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Teacher Shortages During the Pandemic: How California Districts Are Responding

Masked female teacher with a masked male students in a classroom setting

How are California districts handling deepening teacher shortages 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic? Following up on a March 2021 study, California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Teacher Workforce, this report describes the severe shortages many districts are experiencing and the strategies some are using to mitigate these shortages. The study was conducted in August and September 2021 and surveyed a sample of California superintendents and human resources administrators from 12 districts. It investigated the role COVID-19 has had on key aspects of teacher supply and demand, including teacher retirements, resignations, vacancies, and hiring strategies.

California Districts Struggle to Fill Vacancies

Consistent with news stories from across the state, district leaders confirmed that ongoing shortages had made filling back-to-school vacancies even more challenging than usual. This study finds that increases in teacher retirements and resignations, alongside a limited supply of candidates and a need for more teaching positions, led to unusually high levels of vacancies in several districts.

  • Increased vacancies and staffing struggles. Districts have to fill vacancies both to replace teachers who have left their positions and to fill new teaching positions. Most districts surveyed for this study (8 of 12) faced an increased number of vacancies over pre-COVID-19 years and experienced greater challenges in filling these positions. At the time of this study, six districts indicated they still had to fill 10% or more of their total vacancies. While the total number of vacancies had increased from previous years, the greatest demand was still the hard-to-staff areas of mathematics, science, and special education.
  • Sources of shortages. An increased number of teachers left the profession, both through retirements and resignations during pre-COVID-19 years. Five out of eight large districts reported that increased retirements and resignations contributed to having more vacancies than usual. A further contributing factor was the creation of additional positions facilitated by federal recovery funds used to provide smaller class sizes, more personalized learning for students, and additional academic support.
  • Hiring underprepared teachers. In recent years, due to a shortage of fully qualified teachers in California, positions have increasingly been filled with underprepared teachers who have not completed the requirements for full credentials—either interns or those teaching on 1-year permits or waivers. The number of substandard credentials and permits issued in California nearly tripled from 2012–13 to 2019–20, numbering more than 13,000 annually. Among the districts surveyed for this study, every district filled some vacancies with teachers on intern credentials, permits, and waivers. Most districts (10 out of 12) hired about the same or more teachers on substandard credentials compared to pre-COVID-19 years. Just two districts were on pace to hire fewer of these teachers in 2021–22.
Increases in teacher retirements and resignations, alongside a limited supply of candidates and a need for more teaching positions, led to unusually high levels of vacancies in several districts.

How Districts Are Working to Reduce Shortages

In order to reduce shortages, districts were using state and federal recovery funds to increase compensation, develop high-retention pathways into teaching, invest in their hiring capacity, and support students and teachers.

  • Increased compensation. Several districts sought to improve teacher retention by increasing direct compensation to teachers. Districts offered wage increases, stipends, and bonuses, especially for hard-to-fill positions. Districts also extended rate increases to substitute teachers, who were also in short supply.
  • High-retention pathways into teaching. Several districts developed new teaching talent through high-retention pathways into teaching, including Grow Your Own (GYO) initiatives and teacher residencies. GYO programs recruit local community members, such as classified school employees, into teaching. Districts used state funding to help with tuition reimbursement as classified staff completed coursework toward their credentials. Residencies are 1-year intensive apprenticeships. Some districts with well-established teacher residency programs were able to anticipate how many new teachers would be available to fill some positions in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas. At least one district was working to launch a new residency program. District leaders noted that GYO approaches and residencies were important strategies for recruiting more teachers of color, which was a priority in several districts.
  • Investing in recruitment and hiring capacity. A majority of districts in this study had stepped up recruitment activities in response to known and anticipated shortages. Districts increased their presence at job fairs and hosted their own virtual recruitment fairs. Districts developed more competitive hiring strategies, such as streamlining hiring processes; hiring additional recruitment staff; and offering open teaching contracts, which enabled them to secure hires before vacancies became available.
  • Adding staff to support students and teachers. Several districts in our study described leveraging funds to improve working conditions with an eye toward teacher retention. Some districts hired additional staff to reduce pupil–teacher ratios, which could allow districts to approach the smaller pupil–teacher ratios common in other states and ease some of the demands on teachers. Districts also created and filled additional positions for intervention and strategic academic support, including counselors, psychologists, social workers, instructional coaches, and assistant principals. These expanded student supports were crucial as districts welcomed students back to campus. By supporting students’ learning recovery and social and emotional well-being, districts were also providing supports for teachers.

