Justo Avila slid a baby blue I Heart pin across the conference table at the downtown district office of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We created buttons!” he said flashing a winning smile. “Those buttons are going like wildfire right now.” As the district’s chief director of human resources, he had the tokens created to publicize the good work of the 26,827 public school teachers in L.A.’s school district, the nation’s second largest. “There’s a lot of folks out there right now in this district who are doing great stuff,’ he said, “and we never highlight it.”
Yet even Avila, with his intensely positive energy, knows that Los Angeles—like many districts across the country—is in the midst of one of the most severe teacher shortages in U.S. education history—one which experts say will only worsen, regardless of the recruitment buttons and other campaign paraphernalia geared to interest more college graduates in teaching.
From California to Colorado, Utah, Nevada, North Dakota, and Washington, reports of local shortages have become as common as No. 2 pencils. A recent report compiled by the U.S. Department of Education lists the shortage areas by subject for each state and territory by year. Every state showed deficits in math, science, or special education teachers in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The vast majority listed need in all three areas and some were missing teachers prepared in other subjects as well. While, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 6 percent growth rate from 2014 to 2024 for kindergarten, elementary, and high school teachers, even this pace is far too slow to keep up with anticipated demand.
The problem runs deeper than the paucity of teachers who earned credentials this year. The reality is that fewer people are even seeking accreditation, leaving the pipeline that schools rely on for new hires dry. The most recent Title II report, from 2015, shows a precipitous drop in the number of people who enroll in teacher training programs nationwide. In two states, Alaska and South Dakota, the number is down by more 50 percent. In 10 other states, it is down 30 percent. To make matters worse, this is happening just as many teachers of the Baby Boom generation have already reached retirement age. And although math, science, and special education are the subject areas where new teachers are most desperately needed, better paying options for these skillsets in other fields, along with the stigma surrounding special needs students, make them the subjects least likely to attract the new talent needed to satisfy demand.
The situation has forced schools to leave vacancies open or fill them with underprepared, underqualified, and even uncertified instructors.
With so few new hires on the market, the situation has forced schools to leave vacancies open or fill them with underprepared, underqualified, and even uncertified instructors. Avila, for example, estimates that he will have vacancies for 70 to 80 special education positions that will have to be filled with student teachers. An in-depth look at crisis reveals that it is actually a collection of enmeshed problems in teacher education and placement. It stems from insufficient financial assistance to get into the field, low pay once there, lack of autonomy and respect that other professions enjoy, poor mentorship opportunities, and training that does not prepare fledgling teachers for the challenges they are likely to face in Title I schools, where careers most often begin.
Beyond promotional campaigns, what is being done to address the shortage? A number of innovative, small teacher training programs are emerging as one way that districts have found helps them cope. They are known as alternative, residencies, or “grow-your-own” initiatives and they seek specifically to draw new teachers into the field who will commit to long careers in the communities where they train. In Los Angeles, Avila has worked hard to open a new program for prospective special ed teachers called Step Up. It helps paraeducators, like teaching assistants, to become fully credentialed teachers. Step Up is one of three alternative training efforts underway in the Los Angeles public school system, along with Career Ladder and the Urban Teacher Residency.
The situation in Los Angeles is similar to that of other urban districts and illustrates the scope of the shortage. The lack of teachers has caused average class size to increase to a student-teacher ratio of 24 to 1. That is 33 percent higher than the national ratio of 16 to 1. In Fall 2015, Avila just barely managed to hire teachers to cover the 700 openings in the system by the day classes started last September. He is scrambling now to fill a projected 1,000 vacancies for Fall 2016.
Avila and his deputy, Deborah Ignagni, rush to stay one step ahead. They have recruited teachers from out of state, sent recruiters to local college campuses, and even reached out to retired special ed teachers to see if they might be willing to teach a few more years. Despite their efforts, however, Avila thinks he will be forced fill the 70 special education vacancies with uncredentialed teachers who are currently enrolled in the Step Up Program.
“I’d love to close that gap and have 100 percent credentialed,” Avila said. “We’ll get as close as we can.” The new and reinstated teacher prep programs that the district has been sponsoring show promise in their efforts to bring new recruits to the field, but Avila said the payoff is at least one year out.
