Feb 23 2016

What California Can Do to Address Teacher Shortages

This post was first published on February 23, 2016 by EdSource as the first in a series of commentaries on the emerging teacher shortage in California.

As California has embarked on an ambitious journey to raise standards for student learning and rethink nearly every aspect of its educational system, one of the state’s most pressing challenges is hiring and retaining well-prepared, high-quality teachers who can teach the challenging new skills our society demands. This is especially true when the state faces teacher shortages like those emerging now.

Make no mistake, the teacher shortage is real. The Learning Policy Institute’s recent report “Addressing California’s Emerging Teacher Shortage: An Analysis of Sources and Solutions” found that, after sharp declines in teacher education enrollments over the last decade, recent hiring increases left many districts scrambling to find teachers. As districts began to restore teaching positions eliminated during the Great Recession, credentials issued to new teachers were at an historic low.

And nearby states, also experiencing shortages, were luring away many of these teachers with promises of good salaries and lower housing costs.

As a result, the number of teachers hired in 2015 without having completed – or sometimes even begun – their preparation soared, reaching one-third of all new credentials issued in the state. Although shortages are occurring across a range of subject areas, the problem is most acute in mathematics, science and special education. In special education, barely half (52 percent) of new teachers are fully prepared. Bilingual teachers and those with training to teach English language acquisition are also in short supply. A small increase in individuals entering preparation this year was nowhere close to the level of demand, and, further, was not in the fields that have the greatest need.

As was true in previous eras of shortage, the dearth of qualified teachers is felt most acutely in schools serving more low-income and minority students. According to California’s educator equity plan, in 2013-14, twice as many students in high-minority as in low-minority schools were being taught by a teacher who had not completed – or even enrolled in – a preparation program.

Demand is projected to grow further as districts continue to recover from the recession and seek to replace the programs and positions they eliminated, as they also cope with attrition, which averages about 8 percent of all teachers annually. This includes inevitable retirements – fully one-third of California teachers are over 50 and 10 percent are over 60 years old – but most attrition is due to younger teachers leaving. The reasons range from economic concerns to dissatisfaction with teaching conditions, such as large classes, lack of materials, accountability pressures, lack of administrative supports and lack of public appreciation.

To meet the projected demand, the number of new teachers entering the classroom would need to nearly double – something that is unlikely to happen without changes that seriously improve the attractiveness of the profession.

What can the state do?

No single policy can solve California’s teacher shortage. What is needed is a comprehensive set of strategies at the state and local level. State government can play a particularly strategic role by strengthening recruitment efforts and making it more economically feasible for young people and career changers to become teachers. Districts, for their part, can concentrate on improving local teaching conditions and increasing retention.

A set of strategic initiatives the state enacted in the late 1990s dramatically reduced shortages at that time. However, those programs have all gone by the wayside, eliminated during budget cutbacks. It’s time again to act, making investments that increase the attractions to teaching, rather than lowering the standards.

Where to start? Most importantly, we should work to keep the teachers we have now. It is conventional wisdom in the business world that retaining employees is much more cost-effective than the kind of revolving door currently seen in the teaching profession. Studies show that high turnover reduces student achievement; furthermore, it can cost more than $15,000 to replace each teacher who leaves – money that could be more productively spent on the mentoring that would allow them to stay. Evidence shows that fully prepared teachers leave at half the rate of those who have to learn on the job, and novices who receive mentoring from experienced peers are also much more likely to stay.

At the state level, California policymakers can:

  • Restore the CalTeach recruitment centers, which can attract new entrants and teachers from other states and provide information about where to find training and jobs.
  • Rekindle research-proven strategies, like service scholarships and forgivable loans to underwrite teachers’ preparation for the fields and communities where they are most needed.
  • Launch innovative residency programs in high-need communities. These programs underwrite preparation for diverse, committed recruits who train in fields where there are shortages under the wing of the most expert teachers while they complete the coursework for a credential. Graduates continue to receive mentoring as they pay back this investment with years of teaching service.
  • Open up avenues to teaching through career pathways that launch high school students toward the profession, create options for paraprofessionals to become credentialed, and develop new program models for undergraduates who are interested in teaching.
  • Ensure that all beginning teachers have access to a high-quality, affordable induction program through stronger accreditation and strategic programmatic support.
  • Provide incentives that support teachers’ ability to stay in or reenter the profession through strategies like mortgage guarantees for housing, ease of credential renewal, streamlined reciprocity with other states, and opportunities to continue teaching and mentoring after retirement.

California has solved this problem before and can do so again by restoring programs that worked, investing in teacher recruitment and training, and signaling the value with which the state views its teachers. These investments can offer long-term payoffs by increasing retention, saving the dollars wasted on high turnover, and improving outcomes for all of California’s students.