The Importance of State Investments for Addressing Teacher Shortages

The record-setting 2021–22 California state education budget includes considerable investments in building the educator pipeline and supporting the existing workforce. These funds could not have come at a more critical time given the shortages districts are facing. The budget includes nearly a billion dollars to increase access to comprehensive teacher preparation pathways. These programs are designed to both recruit and retain new teachers by incentivizing candidates to pursue comprehensive preservice preparation that includes a robust program of study alongside student teaching, which is associated with higher retention rates.

The state also provided $1.1 billion through concentration grants, which will target additional funds to high-need districts for the purpose of hiring additional classified and certificated staff for their highest-need schools.

In addition, the state appropriated nearly $2 billion in funds for professional learning on a range of topics, as well as to develop statewide resources for literacy instruction, multi-tiered systems of support, learning acceleration, and school leadership that are intended to support student learning and well-being. Funds will also go to growing the number of accomplished National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) teaching and mentoring other staff in high-poverty schools. This can help to remedy teacher shortages, as research indicates that teachers who are more fully prepared and well mentored are more likely to stay in the classroom, reducing annual teacher demand.

Policy Considerations

California districts have worked hard to provide the supports students need to be successful after more than a year of disrupted learning. It is critical that their efforts not be stymied by a lack of teachers and other support staff to carry them out. State and federal policymakers might consider the following evidence-based approaches for resolving teacher shortages, which focus on recruiting and preparing more candidates, retaining new teachers through early-career mentoring, and improving teacher working conditions.

  1. Recruit and retain teachers by improving compensation through additional federal action. Although the federal government has a limited role in addressing locally set salaries for educators, federal policies can extend the financial capacity of teachers by reducing the college debt they must incur to become teachers, providing income tax credits, and making housing subsidies more readily available to teachers.
  2. Implement a statewide recruitment initiative to help potential candidates navigate the complex process of becoming a teacher. California is implementing multiple programs aimed at ending teacher shortages by training a well-prepared, stable teacher workforce. To further this work, the state could provide career counseling and navigation supports to prospective teacher candidates to help them negotiate the complex gauntlet of programs, credentialing requirements, and funding opportunities that are part of the teacher preparation process.
  3. Invest in community college to 4-year university pathways that recruit and prepare aspiring teachers earlier in the educational process. Policies to recruit and begin preparing future teachers earlier in their educational careers can help attract young people into teaching and reduce the overall costs of their preparation. The state could consider investing in “2+2” partnerships that allow candidates to begin teacher preparation at a community college, with clear course articulation agreements that enable them to complete teacher preparation and credentialing requirements at a 4-year institution.
  4. Increase the capacity of higher education to prepare teachers in high-demand fields. Fully prepared teachers are more likely than underprepared teachers to stay in the profession, minimizing disruptions to student learning and district hiring costs, estimated at more than $20,000 for each teacher who must be replaced in a large district. Teacher preparation programs will need support to increase enrollments, of candidates who can teach in high-demand fields and to grow the state’s supply of fully prepared teachers. Programs will also need support to implement the state’s new standards for general and special education teachers, and to create new and adapt existing preparation programs for early educators. To support this work, the state could establish capacity-building grants for teacher preparation programs. The state could also work with university leadership to incentivize the growth of teacher preparation programs to ensure that university funding rules and allocation practices do not constrain the ability of programs to admit eligible candidates.
  5. Support teacher recruitment by ensuring strong uptake of scholarships awarded through the Golden State Teacher Grant Program. State agencies could engage in a shared communication campaign that disseminates information about the scholarships to teacher preparation programs, financial aid offices, and potential teacher candidates. School districts operating teacher residency programs should also be informed that residents can receive Golden State Teacher Grant awards in addition to residency stipends, which may help candidates afford living costs during teacher preparation.
  6. Support the retention of new teachers by cultivating the development of teacher mentors. In addition to comprehensive preparation, strong early-career mentoring and induction can play a critical role in supporting the retention of novice teachers. California could help cultivate teacher mentors by supporting strong uptake of its recent $250 million investment in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification Incentive Program, which should help grow the number of National Board Certified Teacher mentors and incentivize their service in high-need schools, where novice teachers are disproportionately placed. Through the 21st Century California School Leadership Academy, the state could also continue building a professional development infrastructure that trains principals and teacher leaders on how to provide strong mentoring and early-career supports to novice teachers.
  7. Support teacher retention by improving working conditions. The state could support data-informed improvement efforts by establishing a teacher working conditions survey, as other states have, that collects information about factors that may influence their decisions to stay in or leave the field. Finally, with the influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds to districts, the state could play a role in supporting teacher wellness by providing guidance and model policies that inform district investments in employee wellness policies and practices.

Teacher Shortages During the Pandemic: How California Districts Are Responding by Desiree Carver-Thomas, Dion Burns, Melanie Leung, and Naomi Ondrasek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.