California’s persistent teacher shortage fueled by attrition, high demand, say newly released studies

September 27, 2018

A bilingual teacher in Fresno Unified helps students with a lesson.

California has earmarked nearly $200 million over the last four years to address the state’s persistent teacher shortage, but it is not enough, according to new studies that are part of “Getting Down to Facts II,” a research project focused on a wide array of statewide education issues.

The teacher shortage has worsened in recent years as state funding for education improved and districts began lowering class sizes and bringing back programs like summer school and the arts, which were frequently eliminated during the recession, increasing the need for more teachers.

Declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs after the economic downturn and teacher attrition also have contributed to the shortage of educators. Teacher turnover currently accounts for 88 percent of the demand for new teachers, according to the research.

“The story is still bleak,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and the author of “Teacher Shortages in California: Evidence about Current Status, Sources, and Potential Solutions,” one of the research project’s 36 reports released this week. The reports were written by more than 100 authors, including many prominent researchers from California.

There has been a small uptick in enrollment in teacher preparation programs and in the number of licenses awarded to new teachers, but not enough to resolve the problem, Darling-Hammond said.

A 2016 survey of 211 school districts by the Learning Policy Institute revealed that nearly three-quarters could not find enough qualified teachers to fill their classrooms. Instead, schools hired thousands of underqualified teachers. In 2016-17, more than 12,000 provisional intern permits, limited assignment teaching permits, waivers and intern credentials were issued in California. About half of these went to math, science and special education teachers — subject areas with the most acute shortages, according to the research.

Teachers working with provisional intern permits and intern credentials have not completed the testing, coursework and student teaching required for a preliminary or clear credential. Limited assignment permits and waivers allow credentialed teachers to teach outside their subject areas to fill a staffing need.

State lawmakers approved a series of programs in recent years in an effort to increase the number of qualified teachers in California schools, including $45 million to help school staff become credentialed teachers; $10 million for new undergraduate programs for teacher education; $5 million to open the California Center on Teaching Careers, which promotes the teaching profession and recruits new teachers; $9 million for teacher and leader recruitment and retention and $5 million for the Bilingual Teacher Professional Development Program. 

A good portion of the $200 million in state funds allocated to fight the teacher shortage has yet to be spent. The 2018 state education budget includes $100 million for teacher residencies and local initiatives to increase the number of special education teachers, as well as $25 million for teacher residencies to increase the number of math, science and bilingual education teachers.

The Teacher Residency Grant program offers one-time competitive grants to begin or expand teacher residency programs in order to recruit and support the training of special education, bilingual education, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers. The state has allocated $50 million for special education and $25 million for bilingual education and STEM residencies.

The Local Solutions Grant Program will use $50 million to offer one-time competitive grants to school districts to identify and develop solutions to the shortage of special education teachers.

“We think the teacher residency program is a promising way to get teachers in the pipeline and keep them there,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who authored the bill that created the residency program.

The California State Assembly Committee on Education continues to look at ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention, he said. “Everything is on the table and we should look at any of these recommendations,” McCarty said of the “Getting Down to Facts II” research. “We are always intrigued when people bring research and data-driven suggestions on how we can deal with teacher recruitment and retention.”

The authors of the two studies on teacher staffing say more needs to be done to end California’s teacher shortage. The number of qualified teachers could be increased if economic incentives were used to target teachers in high-needs fields and to increase the salaries of new teachers, according to “Teacher Staffing Challenges in California: Exploring the Factors that Influence Teacher Staffing and Distribution,” another study on the teacher shortage included in “Getting Down to Facts II.”

The researchers also recommended:

“One of the things we have not been able to achieve yet in California is a widespread forgivable loan or scholarship program,” Darling-Hammond said. “We really need to build a pipeline in a field with few people coming in.”

The cost of teacher preparation is cited as a “significant obstacle” for those who are considering teaching as a profession, according to the Learning Policy Institute study.

The recession also hurt the teaching profession. The California Teachers Association reported that about 100,000 teachers received “pink slips” between 2008 and 2012 as a warning they could be laid off, said the Learning Policy Institute study. Although most kept their jobs, the highly publicized annual ritual of sending layoff notices to teachers made many potential teachers afraid to join the profession, according to researchers.

Teacher programs have experienced a 70 percent decline in enrollment in the past decade, according to the studies. There has been a slight increase in enrollment in recent years, but there is concern that the University of California and California State University systems, which prepare nearly 60 percent of California teachers, no longer have the capacity to educate enough teachers to fill the needs of school districts, researchers say.

The worst teacher shortages are in special education, where two out of three teachers hired in 2016-17 had substandard credentials — intern credentials, permits and waivers. Nearly 8 in 10 California schools need special education teachers, according to Getting Down to Facts survey data.

“In special education, shortages are a five-alarm fire,” said Learning Policy Institute researchers in their report. “The most vulnerable students with the greatest needs, who require the most expert teachers, are those with the least qualified teachers.”

Special education students need teachers with sophisticated expertise that includes medical and psychological knowledge, Darling-Hammond said. Without this expertise it isn’t likely the students are getting instruction that is meaningful, she said.

Underprepared teachers are more likely to suspend or expel special education students or to use other exclusionary discipline, Darling-Hammond said.

“The lack of teachers adequately prepared on the behavioral and academic side can make for a torturous experience for the students,” she said.

The teacher shortage threatens education initiatives underway in the state, including new standards, curriculum, instruction and assessment, according to the project studies on the teacher shortage.

“When you have a huge shortage of math and science teachers, when about 40 percent of those coming in have not been prepared, it’s going to be very hard to meet the new standards without continued investments in that area,” Darling-Hammond said.

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