And will the payoff be large enough? A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University noted that two months after the start of school in 2015, EdJoin, the California job portal for public, private, and parochial educators, still listed more than 3,900 open teaching positions—double the number listed at that same point two years earlier. The findings related to special education teachers were even more disheartening. Districts had estimated a need for 4,500 new special education teachers in the 2014-15 school year, but only 2,200 with that specialization were completing university programs that year. The report estimated that districts would have to hire 135,000 additional teachers just to meet the elusive national teacher-student classroom ratio.
However well-intentioned and run, localized efforts like Step Up and similar grow-your-own efforts in San Francisco, New York, and Boston, are limited by size and resources. They can offer little more than a piecemeal, too-little-too-late response to a crisis of such proportions. Even successful nationwide initiatives such as Teach for America have daunting new challenges, most notably a sharp drop in applicants. The program cannot meet demand for its recruits to teach in underserved areas of the country. It received in excess of 6,000 fewer applications this year than last and about 13,000 fewer than in the 2013 to 2014 application period.
With halting progress and limited growth, both the national and local programs represent a small solution to a major crisis, but they are a start, a point of inspiration. In dozens of interviews, teachers, education researchers and leaders of teacher prep programs spoke wistfully of their unrealized hopes for the development and adoption of widespread, consistent, and concrete reforms in teacher training and credentialing. As districts struggle to attract new talent to the field, it may be valuable to look back to how the shortage came about and what, if any aspects of the crisis, school systems can realistically address.
Experts such as Mary Brabeck, dean emerita of NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, note the cyclical nature of teacher shortages and her NYU colleague, Sean Corcoran, an educational economist, recalled the last major crisis, in the late 1980s, caused by stagnating teacher salaries that “did not keep up.” It was that earlier shortage that spurred the creation of the first alternative certification programs such as New Jersey’s Provisional Teacher Program and similar efforts in Texas and California. Although some of these programs were successful, none was strong enough to stave off the current crisis in any of those states.
Beyond the retirement of the Baby Boomers and the profession’s relatively low pay scale, Corcoran and other experts listed a host of newer factors that make the current crisis unique:
Adam Urbanski, a teachers’ union leader, said, “It used to be that we had a virtually guaranteed pool of candidates when women had fewer choices than they have now, so they would go to teaching.” Urbanski serves as both vice president the American Federation of Teachers, and the director of the Teacher Union Reform Network. The same is true of African American and Latino candidates. Urbanski added that with better paying opportunities in other industries, those teachers with skill—especially in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—have little incentive to pursue classroom careers.
Pay, however, is perhaps the greatest factor, in the opinion of Ronni Ephraim, an assistant professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California and a former L.A. school superintendent. Even one of the major perks of the job—summer vacation—is no longer the draw it once was, as “most people find that they work summer school, or they take odd jobs in the summer” to make ends meet.
Their USC colleague, Julie Slayton acknowledged that the current crisis could have been—and in some cases, was—anticipated. She is a professor of clinical education at the Rossier and was the L.A. school system’s director of research and planning. The education community, she said, knew more than ten years ago that a shortage was looming, given the advanced age of so many of its teachers. However, the deep financial crisis of the late 2000s caused many of them to postpone retirement, which, in effect, hit the pause button, delaying the system’s need for the system to take action. Now, however, with the economy in recovery, districts are dealing with widespread vacancies as veteran teachers, once again financially secure, retire.
Across the country, Slayton said, districts hit hard by the crisis were forced to begin “handing out pink slips,”not to senior faculty members but to their youngest, newest hires as required by union contracts. That made teaching as risky as it was poorly paid. Indeed, a 2016 report on the state of the shortage in California by the Learning Policy Institute found that the widespread layoffs “left a mark on the public psyche,” and may have discouraged many of those who were considering a teaching career.
Back in Los Angeles, Avila, tends to agree. He thinks that the problem is not that fewer people are interested in teaching. “We’ve just done a lousy job of marketing education. I think the negativity and the recent recession all sort of helped people think, ‘Well maybe that’s not a good place. They’re firing teachers.’” But the economy’s recovery has opened plenty of vacancies. It’s time, Avila said, to let teachers know that schools are hiring again.
Whatever the actual cause of the shortage, the fact remains that that fewer new college graduates are preparing for teaching careers, as the most recent Title II report indicates. Title II reports are provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act and include public access to data about teacher preparation and certification. And those who do enter the teaching pool, often do not stay. Teacher retention rates are low across the board but especially in poor urban and rural schools, where need is highest and weak leadership from principals and poor mentorship are common.
