Debate emerges over state actions needed to ease teacher shortages

March 1, 2016

A high school calculus teacher helps her students at Glendale High School work through a tough word problem.

As California school districts grapple with a widening shortage of teachers, a policy debate has emerged about just how actively the state should be involved in trying to remedy the problem.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a report last month that makes the case that market forces will help alleviate the difficulties districts are experiencing in filling certain positions, and that the shortage “will decrease without direct state action.”

The report acknowledged there were “perennial staffing difficulties” in specific areas, such as special education, math and science, in urban districts serving low-income students, and in some rural districts. But these shortages should be addressed with “narrowly tailored” solutions. These could include recruiting more teachers from other states, or tapping a pool of some 10,000 teachers who have credentials but who are not currently teaching and might be tempted to re-enter the classroom.

The analysis comes against the backdrop of a concerted push by some lawmakers and others to convince the Legislature to address the shortage with a package of bills, and goes against the grain of several analyses that urge a far more comprehensive state response.

The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based research institute headed by education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, issued a report in January that called for a “comprehensive set of strategies at the local and state levels that are focused on increasing the number of well-prepared entrants to the field of teaching, directing them to the fields and locations where they are needed, and plugging the leaky bucket of teacher attrition.”

The report was authored by Darling-Hammond, who is also chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and Roberta Furger, Patrick Shields and Leib Sutcher, all staffers at the institute.

The LAO report contends that the ratio of newly credentialed teachers to the number of vacancies “tends to follow cyclical patterns, with mismatches tending to correct themselves over time.”

“Given these cyclical patterns, with trends changing every few years, state government likely cannot react quickly enough to make much of a difference before the market corrects itself,” the report says. “We encourage the Legislature to avoid broad statewide policies.”

In a detailed statement issued in response to the LAO report, the authors of the Learning Policy Institute report said they agreed with the Legislative Analyst’s Office that the state’s most immediate need is to remedy the shortage in special education, science and math, as well as bilingual instruction. But “we do not think that waiting for a market response will be sufficient,” they said.

As an example of where market forces failed, the researchers pointed to the high demand for new teachers in the late 1990s, which in the absence of a strategic approach by the state resulted in a “huge influx of underprepared teachers” who disproportionately ended up in schools with large numbers of minority and low-income students. As a result, children in those schools “were frequently taught year after year by a parade of inexperienced, untrained teachers,” the researchers said.

The only way the state was able to reduce the number of teachers on emergency or partial credentials was by enacting what the institute called an “ambitious set of policies to spur recruitment, subsidize preparation, boost salaries and improve working conditions.”

The Learning Policy Institute researchers also noted that teacher education programs at UC and CSU have shrunk over the past several years, and some have closed entirely. Targeted public funding will be needed to “re-grow” enrollment in teacher education programs, they said.

Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, has been pushing a bill (SB 62) to revive a state loan program (the Assumption Program for Loans to Educators, or APLE) that forgives a portion of the college loans of prospective teachers. To qualify, they would have to agree to teach for a minimum of four years in schools with large numbers of low-income students, in rural schools, or in a school with a large number of teachers on emergency permits rather than full credentials.

But the LAO report pointed out that giving teachers “upfront tuition subsidies” along the lines of the now defunct Governor’s Teaching Fellowships were likely to be more effective. It said programs like the APLE may induce some teachers to teach in a hard-to staff school, but there is no evidence that they would attract new teachers to the profession.

Pavley vigorously disagreed.

“For a small fraction of what it would cost to grant an across-the-board salary increase to California’s 300,000 teachers, the APLE program provides a significant, targeted financial benefit to those who choose to teach in subject areas and neighborhoods where the need for qualified teachers is greatest,” she said. “And the assistance comes at precisely the time when young professionals need it most – when payments on student loans begin to come due just as they’re challenged to get by on the average beginning teacher salary of about $40,000 a year.”

Educators at CSU also strongly endorsed the value of the APLE program. In testimony to the Senate Education Committee in January, Carolyn Nelson, vice president for academic affairs at Cal State East Bay, said that the APLE program “contributed markedly to undergraduates choosing a teaching career” before the state Legislature terminated its funding for new enrollees three years ago. “Increased enrollments in teaching pathways correlated directly with APLE awards,” she said.

The LAO report said that strong outreach by districts would attract qualified teachers much faster and at a lower cost than many other policies being proposed to address the shortage. It said that states like New York produce “far more teachers than they are able to hire,” and suggests California may be able to lure some of that state’s oversupply to the West Coast.

Another strategy that gets a strong endorsement in the LAO report is recruiting former teachers to return to the classroom. That, the report said, would be one of “the most cost-effective strategies for increasing the supply of teachers within California in the short-term.”

But Learning Policy Institute researchers said strong state action will be needed in this area as well. They noted that the state will need to fully fund the Local Control Funding Formula to allow districts to raise salaries and improve working conditions to better attract new teachers. “That will give poor districts where shortages are the most severe a greater chance to catch up to others,” they said.

Even with full funding of the Local Control Funding Formula, the researchers noted, the state will still spend far less per student than the national average, which will make it difficult to offer competitive wages, especially in communities with high housing costs. That will create obstacles for districts wishing to recruit teachers away from other states, as the LAO recommends.

Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research who has written extensively about teacher shortages, provided some support for the LAO’s analysis. He acknowledged that the teacher labor market has become tighter in recent years, but pointed out that not all schools and districts are affected by it in the same way. Some schools have no difficulty filling a position, he said, while others “face severe challenges.”

“I worry that if policymakers try to craft generic solutions to what are more nuanced problems, they will miss opportunities to adequately target areas where there actually are severe problems,” he said. “Spreading scarce dollars amongst all teachers and schools will do little to deal with the real difficulties that some schools find in staffing certain kinds of positions.”

But the Learning Policy Institute team pointed out that the California Department of Education has listed virtually every teaching field on a shortage list it provides to the U.S. Department of Education. “We should not be lulled into a false sense of security,” the researchers said. “Policy makers will need to be watchful and vigilant for many years to evaluate and address the state’s needs until a healthy teaching market is well-established.”

Click here to see the full Learning Policy Institute response to the LAO report.

This is the second of two articles on the Legislative Analyst Office’s recommendations on California’s teacher shortage. Read the first article here.

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