Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource
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.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

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  1. Daniel Plonsey 7 years ago7 years ago

    Recruiting new teachers is only one side of the problem. The other side is that older teachers (50+) are being driven from the profession by administrators who want to save money on salaries. The data on teachers being put in PAR and "teacher jail" shows a undeniable pattern of older (but still 10-15 years from retirement) teachers being driven out. I don't have data on other methods being used to drive teachers … Read More

    Recruiting new teachers is only one side of the problem. The other side is that older teachers (50+) are being driven from the profession by administrators who want to save money on salaries. The data on teachers being put in PAR and “teacher jail” shows a undeniable pattern of older (but still 10-15 years from retirement) teachers being driven out. I don’t have data on other methods being used to drive teachers from the profession, e.g., being transferred to an undesirable school, or as at my school, simply a mysteriously negative evaluation or notice of unprofessional conduct on trumped-up charges. It does come down to money: it isn’t necessarily the case that admins/boards want to punish teachers (though administrators seem disproportionately angry and sadistic people): they all are trying to staff schools on a tight budget. It comes down to CA needing to spend LOTS more on schools, and also to reduce the economic inequities our students face, so there won’t be schools where no one wants to teach.

  2. Steve Scanlan 7 years ago7 years ago

    With teachers watching benefits won in labor negotiations whittled away with rulings like Vergara and superintendents whose real goal is to punish educators, it’s a tough sell to recruit new blood into the field. Money is not the whole solution. Respect has a lot to do with it. Perhaps if we were respected more and vilified less, it wouldn’t be so hard to find willing and eager new recruits.

  3. Ruth Hensley 7 years ago7 years ago

    The shortage will continue to be an issue as long as teachers are undervalued and underpaid.

  4. Ann Halvorsen 7 years ago7 years ago

    Darling – Hammond’s and colleagues’ approach is a must. California has had serious shortages in Special Education and other areas for decades – it’s not been cyclical except in the severity of it. see federal Office of Postsecondary Ed data online covering this topic across states for decades. Incentives are critically needed such as forgivable loans etc, especially since CA is primarily a post- graduate teacher prep state.

  5. Replies

    • Suzanne 7 years ago7 years ago

      PTTP was one wonderful pathway to “grow your own” educators. But don’t forget about the many career changers with highly valued maturity, judgment, and subject matter expertise for whom PTTP is not suitable. Internships, grants, and loan repayments make the career change to teaching an option.

  6. Anita Johnson 7 years ago7 years ago

    “Waiting for the market to correct itself” is translated as “condemning tens of thousands of students in low income classrooms to instruction from rotating 30-day substitutes.” Markets only correct themselves when parties change their actions, like allocating more funding for teacher salaries.


    • Brad Strong 7 years ago7 years ago

      Totally agree, but in the meantime can we change our actions so that we’re not condemning the students in low income classrooms to instruction from rotating 30-day substitutes

  7. Patrick Hayes 7 years ago7 years ago

    Because if there’s one thing the private sector has taught us, it’s that simply paying higher salaries in no way helps with recruitment. Supply and demand? Never heard of it.

    Heads out of the sand, people. Time to pay up. You no longer have half the population held captive in teaching and nursing.