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Funding collapse, critical testing threaten Oklahoma teacher exodus

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Josh Harden

Josh Harden, a secondary education senior, had plans to graduate in May, but those plans got halted when he had trouble passing the Oklahoma Subject Area Test. Those in education in Oklahoma must passes the OSAT to graduate.

A single test is holding an Oklahoma State University student back from graduating and taking the next step to become a teacher.

Josh Harden, a secondary education senior with an option in biological sciences, planned to graduate from OSU in May, but trouble passing the Oklahoma Subject Area Tests, exams students must pass before they can student teach and meet the requirements for graduation, has thwarted his plans.

Harden isn’t enrolled in classes this semester because student teaching is the last obstacle before he can graduate, he said. In the meantime, he’s searching for a part-time job in Stillwater. 

“Right now, it feels like I’m stuck,” Harden said. “I can’t pass the test, so I can’t student teach.”

In Oklahoma, students are required to pass three state tests before they can be certified to teach.

Required tests, combined with low teacher salary, have left some students feeling discouraged about the teaching climate in Oklahoma.

“Its frustrating,” Harden said. “We have to go above and beyond, but we’re going to get paid crap.”

Teacher Shortages

Oklahoma issued about 1,000 emergency teaching certificates to fill vacant positions this year because of teacher shortages.

Susan Stansberry, associate director of OSU professional education and associate professor, said low teacher pay, combined with other factors, is making it difficult for Oklahoma schools to recruit and retain teachers.

“It isn’t a teacher-shortage issue,” Stansberry said. “It’s a teacher-retention issue.”

In the 2012-13 school year, Oklahoma ranked 49th nationally in teacher salary at $44,128, according to National Center for Education statistics.

Some students are considering leaving the state in search of better pay.

Harden, who plans on teaching middle school biology upon gradation, is considering going abroad to teach English.

Abby McClellan, a secondary education senior with an option in biological sciences, took the biological sciences OSAT four times but hasn’t passed yet.

The test, which is administered through collaboration with Pearson and Certification Examinations for Oklahoma Educators, costs $135 to take the first time and $105 each time after.

Teachers and professors throughout Oklahoma help design the subject area tests, Stansberry said. She acknowledged some students have difficulty passing certain OSATs, especially biological sciences and Spanish.

When scores are low, the university works with staff and Certification Examinations for Oklahoma Educators on what can be done to improve, Stansberry said. The university also holds workshops to help prepare students, she said.

McClellan said not being able to move past the OSAT is frustrating, and lower teacher pay has made her reconsider teaching in Oklahoma, she said.

“(OSU professors) try to push us to stay in Oklahoma, but it’s very tempting to move to a different state,” McClellan said. “But even with all of the craziness, it has not dampened my spirit of being a teacher.”

The paths to teacher certification

There are nine paths to teacher certification in Oklahoma. Although the traditional route is through an accredited university, other teacher candidates can also get certified through alternative paths, such as Teach For America. There is also a route for out-of-state teachers.

All paths require a bachelor’s degree and the teacher candidate to take the OSAT, Oklahoma General Education Tests and Oklahoma Professional Teacher Examination.

By graduation, university students must prepare a portfolio, student teach for a semester, complete classroom observations and pass the three state standardized tests.

Going through an accredited school has more hurdles but leaves students better-prepared to enter a classroom, Stansberry said.

“If you come through this traditional path, and we know you’re going to do a great job and stay in the profession a long time, you have to do extra stuff,” Stansberry said. “And I think that’s what makes it really hard when people say, ‘Well I could get out there quicker if I skipped some of these things.’”

On average, 87.5 percent of test-takers enrolled in teacher education programs passed the Oklahoma General Education Tests, compared to 83 percent of those taking an alternative path to teacher certification, according to data from the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability’s 2015 annual report. 

Cuts to education  

In December, Preston Doerflinger, Oklahoma’s secretary of finance, announced the state was in the midst of a revenue failure and ordered 3-percent cuts to all state agencies. Plummeting oil prices and tax cuts have contributed to the decline in state revenue.

Oklahoma faces an estimated $1.3 billion budget shortfall for fiscal year 2017. As a result, nearly $47 million was cut from Oklahoma school districts in January and deeper cuts are expected this summer.

Some of the most severe consequences of the revenue failure include teacher shortages, schools potentially forced to close and growing classroom sizes.

Katelyn Caudle, an OSU alumna and high school English teacher in Jenks, said spending cuts haven't affected her school district as other districts have. However, teachers still feel the budget shortage, she said.

“We don’t have enough money to provide books for all the kids,” Caudle said. “We had to set up a GoFundMe and DonorsChoose just to buy novels.”

Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposed state budget, which she presented during her State of the State address Feb. 1, called for a $3,000 pay raise to public school teachers. Numerous other lawmakers have also proposed teacher pay raises.

Caudle said she’s glad lawmakers are acknowledging the low teacher pay, but $3,000 isn’t enough to keep teachers in Oklahoma.

“I had a great education at OSU,” Caudle said. “All the doctors and professors prepared us so well with observations and student teaching. When I graduated, I felt so prepared, and it’s sad we can be so well prepared but can’t afford what we love to be.”