Alternative teacher training programs have done their part but cannot be a solution on their own. Teach for America, for example, has tried to address the shortage, but, Slayton said, “their overall impact on the teacher workforce is maybe null,” and possibly negative. She explained that the majority of teachers assigned to schools by Teach for America complete the requisite two years, but rarely stay beyond that. Instead, corps members tend either to move on to more desirable districts or leave the profession altogether.
“That’s where we are right now: We have an obvious increase in need, but not enough people have come through the pathway to be able to be eligible to teach.”
The culmination of issues since the financial crisis has left school districts “in this very interesting place where we are just starting to worry about a teacher shortage in earnest,” Slayton said. “So that’s where we are right now: We have an obvious increase in need, but not enough people have come through the pathway to be able to be eligible to teach. We’re just now starting to see an uptick in enrollment.”
With so few teachers in the credentialed pipeline, competition to hire the best is intense. “We almost have to be like a SWAT team,” Ignagni of the L.A. school district, said. “We go in and we know we have to get the best and we have to get them faster than any of the other districts.”
“We almost have to be like a SWAT team. We go in and we know we have to get the best and we have to get them faster than any of the other districts.”
This year, L.A. hired a headhunting service to supplement their own recruiting, both out of state and internationally. Avila added that to find teachers specialized in speech, language, and special ed, the district plans to recruit in Canada, which has proven to be a good fit for sourcing talent.
The district also has also been offering early contracts. Ignagni said recruiters have been given permission to hire on the spot “if they meet someone who they feel would be in the top 10 percent of our recruits,” she said. It has become another way “to get people to sign on the dotted line and commit to us as we commit to them as well.”
Huriya Jabbar, a professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, noted that the fierce competition for good teachers leaves the best recruits free to pick and choose among offers. Unsurprisingly, they tend to favor the districts that offer the best salary and benefit packages. She spent time in New Orleans, initially to study its competitive market for charter school students. While there, she noticed that principals were competing just as fiercely for teachers, and had were teaching out nationally as well as locally. “There is definitely a perception that there was a lot of fierce competition,” Jabbar said, “and the concern was that they could not retain the teachers that they had.”
The short supply of teachers over against such huge demand has the harshest impact on poor districts or those with relatively small budgets. A longitudinal study by the Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics found that on the whole, 17 percent of new teachers left the profession within the first five years, and an additional 10 percent changed schools. The study also found that movement was greatest where poverty levels at the schools were highest—measured by the number of students on free or reduced price lunch. Latest estimates put the cost of replacing a teacher at about $18,000, which adds up to a national total of more than $7 billion annually. And because teacher flight happens most often in the poorest districts, the impact on their already strained budgets is even greater.
The Washington Post recently touched on the topic, noting that in D.C., for example, a teacher could earn about $15,000 more by moving to the district next door. And when they do, it is terrible for both the financial health of the districts. As Sean Corcoran of NYU put it, “Turnover in general is costly. It’s costly on schools, it’s costly districts, because they have to constantly be screening candidates and hiring.”
The impact of the revolving door is no less hard on the prospects for strong student achievement. A 2015 California study showed that it leaves poor and predominantly minority districts with little choice other than to staff with inexperienced faculty. Unable to offer competitive wages and other important benefits including professional development opportunities, they have fewer options when it comes to hiring decisions.
And yet the issue of teacher attrition extends to better heeled districts as well, suggesting that change is badly needed both in the training and mentorship provided to teachers before they take charge of student learning. Experts agree that quality mentorship is vital, as a top expert on teacher turnover told an interviewer at NPRed last year. “One thing that we’ve found that’s effective is freeing up time for the beginning teachers so that they can meet with other colleagues. And learn from them. And compare notes. And try to develop some kind of coherence of curriculum.”
At the L.A. district office, Ignagni recalled how unprepared she felt on her first day as a newly minted teacher. “The door closed and I was by myself,” she recalled. “And it was like, ‘What do I do now?’ We don’t want people to feel like that.” Her district has devised what it calls a “slow-release process” for new teachers to receive guidance in the year leading up to their accreditation. Avila added that he wants teachers to “know that they’re not going to be in this alone. That its not a career where you’re going to be isolated. That right from the get-go, you’re going to be working with other people and people are going to be there to support you.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education history at NYU, has followed the shift in how and where teachers get their training. “The big story in teacher education is that universities and schools of education have lost their monopoly on it,” he said. “That’s been the revolution in teacher preparation.” A crop of alternative programs that have developed over the past 40 years have gained ground on the traditional route to the profession. In fact, all but two states have their own alternative prep programs. Although nationally there are currently only about 630 alternative programs compared with 1421 traditional schools, according to the 2013 Secretary’s Report on Teacher Quality, one in five teachers now in the system has gotten credentials through alternative means.
