The number of teachers who lack a proper state certification hired in several Houston-area school districts is skyrocketing, mirroring a statewide trend.
Some districts and the Texas Education Agency regard the new trend as a practical short-term solution to staffing shortages, while education researchers say it’s an alarming new habit that results in poorer student outcomes and teacher retention.
Half of the teachers hired at Galena Park and Spring Independent School Districts during the 2022-23 school year were uncertified, a jump from 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively, in the year prior. Aldine, Goose Creek, Sheldon, Alvin, Klein and Fort Bend ISDs also saw large increases in uncertified hires.
In these districts, the trends far surpass the percentage of new uncertified hires Houston ISD has brought in over recent years. However, HISD leadership hasn't been shy about its method of hiring of uncertified teachers to fill vacancies for the 2023-24 school year, though data is not yet available to confirm if these hires lead HISD's numbers to match surrounding districts.
Jake Kobersky, director of media relations at the Texas Education Agency, said the boom of uncertified hires is the result of a combination of factors: districts employing more teachers; more vacancies spurred by higher teacher attrition; and fewer newly certified teachers emerging from educational programs.
To address this, districts have embraced hiring practices that some find less than ideal.
“Everybody would want fully certified teachers if they had that option, right? But that doesn't exist today,” said Amber Williams, Fort Bend’s human resources director.
Twenty-seven percent of Fort Bend district’s new hires last year were uncertified, up from 11 percent the year prior.
The rapidly growing trend doesn’t mean districts are bringing in lesser-qualified employees “unchecked,” said Toni Templeton, a researcher at the University of Houston Education Research center.
Rather, they’re doing so within the parameters of Texas law, which has allowed for more flexibility in schools’ hiring practices — paving the way for schools’ uncertified teacher hires to shoot up.
Properly certified teachers complete a bachelor’s degree, a program that prepares for educating others and state certification exams. According to Templeton, uncertified teachers lack the crucial step where they’ve been “taught how to teach.”
Uncertified teachers often bring varying levels of experience with them to the classroom, depending on the route they took to get there.
A district that receives a “District of Innovation'' designation is exempt from certain components of the Texas Education Code, including teacher certification requirements. This can attract uncertified educators who are experts in their own field, often to teach students technical skills, such as cosmetology or welding.
Uncertified educators can also join an “alternative certification program” and seek their state credential while they’re actively employed as a classroom teacher.
In Fort Bend’s case, teachers pursuing an alternative certification process are dubbed “instructional apprentices,” which the district hired 224 of this year. These positions are the difference of 200 classrooms having a permanent teacher or not, Williams said.
Galena Park and Spring also implemented an alternative certification program for uncertified teachers, district officials confirmed. Klein, Sheldon, Goose Creek, Alvin and Aldine ISDs did not make any board members or staff available for interviews with the Houston Landing.
In a statement, a Spring ISD official said uncertified professionals are not the district’s first option, but they are a plausible alternative “in light of the challenges public education is facing.”
“We’re dealing with a nationwide shortage, and we’re being as creative as we can,” Williams said. “Rather than having subs or administrators filling in day-to-day in our classrooms while we scramble for teachers, this gives them a stable, loving, caring professionals to take care of them and give them a proper education.”
Reasons for concern
Fort Bend parent Adeel Akhtar has long been concerned about the longevity of teachers in his district.
Through the years, he’s noticed the teachers at his children’s schools often move between campuses or leave the district or profession altogether.
“All the teachers I went to school with had gray hair,” Akhtar said. “When I came here I was like, ‘What?’ All of these teachers were the same age I was.”
To him, that symbolized a shift he was previously unfamiliar with. It seemed that the district didn’t have many teachers who’d been in the profession for a long time, which is “just not ideal,” he said.
The amount of experience held by Fort Bend ISD teachers is on par with the state’s averages, but he’s right to be concerned about districts’ ability to keep teachers around. Teacher attrition has shot up after the pandemic, according to the TEA, climbing to 13.4 percent during the 2022-23 school year after hovering around 10 percent for a decade prior to 2020.
And when districts opt to hire uncertified teachers, they’re bringing in educators that are less likely to stick around long term.
“Statewide data shows a much lower retention rate for non-certified teachers than for teachers who have a certification,” Kobersky said. “This could potentially create longer-term issues for districts as they continue to have more vacancies to fill and have more, less experienced teachers in classrooms over time.”
In Galena Park ISD, where half of 2022-23 new hires were uncertified, one in four of such hires didn’t return this year, a spokesperson said.
According to Templeton, the UH researcher, this is exactly why the growth of uncertified teachers in the classroom is a large concern.
“Turnover in a student's classroom matters,” Templeton said. “We are concerned that uncertified teachers are more frequently in the classroom because we know from the evidence (that) certified teachers go into the classroom and stay longer and they are connected with higher student outcomes.”
Changing the recipe that’s caused the situation districts are left to grapple with — post-pandemic shortages, declining enrollment in traditional certification programs, struggling teacher retention — is going to be a “very long-term, heavy lift,” Williams said.
“Certainly in the future, we hope that programs like this aren't as necessary, but there's not really an end in sight right now,” she said.