About 1 in 5 first-year teachers lacked a certification in 2021-22, according to a Texas Education Agency report, and another 1 in 5 had alternative certifications. Data on the teacher workforce at large compiled by the Learning Policy Institute found that 99% of teacher hires that same year were to fill a vacated position, rather than a new position. The TEA report detailed a range of policies that could address these challenges, from better compensation and benefits structures to pipeline-building strategies, such as career and technical education courses to engage high school students in the profession, and residency programs to help train and acclimate novice teachers.
However it is addressed, the teacher shortage problem poses concerns for student achievement statewide, but it also poses the potential for compounded setbacks for students who stand to gain the most from having access to well trained and experienced teachers. The challenge and opportunity that this presents to districts is to prioritize ways to recruit, train and retain qualified staff with considerations of equity — that is, ensuring every student has access to the resources they need to become successful — at the center. As part of a broader teacher staffing strategy, districts can strive to align their teaching resources with the schools that have the greatest needs.
As part of the Houston Education Research Consortium’s Equity Project with Houston ISD, we were asked to help the district learn more about its teacher workforce and how the skills and training of teachers met the needs of particular student populations. Staffing classrooms in a district as large as HISD, which has over 11,000 teachers, is incredibly complex but is also incredibly important.
Our research looked at the distribution of teachers in HISD schools between 2018 and 2020. We studied the distribution of teachers with specialized certifications in bilingual and special education, the role of educational degrees and teaching experience, and the racial and ethnic makeup of teachers and the campuses they served. Considering that most HISD students are students of color and a large proportion come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, understanding how HISD was distributing its teachers and figuring out how teacher qualifications are associated with student outcomes provided insights into how to make the most of limited resources.
We found that schools with higher proportions of students with special education needs also had greater access to teachers certified in special education. In addition, we found that schools with the highest proportions of English learners or emerging bilinguals also had greater access to teachers certified in English as a Second Language (ESL) or Bilingual Education. Both of these findings signal that the district had been fairly resourcing these populations in recent years.
HISD teachers and students were very diverse: 35% of teachers were Black and 31% were Hispanic, while 22% of students were Black and 62% were Hispanic. One-quarter of HISD teachers had an advanced degree, and 22% had a degree in education.
Schools with the highest proportions of Black students in the district had more teachers with advanced degrees (34% for schools with the highest shares of black students, compared to 7% for schools with the lowest shares of black students), but had fewer teachers with above-average years of experience (27% vs. 44%). Meanwhile, schools with the highest proportions of Hispanic students had more teachers with above-average teaching experience (42% in schools with the highest shares of Hispanic students compared to 33% in schools with the lowest shares), but fewer with advanced degrees (8% vs. 31%).
We also found that schools serving particularly high proportions of economically disadvantaged students had fewer teachers with more than 12 years of experience, which was the district average. These schools also had fewer teachers with degrees in education compared to schools with fewer economically disadvantaged students. This is problematic because a large body of research has shown the most effective teachers tend to have degrees in education and certifications in the subjects they teach. In other words, schools with students who may have needed the most help from the best teachers available tended to have less access to them.
Our research found that these teacher qualifications (education degrees and experience) were associated with significant differences in student outcomes across campuses — that is, we looked at the effect of qualifications on an entire campus or demographic group at a campus, not a single classroom or student. For example, teachers with a formal background in education were more likely to contribute to higher math scores among Black students and higher reading scores for Hispanic students. Experience and education degrees also had positive effects on chronic absenteeism and disciplinary rates.
Ideally, more schools would have access to highly trained and experienced teachers, but staffing shortages pose a huge obstacle. HISD is certainly not the only district to turn to teachers without certifications to keep campuses staffed. According to TEA, almost 20% of first-year teachers hired in 2021-22 did not have a Texas certification or permit. That was a sharp increase over the year prior — 8,435 uncertified teachers compared to 4,652 in 2020-21 — and it pales in comparison to the level 10 years ago, when fewer than 1,600 first-year teachers were uncertified in Texas.
While HISD asked for us for the research on teacher staffing, our findings can help all districts make decisions to staff schools in a way that meets the needs of different student populations and results in improved outcomes. To get there, leaders and school boards will have to also think about how they will cultivate new teacher pipelines, address the causes of teacher turnover and invest in teacher training. Our students deserve no less.