Think Out Loud

Oregon is facing a teacher shortage

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2023 6:06 p.m. Updated: Nov. 28, 2023 9:14 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 28

File photo from November 7, 2023. There are more than 1,000 open positions in schools for teachers, counselors, sport coaches and other professions across the state, according to Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practice Commission.

File photo from November 7, 2023. There are more than 1,000 open positions in schools for teachers, counselors, sport coaches and other professions across the state, according to Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practice Commission.

Tiffany Camhi / OPB


As the historic Portland Public School strike comes to an end, the state and country continue to face another issue: hiring. According to a dashboard created by the Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practice Commission, there are hundreds of open positions for educators open across the state. Kevin Carr is a professor of science education at Pacific University. He joins us to share more on the challenges of obtaining a teaching license and what can be done to address the shortage.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The historic Portland Public Schools strike is over but schools throughout the state and the country continue to face another big issue: a teacher shortage. According to a dashboard created by Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission [TSPC], there are hundreds of open positions right now for educators across the state. Kevin Carr is a professor of science education at Pacific University. He joins us to talk about all of this, including the challenges of obtaining a teaching license and what can be done to address this shortage. Welcome to the show.

Kevin Carr: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for having this conversation.

Miller: Yeah, thanks for joining us. So we reached out to you because you reached out to us. Amidst our strike coverage, you said there’s another issue that we should discuss: licensing and emergency licenses. So I thought we should start by having you explain how the system is normally supposed to work. What are the standard ways that people can become teachers in Oregon?

Carr: So there’s two main qualifications for becoming a teacher. First, you have to have knowledge of the content that you’re going to teach.

If you’re going to teach math, you should be a math major or have math courses and math knowledge in your background. And then there’s a set of teacher training standards that you have to meet in order to be licensed to enter into the classroom. And those involve some coursework and knowledge about teaching and learning and what’s involved with kids at whatever age level that you’re working with.

And then also a thorough clinical practice where you’re in a school learning alongside a mentor teacher, not being in charge of a classroom immediately, but starting out with observing and then gradually working your way forward till you’re ready to assume control for a classroom. Then you’re ready to start with your initial classroom once you’ve achieved that licensure.

Miller: How is an emergency license different?

Carr: An emergency license is a form of license where a school district can sponsor someone to go into the classroom without having the regular teacher training. An emergency license lasts for one year only and the district has to demonstrate that a situation exists where this person is our best option to meet the needs of students in the classroom, usually because they can’t find a licensed teacher to do that job.

Miller: How common were these emergency licenses in the past?

CarrI’ve been doing this for 25 years and in the past, emergency and another similar form of the license, restricted license, were in rural districts mostly. In a small community you may have someone in the community who has some of the knowledge and skills to teach but not teacher licensure per se. And so the numbers were small, less than 100 at one point. But they started to grow, starting in about 2008 reaching where we are now.

Miller: Where are we now?

CarrAccording to the dashboard that TSPC put up recently, as directed by House Bill 4030 passed last spring, there are over 2,100 teachers in the state of Oregon right now who are teaching without the required teacher training, under this emergency or restricted license format.

Miller: You said that was from about 100-something like 15 years ago. And you said that the increase started back in 2008, so well before the pandemic. What are the reasons that these have become so much more common in recent years?

CarrThere’s a bit of a bit of a story behind this. But the teacher training model in Oregon was fully enacted, the way it is now, in the early 90s. And what I just described about the coursework and the clinical practice has been in place since then.

But we started to see a decrease in enrollment in teacher training programs in about 2008. That has gradually been eroding our ability to supply teachers, which leads to the situation where districts are having to hire untrained folks to go directly into the classroom. And then the pandemic basically tripled those numbers. So those numbers were about 700, in the 700 area. What we see today is at about 2,100.

There’s a lot of reasons underlying this. The main reason that I think is emerging now is the cost of becoming a teacher. The model that we had in the 1990s required that the person becoming a teacher pay the cost of their own training. So you paid tuition for coursework at a teacher prep institution and then you also were required to do 15 weeks, the absolute minimum of clinical work, in a school without pay or benefits.


And so people generally did access that through taking out student loans. But beginning in ‘08, the ability to do that and the economic conditions have changed. What was somewhat exclusive to people due to cost is, now, very exclusive in terms of people becoming teachers.

Miller: I want to hear more about your ideas for how to change this. But I’m just curious, first, what you think this means for students? What are the repercussions of having 2,100 teachers with either an emergency or a restricted license, meaning as you’ve noted, just less training in how to teach?

CarrThe last thing I want to do is cast any negative light on the people that are stepping in to do this. I mean, they’re doing heroic work. We’re working with about 30 of them at Pacific University to support them anyway we can through this process. And they bring a lot of skills and a lot of background into it.

