California’s dwindling teacher supply rattling districts’ nerves

July 14, 2015

Visalia middle-school English teacher Jennifer Garza says teachers with intern credentials are unfairly criticized.

Just as California school districts are facing new pressures to implement the Common Core State Standards and other key educational reforms, many of them are struggling with what some officials are calling the early impacts of a long-feared teacher shortage.

In a common sign of the emerging problem, districts throughout the state have been hiring more teachers with provisional intern credentials – that is, with significantly less training and experience than normally required. They’re also recruiting more aggressively than in past years. Additionally, some districts are having a harder time finding substitute teachers, as more substitutes are finding full-time jobs in a seller’s market.

“Are we feeling it? Definitely,” said Tamara Ravalin, assistant superintendent for human resources development for the Visalia Unified School District, with 32,000 students in the San Joaquin Valley. Ravalin said she was concerned that as fully credentialed teachers become harder to find, the district will need to lower its expectations for quality and experience. “If these trends continue, we’re going to be in big trouble, because there’s just not the same pool of people as there was before,” she said.

In a recent series of interviews, human resource officials in six school districts and a statewide charter school system reported a variety of ways and degrees to which schools are being affected by a shortage that many predict will worsen. EdSource Today is tracking the six unified districts – Elk Grove, Garden Grove, Fresno, San Jose, Santa Ana and Visalia – and the Aspire Public Schools charter system as a regular feature of our coverage of the Common Core State Standards.

A range of impacts

The emerging shortage appeared to be hitting particularly hard in some schools in small, rural districts, and in affluent metropolitan areas such as San Jose, where housing costs are beyond the reach of most teachers’ salaries.

SOURCE: May 2015 presentation by Patrick Shields, executive director of SRI Education; data from California Department of Education and Commission on Teacher Credentialing

From the early 2000s through the recession, the number of new teaching credentials issued roughly paralleled the decline in estimated numbers of new teachers hired. But the lines crossed in 2013-14, and now demand is exceeding supply. The Department of Education’s estimate of 21,483 new hires in 2015-16 would equal the 2006-07 pre-recession level.

“Small districts have always had a problem with teacher supply, but there’s no question the problem is exacerbated now,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, a lobbying firm that represents the Small School Districts Association. He said an increasingly common emergency tactic for hard-hit small schools is to combine two classes of students under a single teacher. “They make do, but it’s sure not ideal,” he said.

Several of the officials surveyed by EdSource Today said they’ve been having a particularly hard time finding qualified teachers for math and special education. Yet others said the crunch hadn’t yet hit their districts. Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Rick Miller said his district was finding all the fully credentialed teachers it needed, although he added “with so few people in the spigot, things are going to be dramatically different in about three years.”

By “the spigot,” Miller was referring to California’s supply of teachers in training, which has steadily declined over the past decade. From 2008 to 2013, new enrollments in the state’s teaching preparation programs dropped precipitously, by 55 percent.

Potentially further shrinking the state’s teacher supply are anticipated new retirements, as increasing numbers of Baby Boomer teachers reach retirement age.

A 2005 report by the Center for Teaching and Learning, part of the nonprofit educational research group WestEd, said that back then nearly 100,000 teachers in California were more than 50 years old. The report predicted that one-third of the teacher workforce would retire in the next decade – meaning by now. This hasn’t happened yet, possibly because so many teachers put off retiring during the recession. But the worry remains.

Added to these supply-side difficulties are increasing demands for new teachers. Many districts need to hire more teachers to comply with new state-government pressure to reduce K-3 class sizes to 24 students. The districts have also been receiving large new infusions of state funds due to the surging economy, allowing them to rehire some teachers who were laid off during the recession, and making the overall market all that more competitive.

A vivid indicator of the growing need for teachers can be seen on the website, a national educational job board. In June, the total number of posted openings throughout California, the majority of them for teaching jobs, was nearly double that for the same date in June of 2013, rising from 5,058 openings to 9,826.

Buyers in a seller’s market

Officials in all but one of the six surveyed districts – Santa Ana – said they’ve been seeking new hires earlier and more aggressively than in the past, planning larger job fairs, strengthening relationships with nearby teaching schools, and even, in some cases, raising salaries.

In Visalia, Ravalin said district officials raised all teacher salaries by a total of 1.5 percent above the scheduled cost of living increase last year, in part to help with recruitment. The Visalia district also awards teachers $1,000 for giving ample notice before they retire.

Both the Fresno Unified School District and the Aspire Public Schools system have gone so far as to develop their own teacher-training programs in the quest to meet expected future demand. Assisted in part by a grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Fresno established a teacher residency program that last year produced its first cohort of 25 teachers with credentials in science and math. Cynthia Quintana, Fresno’s human resources administrator, said the district is also creating a new pipeline for credentialed teachers in three other ways: with an academy for high school students interested in pursuing teaching, an outreach effort to encourage local parents to consider teaching careers, and teacher-training partnerships with local colleges.

