Commissioners, management and staff at the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission need to work together to strengthen the agency’s work environment, increase accountability, and boost performance.
The agency has made recent improvements in service to educators. But it still faces substantial backlogs in issuing licenses, investigating complaints against educators, and responding promptly to educator questions.
Our audit responds to House Bill 3339, which the Legislature passed in 2015. It required a Secretary of State audit to examine the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and recommend improvements.
The Agency and Commission Play a Major Role in K-12 Education
The agency, with 26 employees currently, licenses about 19,000 K-12 educators a year. It also evaluates education programs for teachers at Oregon colleges, and investigates hundreds of complaints against educators each year.
A 17-member commission, appointed by the Governor, oversees the agency. The commissioners, mainly teachers and school district administrators, hire and supervise the executive director.
The Commission sets important policies, including requirements for teacher licenses. It approves teacher education programs, and decides whether to sanction educators for misconduct.
Delays in Core Services are Substantial
For many years, the agency has had substantial delays in issuing licenses, completing investigations and responding to educator questions.
Applicants who filed for licenses in July 2015 faced a four-month wait. Investigation lengths averaged more than 14 months in 2015. Response times to emails from educators have improved, but still average more than a week.
The licensing and customer service delays can damage the agency’s reputation, complicate school district hiring and make it harder on educators looking for jobs. In 2015, more than 1,400 applicants or their school districts paid $99 extra for “expedited” service to bypass licensing delays.
In investigations, delays and high caseloads can weaken evidence and increases the risk to of educator misconduct continuing. Investigative delays can also hurt educators’ job prospects, frustrate complaint filers, and reduce investigative depth.
Cuts to management and staff during the recession contributed to the delays. In 2012, the agency cut six positions. Licensing staff had no direct manager for nearly two years and investigators faced high turnover and high caseloads.
Also contributing to delays: the agency’s complicated, paper-based licensing system, and an inadequate agency website that does not provide answers to basic licensing questions.
The Agency and Commission Need a Sharper Focus on Performance
In 2015, the Oregon Legislature approved license fee increases – the first in 10 years. The increase will allow the agency to add four new positions and replace its outdated licensing system. Starting in early 2016, applicants should be able to file applications and pay online. The Commission also finished a three-year process of simplifying license requirements.
Some improvements are already apparent. Average call hold times fell to less than five minutes last summer, down from 30 minutes in 2014.
Investigators are testing a case triage system that could help reduce investigation lengths. The simpler license requirements and new licensing system should also help improve licensing speeds.
However, we found that the agency still lacks clear expectations and accountability for its performance at all levels, from the Commission through staff.
Evaluations are sporadic, including the Commission’s evaluation of the executive director. Performance tracking is limited. Management’s focus on work process improvement is minimal. Tensions between management and staff have also been substantial, affecting agency performance.
The fee increase will provide for a more stable financial position and help improve staffing. These improvements should allow the agency to focus on building a more productive workplace at all levels, one of its most significant tasks going forward.
Our specific recommendations for management and the Commission are included on pages 25 to 27 of the report. We made recommendations to improve licensing, investigations and customer service.
For management, we also made recommendations to improve the agency’s work environment, such as improving communication, developing performance standards, and providing timely feedback on employee progress.
For the Commission, we made recommendations to improve oversight and accountability. Among them: developing goals for the executive director that include reducing the agency’s backlogs, and conducting regular evaluations based on those goals.
The agency and Commission generally agreed with our recommendations and said they are already addressing some of them. The Commission will prioritize resolving backlogs in licensing and investigations, the response said, and implement changes to improve agency oversight, enhance transparency and increase effectiveness. The full response is at the end of the report.