“The big story in teacher education is that universities and schools of education have lost their monopoly on it,” he said. “That’s been the revolution in teacher preparation.”
The continued popularity of these programs is supported by an analysis of the enrollment numbers from the most recent state-by-state Title II report. While enrollment has decreased at all teacher preparation programs, the report shows a statistically significant difference between the traditional university programs and alternative programs. Specifically, traditional programs saw a 20.691 percent decrease in enrollment between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 reporting periods, while by comparison, the alternative programs experienced only a 14.449 percent decrease in enrollment during that same period.The alternatives it seems have a leg up on traditional programs when it comes to continuing to attract prospective teachers.
So what exactly are alternative programs and why might aspiring teachers prefer them? At the most basic, they represent any program that provides for accelerated credentialing but not in the form of master’s degree coursework at a traditional, university-based school of ed. But the definition is changing now to also include collaborations with established university programs. Beyond that, the types and quality of alternative programs vary widely—some renowned, others scoffed at by the education community.
What distinguishes them most clearly from the traditional prep model is the time it takes to complete the training. Traditional education degrees require from 30 to 40 credit hours to complete and often include student teaching assignments at public schools. By contrast, students in alternative programs typically begin working in the classroom much sooner, either as teachers assistants or even with sole classroom responsibility. For example, with Teach for America, corps members enter their classrooms after a quick summer training program. This is especially attractive to recent college graduates or career-changes who favor a less expensive, quicker route to full-time employment. They might also favor the stronger emphasis in alternative programs on classroom management.
There is no consensus among the experts about which path to accreditation is preferable and in any event, the effectiveness of either kind of training is difficult assess, since where teachers are placed for their first jobs has almost as much impact on their performance as how they prepared for it. Studies appear regularly in support of one preparation method or the other. However, members of the traditional teacher education community have questioned the pedagogical preparation provided by alternative options.
Ephraim acknowledged the matter is far from settled. She acknowledged that traditional programs present “less of a gamble” because of their emphasis on pedagogy, content, and planning. All the same, she said, “I think there’s a controversy about whether traditional teacher preparation and alternative teacher preparation make you a better teacher.”
Tara Kini, an expert at the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford had similar views. “There’s a real range of alternative programs,” she said. Kini pointed to residency models as examples of strong alternative programs that “are very effective at preparing teachers who enter the classroom well prepared and who are more likely to stay, and also more diverse and reflective of the students who they teach.” Less effective, she said, are the programs that set new teachers up to struggle by placing them automatically as the teacher of record, “as the sole adult in the classroom without clinical training and without knowledge of curriculum development and child development.”
The counter from advocates of the alternative approach is that college-based programs are too concerned with pedagogy and too removed from the actual classroom. This argument has gotten traction among some traditional academic educators. In a piece about the future of university-based teacher education, NYU’s James Fraser, a professor of education history, said that schools of ed have been more caught up with the research and publishing of their faculty members than with the professional training they offer to students. He said they’ve become “too detached from the day‐to‐day lives of teachers and students in today’s schools,” and have not succeeded as “true centers for the study of and preparation for the practice of the profession—of teaching.” He also gave credit to programs such as Teach for America for their focus on the everyday skills that teachers require.
Corcoran, the educational economist, agreed. He said, “the alternative programs do a better job with in-classroom preparation and classroom management. They’re much more focused on getting prospective teachers into the classroom quicker, and on learning by doing, as opposed to learning by theory.” For Slayton, neither approach works as well as it should. “Traditional or alternative, she said, “They’re better than no pathway, but they’ve certainly not done a spectacular job of preparing teachers.”
