State finds teacher shortage in more subject areas

December 21, 2015
teacher with students

In a move that could result in more federal financial assistance for prospective teachers, the California Department of Education has identified a teacher shortage in almost every subject area in the state, including for the first time physical education, health and dance.

Each year California is required to tell the U.S. Department of Education in what subject areas teacher shortages exist, based on a formula established by the federal government, which then publishes a nationwide list of shortage areas.  The list carries significant weight because prospective teachers who agree to teach subjects that appear on the list can qualify for federal grants that cover a portion of their college tuition costs, or for forgiveness of some or all of certain federal student loans. California’s list now covers most subject areas in the state.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last month, the state listed all the areas in which shortages exist. In addition to physical education, they include elementary education, mathematics and computer education; English, drama and humanities; history and social sciences; science; and special education. According to the letter, elementary teachers are now the highest priority for the state.

In a little noticed step earlier this year, based on information received from California, the federal government had already declared a shortage of elementary school teachers in California.

The federal government defines a teacher shortage as “an area of specific grade, subject matter or discipline classification, or a geographic area in which the Secretary of Education determines that there is an inadequate supply of elementary or secondary school teachers.”

This was the first time elementary school teachers were placed on the list since the federal government began publishing it a quarter of a century ago. About half of the 295,000 teachers in California are elementary school teachers. California is only one of a handful of states reporting a shortage of elementary school teachers. Others include Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virgina and Wyoming. New Mexico has declared a shortage of kindergarten teachers.

One reason the elementary school shortage may not have received more attention is that the federal listing describes an elementary school class as a “self-contained class,” which is the official terminology used in California for most K-5 classrooms.

California education officials are hoping that having more subject areas on the list, including elementary instruction, could help attract new teachers to the profession by making federal aid more available to them.

Joan Bissell, director of Teaching and Public School programs for the California State University system, said the daunting prospect of having to pay off student loans on low teacher salaries discourages many students from considering teaching as a profession.

“It’s hugely important,” Bissell said. “When you look at the dynamics of the teacher pipeline, the biggest deterrent to entering teaching really hasn’t been the status of the profession. It’s been student debt.”

Specifically, if teachers teach a subject where the federal government has designated a shortage area, they can qualify for forgiveness of up to $17,500 in loans received through the Federal Family Education Loan plan. They might also qualify for cancellation of up to 100 percent of a Federal Perkins loan if they teach for five years in a school serving low-income students, or any subject in which a shortage has been declared.

Would-be teachers who agree to work for four years in a shortage area in school that serves low-income students may qualify for grants from the federal TEACH program, which pays up to $4,000 a year for four years, or a total of $16,000.

Finding a school in California that meets the low-income requirements is not difficult. A federal list of eligible schools includes over 8,000 schools in California — nearly 4 out of 5 schools in the state. If a student ends up not teaching in one of these schools or not teaching a subject with a shortage, the TEACH grant is converted into a loan which the recipient is required to pay back.

Last year, some 400 CSU students received the TEACH grant. As a result of more subjects being designated a shortage area, the California State University system, which trains nearly half of all teachers in the state, hopes to double the number of prospective teachers who receive a TEACH grant, Bissell said.

The state faces a huge challenge in addressing the shrinking numbers of would-be teachers in the preparation pipeline. Since 2001-02, enrollments in teacher preparation programs have steadily dipped, to 18,894 in 2013-14 (although preliminary figures have shown an uptick in some programs this fall).

In a memo to the State Board of Education at its last meeting in Sacramento in November, the California Department of Education advised that “in California shortage areas are especially worrisome with the enrollments of teacher preparation programs dropping precipitously over the past few years, coupled with an expected increase in the number of retirements.”

An EdSource survey this fall of registered voters in California, conducted by The Field Poll in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute, showed tremendous public support for the state doing more of what the federal government is doing. Fifty-eight percent of voters “strongly favored” the state forgiving a portion of college loans to prospective teachers, or offering them scholarships like the federal TEACH grant if they agreed to teach for at least four years in low-income communities or in subjects where there is a shortage.

California had programs like this over a decade ago, including the Assumption Program of Loans for Education, or APLE, and the Governor’s Teaching Fellowships. But these have been phased out over the years due to budget cuts. A bill (SB 62) by Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, that would have restored the APLE loan forgiveness program, did not receive support this year and Pavley will try again during the coming year to gain legislative approval.

One teacher who has benefited from the federal TEACH program is Sean Brooks, a 40-year-old single parent who went back to school six years ago to get a teaching credential. He said he has received two TEACH grants totaling $3,000, which has allowed him to pay down his student loans.

This year Brooks taught physics at John H. Pitman High School in Turlock, after teaching for a year at a junior high school in Modesto.

He said he was not aware of the federal teacher grant program until he won a $10,000 federal Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship, which paid him $2,500 for four semesters to complete a teacher credential program at California State University, Stanislaus. The Noyce Fellowships are intended to encourage the teaching of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula. Brooks also qualified for $21,000 in loan forgiveness under the APLE program — before the Legislature phased it out for new applicants.

Brooks, who had previously earned a degree in physics, said he owes thousands of dollars in student loans, but has no regrets. He said he went back to school after observing teenagers in the Central Valley without any direction and he felt that he could make his greatest contribution to their lives as a teacher.

“There is a reason I took all of this on,” he said.

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