More than 20,000 students in HISD classes without a certified teacher, 13 Investigates finds

Sarah Rafique Image
Friday, January 7, 2022
'Lot of substitutes': 13 Investigates HISD's unmet promise on teachers
Houston ISD promised to have a certified teacher in every classroom, but 13 Investigates found 21,608 students in classes without one.

UPDATE: After this report aired, Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II called 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg to discuss upcoming efforts to address the teacher shortage, including "several major changes to the way we hire, compensate and support our teachers."

"The single biggest determining factor in our students having a positive school experience is whether they have access to a great teacher in the classroom. It is the one thing everyone agrees on," House said Friday. "No one, and I mean no one, wants to solve the persistent teacher shortage HISD has faced for years more than I do. While the statewide and national teacher shortage is both out of our control and exacerbated by the pandemic, we can and will control this district's ability to attract and retain more exceptional educators."

House also discussed his concerns about the teacher shortage, and other HISD business, during calls with Texas Education Agency Commissioner and the U.S. Secretary of Education on Friday. We've included House's full statement at the bottom of this story.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Dania Herring said she doesn't know where her son's fourth grade teacher is these days.

"They have a lot of substitutes, sometimes for weeks," she told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "In October, it was almost for like a month."

Herring said she never received a notice from Houston ISD or her son's principal at White Elementary School that their teacher would be gone for weeks.

At White Elementary, 870 students are in a class without a certified teacher, from social studies and science to math and language arts, according to the latest data 13 Investigates requested from HISD.

Districtwide, about 15% of classes that require certified teachers were taught by substitutes or hourly lecturers as of Dec. 13, according to HISD.

For weeks, starting in September, we asked HISD to shadow an administrator to learn more about how Texas' largest district is addressing the teacher shortage. HISD denied our request and subsequent requests for an on-camera interview on this topic, saying that focusing on HISD was unfair.

"There is a nationwide teacher shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the largest school district in the state of Texas, HISD is not exempt from this issue," the district said in a statement.

Our investigation found 877 courses at HISD that require a certified teacher are actually taught by non-certified individuals. We found a total of 135 uncertified teachers with an enrollment of 21,608 students.

Some students are in multiple classes without a certified teacher, the district said.

Another 270 classes, including credit recovery, graduation labs and STAAR remediation courses, are also taught by uncertified teachers. HISD said a certification is not needed to teach those classes.

In Texas, state-certified teachers have college degrees and pass exams to prove they are experts in their subject area and teaching. HISD's job postings show certification is required to teach all grade levels.

"Having certified teachers in classrooms is paramount," said HISD secretary Kathy Blueford-Daniels. "Having teachers in the classroom is most important. Educating our children is what we're here for, so whatever means we can use, be it with the intermittent job fair to try and recruit teachers, that's what we'll do. It's not like it's falling on deaf ears, that we take it lightly, because we know the importance of it. Those are our children, our future, our generations."

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'Can't afford to miss out'

When the 2021-22 HISD school year started on Aug. 23, newly-appointed HISD Superintendent Millard House II said he developed and implemented "a bold plan to ensure that every student begins the school year with a certified teacher in all core content areas."

The plan included placing campus and central office staff who have teacher certifications in classrooms until the 386 teacher vacancies could be filed.

"These employees will also remain in the classroom until a high quality teacher is hired," House said in August. "I don't want any of our students to begin the school year with a permanent substitute or a non-educator in a core content area."

But halfway through the school year, 13 Investigates found that is not the case.

The Texas Education Agency said every individual teaching grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade has to be certified with few exceptions.

If an individual is uncertified or serving under an emergency certificate and is assigned to a classroom for more than 30 days, state law says the superintendent has to provide written notice to parents. We sent an open records request for some of those letters on Dec. 8, but the district told us on Wednesday that it is "still working to locate/compile" the information we requested.

Since staffing is "primarily local in nature," the TEA says it doesn't have a comprehensive list of how many uncertified individuals are teaching at campuses across the state.

At HISD, Blueford-Daniels said the district and its schools "can't afford to miss out" by having uncertified teachers.

"We have long-term subs in some of the classrooms," she said. "We're not blinded to that, but our objective is to have certified teachers in all the classrooms. We're still down from 206,000 students in 2019 to 196,000 students, so though we don't need as many teachers, we still need more."

Hala Al Najgawy, a junior at Bellaire High School, said she's already been through four math teachers during the first semester of the school year.

"It was a lot to take in," Al Najgawy said. "I had to click with different teachers, and I had difficulty clicking with the teacher that we have right now."

She said she wasn't surprised about the teacher shortage and hopes she will have the same teacher for the rest of the year.

HISD employs nearly 11,000 teachers, but still had 210 certified teacher openings in December.

Our investigation found three other districts in the area have more than 200 teacher openings as districts compete for certified teachers.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the second largest district in our region, has 286 teacher vacancies.

"Teacher vacancies are covered by substitutes. CFISD actively recruits teachers through job fairs, partnerships with universities, and a variety of advertising," the district said in a statement.

Aldine ISD, whose enrollment is 62,248, has 223 teacher openings, and Spring ISD, whose enrollment is around 32,500 students, has 226 certified teacher openings.

Want to know how many teachers are still needed at your child's district? Search the map below

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Houston ISD's recruiting efforts have expanded to Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nevada and even internationally.

The district said it is "partnering with organizations to recruit international candidates with the skill sets to teach in critical shortage areas" as well as holding job fairs, hiring events and "paying recruitment and retention stipends to incentivize certified teachers to come to HISD."

"As a part of the district's strategic planning process, HISD is examining innovative means by which to recruit, retain, and compensate employees in an effort to directly address this shortage of teachers and staff," the district said.

Blueford-Daniels said the district is already preparing for another job fair in February and trying to recruit recent college graduates.

"They should come to us to help us continue to educate our young minds," she said.

Newly-elected HISD board president Bridget Wade worries that without a certified teacher in every classroom, some students may leave the district.

"It's a real problem. Not having certified teachers in our classrooms," she said. "We really need to do a good job of outreach, encouraging teachers, encouraging people to get back into the profession that have left it, retired teachers coming back, if they so wish. I think we can do it."

Still, parents like Herring are worried about how not having a permanent teacher is impacting their child's education.

"It makes me a little nervous," she said.

Read the full statement HISD Superintendent Millard House II sent 13 Investigates on Friday:

"Every time I am out in this district - in our schools, with my team, meeting with students and families - I hear the same thing. The single biggest determining factor in our students having a positive school experience is whether they have access to a great teacher in the classroom. It is the one thing everyone agrees on.

No one, and I mean no one, wants to solve the persistent teacher shortage HISD has faced for years more than I do. While the statewide and national teacher shortage is both out of our control and exacerbated by the pandemic, we can and will control this district's ability to attract and retain more exceptional educators.

When I took this job, HISD had nearly 600 teaching vacancies. One of my first actions was to move staff out of central office and into the classroom while we began the hard work of finding more teaching talent. It is only a partial solution, and it is true we still rely on hard working substitutes and para-professionals to staff many classrooms.

It is a problem decades in the making, because for years HISD has been underpaying its educators and asking them to work without the supports needed to make schools and students successful. That ends now.

In the next several weeks, the HISD talent team will be rolling out several major changes to the way we hire, compensate, and support our teachers. I believe it is the first critical step in hiring the teachers we need to make our schools successful.

We are looking beyond quick fixes. We will continue to do the hard work to make this better, and we will work with schools and families to make sure families understand when we must place a substitute educator in their child's classroom as we work towards more effective and permanent solutions."

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