Alternative programs have grown significantly from what Corcoran called the “emergency certification type programs” of the 1980s. Teach for America, one of the originals, is probably still the closest to those 1.0 model. It still has one of the briefest trainings and is geared specifically at staffing areas where shortages are most acute. However, even TFA has made significant changes to enhance the training experience it offers. The organization that began with a barebones staff and starting corps of 489 aspiring teachers, and a budget of $1.7 million, now encompasses 2,300 employees and brings in more than $318 million annually in private donations and gifts. Major donors include the charitable arms of big box, big agro, and big pharma companies such as the Walmart, Monsanto, and Eli Lilly.
The nonprofit has become a Catch-22 solution for hard-to-staff schools. Unfortunately filling them with TFAers who soon move on to other schools or other jobs all too often leads to the revolving door. Education Weekly reported that 56.4 percent of Teach for America teachers leave their placement in low-income school after two years, and only 35.5 percent of them remained in the classroom after three years. Where do they go? They follow the national trend: Either to districts they find more desirable or to jobs in other industries.
Of the 3.1 million current educators across the United States, 42,000 of them are alumni of the program. Some 51 percent of that group are active teachers in pre-K or K-12 schools. Another 10 percent are superintendents or principals, and another 16 percent have “other education roles,” including as district staff. According to the organization’s website, it provides between 10 and 30 percent of all new teachers in the 45 regions it serves. But educational experts have repeatedly questioned the quality and commitment of the program’s trainees and note a pronounced tendency among them to leave underserved districts as soon as they fulfill their obligation to the program.
The program’s mission has also been undercut recently by a fiscal restructuring that now obliges the program’s 45 regions to find their own funding to help support the teachers it trains and places.
Where Teach for America has had enduring success is in the recruitment and training of teachers from diverse backgrounds. In 2015, organization stats show, 52 percent of its new hires were African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, or American Indian. Additionally, in 2015, 25 percent of all staff and new hires reported coming from low-income backgrounds. This places Teach for America ahead of the national average; the Center for American Progress found in 2011 that although 40 percent of public school students have minority backgrounds, non-white teachers comprise only 17 percent of those who teach them. These statistics are significant because studies including “Excellence Through Diversity: Connecting the Teacher Quality and Teacher Diversity Agendas” by Segun C. Eubanks and Reg Weaver have long confirmed that a diverse teaching force has a positive impact on student outcomes.
Some alternative programs have also been established by schools and districts. “The problem, is that they’re not always well-positioned because they need to partner with a university or somebody who’s gonna ensure that students get the skills and knowledge that the K-12 schools themselves can’t provide,” she said.
A small group of innovative new alternative programs have emerged that try to do just that. They provide a more tailored experience, both in terms of the student experience, but also in terms of better-addressing the specific needs of local school districts by making the training more reflective. They accomplish this through local university partnerships combined with long residencies and major emphasis on mentorship.
Step Up is among three L.A. initiatives—Career Ladder, and the Urban Teacher Residency are the other two—that target either specific subject area training for new teachers or a willingness to commit to the inner city. Their intention is to reduce attrition by producing teachers who are both committed, and who have been exposed early to schools in the district. Avila said that the programs have succeeded in producing teachers who stay in the district longer. “When we separate out those individuals who participated in our Career Ladder Programs, their retention is higher,” he said.
Urban Teacher Residency works with three local universities, and with the help of a newly reupped federal grant, pays the cost of tuition for teacher trainees who are willing to work in urban districts. The students—who will become science, math, or special education teachers—work on site daily in the mornings and attend class on campus in the afternoon. They also receive a stipend to help them as they work and attend school full-time.
The school district collaborates with the universities about which applicants to accept and in making sure that the teachers have early involvement with the schools where they will eventually be placed. “They’re working in our classrooms, they’re knowing our students, they’re working with our teachers, they’re getting the support,” Ignagni said. “By the time they graduate, they already have so much experience to bring to our classrooms.” This often positions the program participants for hire in the schools where they have received classroom experience, which is a win-win for the district and teachers alike.
Career Ladder helps L.A. paraeducators become full-fledged teachers and Step Up is a branch of Career Ladder focused on paraeducators already working in the district with special ed children. It is designed to help them to attain a full time credentials in the field. Avila and Ignagni both see a potentially “rich source” of committed teachers in this group both because of the prior classroom experience and knowledge of the special ed student.
The program, which lost both state and federal funding during the recession, was revived only this spring with a budget allocation from the district to fund 250 new Step Up teachers. And the payoff has been big. When the program began accepting applications, Avila said, more arrived than they could sponsor. “We’ve gotten such a return on investment already,” he said, “and it’s just a few months old since we’ve come back and revitalized it,” replete with one-on-one mentorship and tuition remission, textbook stipends and reimbursement for state prep and exam fees.