Similarly, Aspire Public Schools has established the Aspire Teacher Residency program, a partnership with the University of the Pacific that pairs a teacher candidate with a master teacher in a year-long tutelage culminating in a master’s degree in instruction and a preliminary teaching credential.

‘They don’t know what they’re getting into’

Another strong sign of the emerging shortage has come in a recent statewide uptick in the hiring of teachers with provisional, short-term credentials – the majority of them “interns” from university and district programs. About 2,600 of those credentials were issued throughout California in the 2013-14 school year – an increase of 17.6 percent over the previous year, according to an April report by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Teachers with “intern” credentials may teach classes after a minimum of 120 hours of preparation, on condition that they continue with their training, en route to receiving their preliminary credential within two years. After that, they must complete a teacher-induction program and obtain national board certification to get their clear credential.

Whether they come from universities, district credentialing programs, or Teach for America, applicants for such intern credentials must also have earned an undergraduate degree, passed the California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET) developed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and undergone a background check, including fingerprinting.

The districts’ reliance on interns has certainly not reached the “crisis” proportions predicted by sources including the California Teachers Association, which warns on its website that California is facing a “perfect storm” of pressures on its teaching ranks, even as it already places last among states in terms of average student-to-teacher ratios. The state suffered far more serious problems in the late 1990s, after districts responded to new mandates to reduce K-3 class sizes to 20 students for every teacher by issuing provisional credentials to tens of thousands of teachers.  In 2001-02, more than 14 percent of teachers had provisional credentials, according to research by Patrick Shields, executive director of SRI Education.

Even so, Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said she worried about the impact on the Common Core implementation if the trend toward hiring relatively inexperienced teachers continues. In particular, she said, experienced math teachers are needed now more than ever, due to the new standards’ emphasis on deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.

“Hiring teachers who aren’t fully credentialed is something we don’t allow in medicine or law,” Darling-Hammond said. “They’re simply not prepared.”

In some districts, teachers with intern credentials made up a significant share of new hires last year. Fresno Unified, for example, the state’s fourth-largest district with 73,000 students, hired 95 teachers with intern credentials ­– about a third of its new hires and twice the norm, in response to anticipated retirements combined with a quick phase-in of state-mandated class size reductions in K-3 grades, said Quintana, the district’s human resources administrator.

Similarly, San Jose will need to hire at least 40 teachers with intern credentials this September, about a dozen more than for the past school year. Assistant Superintendent Jason Willis said his district’s recruiters were having increasing trouble hiring special education, bilingual and high school math teachers.

James Willcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools, which has 35 schools in California, said he tries to avoid hiring teachers with intern credentials but currently has 21 teachers – 3.3 percent of Aspire’s teaching force – in that category.

At the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in California, Bryan Johnson, assistant director of human resources, said the district had hired 350 teachers on provisional credentials, still a tiny fraction of the 25,000-strong staff. Johnson said his biggest challenges were finding qualified substitutes and special education teachers. Demand for special education teachers is growing, he noted, as children with special needs are being identified in greater numbers than ever before.

The increased hiring of teachers with provisional credentials has raised worries among some district officials about the future quality of teaching staffs.

“I’m not saying that interns can’t walk in and be great teachers, but we’re looking for consistency in performance, and it’s in the internship where you get the variation,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Miller. “They don’t know what they’re getting into and you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Ravalin, the human resources administrator for the Visalia Unified School District, said she was also concerned about the new teachers’ relative inexperience. In many cases, she said, they have to take over classrooms without having finished their required classes or without training alongside a veteran teacher – an experience she described as “becoming captain of your ship while you’re still reading the handbook.”

At the Green Acres Middle School in Visalia, however, Jennifer Garza, a former industrial saleswoman who teaches 7th-grade English on an intern credential, vigorously disagreed with that portrayal.

Garza acknowledged her teaching experience has been difficult, but said that was only because of how tired she has been from racing from her classroom to grade homework, finish her own homework, staff after-school activities, and attend night classes. That has left her with very little time for her two young children, even less time to rest and a lot of frustration with people who imply that teachers on intern credentials are unqualified.

“It’s a very broad statement that I don’t think is true,” said Garza, who recently completed her second year of teaching classes while attending night school through the Tulare County Office of Education IMPACT intern program.

Like many other new teachers, Garza spent time – in her case, six months – as a substitute teacher before taking over her own classroom. Yet as a general rule, she argued that more experience alone doesn’t make teachers more skillful. “I’ve seen some very experienced tenured teachers where I’ve wondered, ‘How is this person still employed?’” she said.

Moreover, she said she felt more qualified than many veteran teachers to teach the Common Core State Standards because “I didn’t have to make a switch. Also, I can try out things in the classroom that I’ve learned the night before.”

Her students have appreciated her fresh perspective and energy, Garza said, while she believes their shared experience as learners gives her an opportunity to model good behavior: “I’ve told them how I always get my homework done on time.”

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