A closer look at the critical California teacher shortage

Breaking down the teachers shortage in California.

Teachers seem to appear near the top of many children’s lists of what they want to be when they grow up. Young boys and girls see firsthand an effective educator’s impact, and they look up to their teachers as a result. By the time college comes around, however, things have changed.

While education is consistently listed among the most popular college majors for women, it’s often edged out by fields like business, computer science, economics and nursing on top majors lists for the overall student population. This pattern came out on the other side of the Great Recession as a mounting problem for U.S. school districts. As we came out of that economic downturn, a nationwide shortage of qualified teachers loomed — and it has only grown worse as the years have progressed.

In fact, a recent report found more than 100,000 teachers in the U.S. are not “fully qualified to teach.” Areas like math, science and special education are experiencing severe teacher shortages in nearly every state. But certain states, including California, have been hit harder by this education crisis.

Join us as we take a closer look at the national teacher deficit, take a deep dive into the California teacher shortage and explore what’s being done to address this critical issue.

What should you know about the national teacher shortage?

While it can often be difficult to see when a field’s decline began, pinpointing the cause of the national teacher shortage in the U.S. takes us directly back to the Great Recession — which officially stretched from December 2007 to June 2009.

During and after the recession, school districts across the country, faced with declining tax revenues, were forced to reduce their teacher workforces in a number of ways. Some educators lost their jobs, while salary cuts and changing working conditions caused others to leave the profession. In fact, a significant portion of teachers who leave their positions do so for reasons other than retirement.

And while teacher turnover has been increasing, we’ve seen an overall decrease in college students enrolling in education programs. Between 2009 and 2014, enrollment in teacher education programs fell a harrowing 35 percent. The Learning Policy Institute notes the supply of incoming educators is atypically low, and has been declining steadily.

This has resulted in schools relying on short- or long-term substitutes and emergency credentialed teachers. Such workarounds may provide temporary solutions for the districts hit hardest by the national teacher shortage, but these alternative pathways to teaching can result in less-effective educators.

What’s being done at a national level? 

Legislators in many states have taken the initiative to increase teacher salaries and offer other incentives for potential educators. The Learning Policy Institute report points to initiatives like loan forgiveness programs, teacher residencies, new teacher mentoring initiatives and improved administrative support. This is all being done in an effort to develop stronger teacher retention, which can have notable impacts on student outcomes.

For some districts, this includes partnering with their team of emergency credentialed teachers to offer both support and resources to help them obtain their formal credentials. These education professionals were often substitute teachers or paraprofessionals who had not obtained the necessary teaching certification or licensure to teach full-time.

What should you know about the California teacher shortage?

As the most populous state in the country, it’s no surprise that California has the largest number of public school students in the nation. But the state is having a hard time keeping up. One study found 80 percent of California school districts reported a shortage of qualified teachers for the 2017-18 school year. Nine out of 10 districts maintained that the shortage was worse than the previous school year.

But the teacher shortage has hit California hardest in the special education realm. In fact, two out of three special education teachers hired in 2016-17 had substandard credentials. And yet nearly eight in 10 California schools are in need of teachers trained in special education.

As with the rest of the country, California’s most prominent barrier to overcoming this education crisis is high teacher turnover rates. It’s true that teacher turnover is driving demand for new teachers. In fact, approximately one-third of the teaching workforce in California is nearing retirement. With this in mind, the Center for the Future of Teaching and learning estimates that the state will need an additional 100,000 teachers over the coming decade.

With all of this in mind, the state of California has allocated around $200 million since 2014 to address the statewide shortage, implementing some notable changes since the recession. And while there has been a slight increase in California’s overall enrollment for teacher preparation programs, this uptick hasn’t been enough to resolve the problem.

What’s being done in California?

California state lawmakers have devoted more resources to education in recent years to help augment the number of qualified teaching candidates produced in state. These efforts have included the following:

It’s also true that California has made an effort to offer educators higher salaries than most other states. In fact, while the the median annual salary for school teachers nationwide is $57,949, California teachers earn a median yearly wage of $77,429 – that makes California teachers the third highest paid in the country.

Even with all of these important steps in the right direction, experts agree that more could be done. They suggest loosening restrictions requiring additional testing and coursework for out-of-state teachers, offering district-wide initiatives like loan repayment and implementing school-specific programs to recruit, train and support staff and community members who may have some interest in teaching.

How to make the most of the teacher shortage

While the teacher shortage signifies that there is a lot of work that’s yet to be done, the efforts to remedy this education crisis are promising for up-and-coming classroom instructors. That said, there are ways to see the shortage as an opportunity for teaching hopefuls.

Highly qualified candidates seeking teaching positions in areas experiencing notable shortages may find that they can be a bit more selective about the positions they apply for, ensuring they’ll find a teaching job they’re happy with rather than taking the first opportunity they come across. It’s also true that being highly qualified in a shortage area could put you in a stronger position to negotiate, as schools may need your qualifications more than you need their employment.

There can also be financial benefits to stepping up to the plate as a qualified teacher in a shortage area. If you opt to pursue a high-need content area or teach in a high-need school district, you may find that you’ll qualify for perks like signing bonuses or college loan forgiveness.

Could you be the teacher students desperately need?

It’s clear the California teacher shortage, and the nationwide deficit, has become an education crisis that lawmakers and community members all agree is in need of swift solutions. Unfortunately, this is a tall order that is laced with policy-related decisions. As steps are being taken to remedy the lingering issues, there’s ample opportunity for aspiring educators.

If you find yourself drawn toward the idea of teaching, your commitment to the profession could make a tangible difference in the lives of students in dire need of quality education. As you venture through your decision-making process, it can be helpful to review some of the reasons seasoned educators chose this career path. Head over to our article, "Why become a teacher? 4 Reasons to pursue a career in the classroomto learn more.

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