Avila said the district is also working on early recruitment efforts geared toward high school students, including visits to Cal State campuses that offer teaching programs, info sessions about teaching, and outreach with the teaching magnet schools in Los Angeles. He is also introducing a letter to high school seniors to encourage interest in district programs.
Also in L.A. County, in the city of Eagle Rock a charter school organization, the Partnership to Uplift Communities, has a three-year-old pilot program called the Alumni Teach Project to recruit graduates of its schools into teaching. Program participants receive training in partnership with Loyola Marymount University and are expected to return as teachers to the same classrooms where they once were students. The project began with just three students and now has 15 teachers in training who have committed to a minimum five years of service at one of PUC’s 15 charter schools.
The PUC approach is one of early action; all students who graduate from the charter network receive an invitation to return as teachers at one of the PUC schools. Leslie Chang, PUC’s superintendent of instruction and leadership, is one of the project’s prime movers. Beyond the project’s focus on bringing PUC graduates into its teaching fold, Change also sees it as a “vehicle for community transformation” and “anchored in cultural relevance.”
“And that’s really what’s at the heart of what we’re doing,” she said. Given that 90 percent of PUCs students are Latinos from Northeast LA and the San Fernando Valley, she said, it’s certain that project recruits are “gonna be coming from those two communities, so that is a wonderful, wonderful byproduct of the Alumni Teach Project.”
She has made it a goal to “get the word out in terms of why these teacher residency programs are important,” including sharing all the nitty-gritty details of how ATP was set up during visit days, hoping that other programs might find the information helpful. “ATP is a unique experience in that they [alumni] get the opportunity to learn from one of our teacher leaders,” Chang said. “They get to have the space to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to fall, get up, and to have all the support that they need.”
Results so far have been gratifying. “What I have found is that the teachers, when we’re placing them in the classroom, are probably a few years ahead of any teacher that comes into our organization,” Chang said. “I can tell you that maybe 90 percent of the residents that we’ve already placed are in a really good place. I mean it already looks like a well-oiled machine a month or two into their first year in the classroom.”
Similar residency programs in other states have likewise had success training more diverse and more committed teachers who are prepared to work in the communities where they train. The North Carolina Teaching Fellows, which paid cost of tuition for students who committed four years of service upon completion, was long a paragon. Unfortunately and inexplicably, state lawmakers voted to defund the Fellows in 2011. The program had been looked to as a model for generating interest in teaching and extremely high retention. Since its first class of residents in 1987, the program received 47,611 applicants, and 79 percent of alumni were still teaching five years following their induction. In its final year of existence, the program received 2,000 applications for the 500 possible fellowships.
Others have included the New York City Teaching Fellows, the San Francisco Teacher Residency, and the Boston Teacher Residency. Each of these programs has accumulated laudable statistics. The Fellows for example, provides 12 percent of all teachers for New York City’s schools, to account for 24 percent of the city’s math teachers, 22 percent of the special education teachers, and 20 percent of the science teachers. The program also manages to produce new teachers who stay in the field longer than the teachers of many other programs including Teach for America; 77 percent are still teaching three years out, compared to just 35.5 percent of TFAers. In addition, more than half of teachers with Fellows training identify as non-white.
The San Francisco residency, which partners with Stanford University and the University of San Francisco, broke its record for number of participants this past August, despite California’s growing teacher shortage. Kini, of Stanford’s learning policy institute, said that after five years, 80 percent of residency program graduates were still teaching the San Francisco public school system compared with 30 percent of other new hires and only 20 percent of Teach for America trainees.
Size is the major shortcoming for such successful programs. Step Up had a cohort of 200 this year, the Alumni Teach Project had just 15 over the course of three years, and the San Francisco Teacher Residency had 32. A lack of funding limits the number of participants it can accommodate, and the uncertainty of state and federal money means a constant state of peril for program continuation. For public school districts, these programs are unlikely ever to be able to scale to address the larger staffing issues. Their structure requires schools to make a large investment upfront in hopes of a payoff one or more years down the line as teachers become credentialed.
