationship between Act 1240 waivers and student achievement is complicated because achievement scores are highly correlated with school poverty levels. 

Schools that use Act 1240 waivers may have underlying differences that contribute to lower student achievement than similar schools, but “the introduction of teachers working under Act 1240 waivers does not, on average, significantly impact the academic growth of students within waiver schools,” according to the study.

Research on New Jersey and Massachusetts schools similarly found that teachers who entered the profession under emergency licenses without completing the full requirements performed no worse than their peers who went through regular training.

Long-term solutions

To eliminate the need for waivers, Hill, the southeast Arkansas cooperative director, said several things need to change, including “the lack of respect for teachers in our society,” and educator pay.  

Arkansas schools compress salary schedules in response to LEARNS Act

“Salaries for teachers must be competitive with other professions that require a four-year degree,” Hill said. “Funding for school districts need to be more equalized and not fluctuate yearly based upon [enrollment and attendance].”

McGee said increasing Arkansas’ minimum teacher salary to $50,000 through the LEARNS Act could be particularly helpful for rural districts that have struggled with low salaries. But it won’t solve all the staffing challenges in these places, he said.

“You also need a supply of folks who want to live and work in these areas, and it’s going to be challenging to recruit and retain people that will move there,” he said.

Hill said ADE has worked with districts in developing alternative licensure pathways, which could also cut down on the number of waivers.

“I think they are concerned and would like to see the number of waivers decreased, but are struggling in how to address the problem,” he said.

In response to an executive order to review educator preparation and licensure requirements last year, ADE conducted focus groups and administered surveys. Among other things, focus group participants noted the Praxis test required for licensure is a barrier for novice teachers because of its cost and difficulty in passing the exam. 

Fees vary based on the type of exam and how many are taken at once. For example, the three Core tests (Reading, Writing and Mathematics) are $90 each or $150 when taking all three exams at the same time on the same date.

A quarter of those taking Praxis for elementary math and English and more than half of those taking the Praxis for middle school math must take the exam more than once before achieving a passing score, according to the Office of Education Policy’s Teacher Workforce Report.

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva discussed with the State Board of Education last September expanding options for candidates to attain state licensure besides taking qualifying tests.

McGee’s office is analyzing licensure exams, which he said do present a barrier for some people getting licensed and does limit the supply of educators, especially in certain subjects.

“That’s one thing we’re digging into right now is where the state draws the cut scores on those exams and whether that is creating a good screen that is highly associated with teaching effectiveness, or whether some licensure requirements like those cut scores could be relaxed without harming teaching effectiveness while increasing supply,” McGee said.

How we did it

The Advocate sourced data from the Arkansas Department of Education’s MySchoolInfo website. The website is populated using data districts submitted to ADE by Oct. 15 annually.

The Advocate created reports for traditional public school districts’ data on Act 1240 waivers, Emergency Teacher Permits, Long-term Substitutes, Additional Licensure Plans and employed teachers for the 2016-2017 academic year through the 2023-2024 school year.

The 2016-2017 academic year was the first year data became available and ADE began tracking it for Act 1240 waivers, Long-term Substitutes and Additional Licensure Plans.

ADE provided Aspiring Teacher Permit data, and the childhood poverty rate was calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.

The Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Arkansas School for the Deaf and Division of Youth Services School were excluded from this analysis.

The total number of school districts varied from year to year because of school district closures. There were 235 districts from the 2016-2017 academic year until the 2020-2021 school year. Following the closure of the Dollarway School District in 2021, there were 234 districts. 

Chart embed codes are available here.