As California lawmakers in Sacramento move to tackle major issues affecting public education, the “impending teacher shortage” has become a new buzz issue. But it is still largely framed as something “yet to come” – a problem brewing in the future.
The urgent truth is that the shortage is already having an impact on California’s classrooms and some of its most vulnerable students, and we must act to prevent the crisis from worsening.
In San Jose Unified, many schools began the 2014-15 school year with substitute teachers leading classrooms. In Oakland, schools are still trying to fill open teaching positions – more than halfway through the school year.
The issue is not confined to urban areas, with school districts in rural communities from Stanislaus County to Kern County experiencing shortages as well.
Over the next 10 years, more than 100,000 California teachers are expected to retire, and too few new teachers have stepped up to replace them: According to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, enrollment in our state’s teacher-preparation programs fell nearly 53% from 2008 to 2013 – one of the biggest declines in the nation. As we continue to work to reduce K-3 class sizes and as our state’s population grows, the number of teachers needed in California classrooms will continue to increase.
The time to respond is now. We applaud state Sen. Fran Pavley for introducing Senate Bill 62, which would require the state to take a hard look at the effectiveness of its student loan relief program for new teachers – a tool which has traditionally served as an incentive to recruit teachers to work in high-needs schools and underserved regions.
But more needs to be done to ensure that California is attracting strong candidates who will serve as quality teachers. As our lawmakers respond to this crisis, they have a significant opportunity to build a stronger and better educational system for California students by leveraging two of our state’s strengths: our diversity and our spirit of innovation.
Statewide, currently only 29% of educators identify as nonwhite, while the majority of California students are children of color. Addressing our state’s teacher shortage provides an opportunity to ensure that our educators and school leaders begin to more closely reflect our communities.
Some districts have taken the lead with robust diversity recruitment strategies – like Oakland Unified, which targets recruiting at historically black colleges and universities and those serving significant Hispanic populations. It also engages new local candidates who reflect student populations through its Teach Tomorrow in Oakland initiative.
At Teach For America, we’ve seen an intensive focus on recruiting people of color and those from low-income backgrounds result in an effective new pipeline for teacher diversity, with almost two out of three of the nearly 360 new California teachers recruited by Teach For America this year identifying as people of color.
Responding to the shortage also provides the opportunity to unleash our state’s innovative spirit. We must find new sources of quality teacher talent, and proven alternative pathways to the classroom are a critical strategy to do this. Programs like the Aspire Teacher Residency and High Tech High’s Teacher Intern Program have proven effective at drawing out and catalyzing new sources of committed teachers.
We’ve seen the same here at Teach For America, where only a quarter of the teachers we recruit to the field report having considered teaching prior to their engagement with us. These are new sources of teaching talent who remain committed to education for the long term, with nearly two out of three California teachers recruited by TFA remaining in education after their initial two-year commitment.
Alternative pathways can also open opportunities for mid-career professionals who cannot afford to spend several years obtaining a degree in teaching but nevertheless have relevant professional and educational experience in other fields. (Nearly a third of educators recruited by TFA nationally applied as graduate students or professionals.)
The teacher shortage is even more pronounced when it comes to teachers specializing in critical STEM disciplines, but innovative, alternative pathways have also proven critical for attracting educators with these backgrounds to the classroom. One out of every three California educators Teach For America has recruited and trained is teaching STEM subjects, for example. And, nationally, initiatives like 100Kin10 – an ambitious effort to recruit 100,000 new STEM educators by 2021 – are demonstrating that cross-sector collaboration will be key to engaging new talent pools in the profession, no matter the path they take to the classroom.
Innovating to address this shortage while building a teacher workforce that more closely reflects our state’s diversity will require cooperation from education stakeholders at every level – including the state Legislature, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, local districts and schools, traditional and alternative credentialing programs, and teacher unions.
As this legislative session moves forward, it is critical that our state’s policymakers not only support steps in the right direction like Sen. Pavley’s bill, but also start a meaningful dialogue about how to address our existing and impending teacher shortage crisis in a way that draws diverse new talent to the field and leverages our state’s spirit of innovation to expand proven alternative pathways to the classroom. Our kids deserve it.
Eric Scroggins is Executive Director of Teach For America – San Francisco Bay Area.
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