However, going into teaching your own classroom, it should involve some practice. It should involve some oversight and some teaching alongside someone who knows how to teach. Similar to flying a plane, you’re going to be the copilot for a while. And when you fly solo in a classroom, without that, things happen. It takes a long time to get up to speed. Even if you’re doing well, it can take weeks and months to start to understand the students in your classroom and to start to meet their needs. And so, an elementary school student may be in a classroom for a year with someone who’s really learning it as they go, kind of going from the street into the classroom. And student learning is going to suffer, even in the best-case scenario, due to that lack of preparation.

In high school and middle school, you may be taking a math class from a teacher who may know a lot of math but is just learning on the fly how to meet the various different needs of students. And those are the best-case scenarios, by the way, where people come in and make it through the year. More tragically is when teachers just find out, “Hey, I’m not cut out for this,” and have to leave during the year, only to be replaced by someone else or a substitute. A lot of learning can get lost in that and we can’t really afford that at the moment.

Miller: You noted that these are supposed to be for a year. What happens after a year? Are some of these teachers being extended and, I guess, being emergency licensed teachers in perpetuity?

CarrSo that’s where that second form of licensure comes in. An emergency license is for a year. If you can get sponsored for a restricted license, you can be in it for three years. But you have to be enrolled in a teacher training program during that time. So you have to start progressing toward licensure while you’re in the classroom. And you have three years to accomplish that. I’ve talked to people who have been teaching for six, seven, eight years and still haven’t achieved licensure, due to various combinations of licensure and emergency situations.

Miller: So some states have been using registered apprenticeship programs to address exactly what we’re talking about. Bring more teachers to get them trained and up and running without having them go into major debt in ways that are maybe impossible for them. How do these programs work?

CarrThe district becomes the focus of becoming a teacher, in a registered apprenticeship program. So like any other apprenticeship program, in different kinds of trades and things that we’re more used to talking about, a person wanting to become a teacher would go to a school district. And that school district is in partnership with an educator training program. In apprenticeships, they call it related training.

And so a district is in partnership with the university that provides teacher training and the district hires that person in the role of an apprentice to become a teacher. So they start getting paid and benefited at some level, not the full teacher level, but at a beginning level, an apprentice level, right off the bat. They start learning on the job as an employee of that school district while being supported and trained in the background knowledge and the skills to teach as they go.

So we just started this in Oregon. We have some pilot projects that are starting up right now. I’m working with the Woodburn School District and we’re gonna have a couple of apprentices enrolled, actually as of next week. And they’re gonna be on a pathway of becoming a teacher while they are working in the school district. We have other models in Oregon. A lot of times they’re called “grow your own” models where universities come into a close partnership with school districts with the intent of providing ways for the district to put people forward to become teachers who are already within their community. If not their employees, people who are embedded in the community, when they become a teacher, they’re going to be there for the long run. Retention is a huge part of this problem.

But we’re excited about the apprentice program. We just needed to ramp up faster to get into those numbers. To change the numbers of untrained teachers out there, we need these programs to be scaled up by about a factor of 10.

Miller: In a sense, what we’re talking about is shifting the cost. So saying, instead of having teachers in training, paying for that training, it would be the districts who are doing that. I can’t help but think that, in the Portland area, we’ve just ended three weeks of strike after months and months of tense negotiations that, among other things, included teacher pay. And the District said, “We wish we could pay more, but we don’t have the money for that.”

What we’re talking about here would be much more money for people who aren’t yet licensed teachers. Where would that money come from? If you’re talking about increasing these programs tenfold, where is the money?

CarrDistricts that are getting involved in this are looking at…preparing teachers in this way, becomes a method of reducing rehiring and increasing retention going into the future. So districts already spend an incredible amount of money recruiting teachers to come. There’s districts in the state who actually travel internationally to try to find teachers in foreign countries that speak the language that they need within their districts.

But it can’t be something that districts can just do using the pots of money that they already have. I mean, this needs to be a state initiative. The state is already putting small single figures of millions of dollars into these “grow your own” programs and into the apprentice program. But in order to really change these numbers, that is going to need to be scaled up, which involves shifting some resources. I will say though that having 2,100 untrained teachers, that’s impacting 100,000 students - that’s just a conservative estimate, I haven’t broken this down totally - but that is, itself, incredibly expensive in the learning loss. And the fact that teachers that start that way are not generally retained as well, means you’re rehiring again, which again costs more money.

With the registered apprentice program, we can actually tap into U.S. Department of Labor funds that are available. The U.S. Department of Education is a very big supporter of the apprentice programs. So there’s also outside funding we can get. But ultimately, to get this problem under control is gonna take a pretty good influx of funds to begin with. And then once it settles down, there’ll be kind of a constant funding level to maintain the need for teachers.

Miller: Kevin Carr, thanks very much for joining us. I appreciate it.

CarrThank you, Dave.

Miller: Kevin Carr is a professor of science education at Pacific University.

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