Kini of the Learning Policy Institute has counted some 50 such residencies across the nation, and with renewed funding under the successor to No Child Left Behind, known as Every Student Succeeds Act, the model has the potential to grow, both in providing “intensive clinical training and support for people entering the profession” along with funding to “create a commitment to teach in high-need urban and rural school districts,” Kini said.
In the meantime, Mary Brabeck, the NYU dean emerita, had some advice for the university-based programs. “Hang on to your grit. And look at the research,” she said when asked what advice she could give to universities looking to grow partnership programs. “The best teacher preparation occurs in the context of the classroom where people will teach. Getting faculty to move into that context and educate teacher candidates within that context of the classroom is essential. My dream for universities– which goes beyond the schools of education within them — is that some day the university would take responsibility for teacher preparation, which it frequently does not, and would see the quality of education in the schools that are near the university as one measure of its effectiveness, which it doesn’t.”
The decline in teacher pay was an issue long before the most recent recession. It has been an ongoing issue for more than 20 years. The Learning Policy Institute report noted that teacher salaries may be as much as 30 percent lower than other professionals, even accounting for school breaks. Pay also varies greatly within regions. In California, Kini said, “there might be a 20,000 dollar difference in beginning teacher salaries,” that “grows even wider as teachers stay 15 years or so into the profession.”
Teachers like Jeff Silverstein from Brooklyn Frontiers High School say they just want to be financially secure. He advocates raising the minimum salary for teachers in major cities. Like so many teachers, the profession has forced Silverstein, who formerly worked in the music industry, to choose between passion and personal finance. “I’m definitely struggling to keep up a little bit financially,” he said. “I made a conscious decision to take a job that is paying me less, but it still seems worth it,” Silverstein said. And yet, like the more than 3.1 million men and women who make up the teaching force, he finds that the rewards of working with students, “totally outweighs any numerical value you could put on it.”
It is not isolated idealism. The Learning Policy Report highlighted the fact that teachers may be “more motivated by altruism than some other workers.” The report also mentioned a Public Agenda Foundation poll showing that 80 percent of teachers polled would choose to teach in schools where they felt the administration was supportive of teachers, compared with one that offered a significantly higher salary but lacked supportiveness. It also said that, while important, salary came only after pregnancy/family leave, “impact of school accountability measures,” and “dissatisfaction with the school administration” as reasons for a departure from the classroom. Such research strongly suggests that salary increases must be part of a multifaceted solution, and not the sole answer to the shortage.
Jabbar, the education policy professor, said the research has consistently shown that salary matters, but only to an extent. “The primary driver of teachers leaving,” she said, “has been working conditions and professional development and opportunities for leadership and support.”
In terms of making schools a place that new teachers want to teach, Jabbar added, “the conditions in the schools are the most important. But those are also the hardest to fix. You can’t just add a bonus or pay teachers a little bit more. Changing the culture and climate of a school is a lot more challenging.”
“You can’t just add a bonus or pay teachers a little bit more. Changing the culture and climate of a school is a lot more challenging.”
Corcoran agreed. “Part of what makes some teachers willing to accept a relatively low salary is that they’re just in a rewarding environment,” he said. Teachers will do hard work when they have the support necessary to do it, Corcoran said, but where support is lacking, “and every day is just a huge challenge, no amount of money is going to convince them to do it for very long.”
The financial difficulties of being a teacher are compounded by the debt newbies may have already racked up before they reach the classroom. Renae Nitzan, an aspiring teacher finishing her degree at Humboldt State, questioned why there are so few financial incentives available to those studying to become teachers. Like Silverstein, she sees teaching as her one career, compensation notwithstanding. Ephraim lamented that with few exceptions —including TEACH Grants—education degrees “are purely funded by the student and so it’s very, very different than the business world or the data science world where there’s lots of scholarships.”
Loan forgiveness programs, Ephraim said, are too far out of reach to be a solution. They will not get a student into college or finance a degree. “That’s loan forgiveness on the other end,” she said. “And if you don’t have enough grit to stay there for five years in those hardest schools, those loan forgiveness programs don’t really help you.”
Kini hopes state and the federal government will encourage people to enter the profession by providing extensive scholarships and loan forgiveness programs to “basically fully-cover the cost of their teacher preparation and credentialing.” She said allowing teachers to enter the profession debt free “would be a big driver of people into the profession.” Kini suggested that such tuition reimbursement could be targeted to the highest need subjects—special education, science, math, and bilingual educators.
School culture is another area where improvement could prove to be an attraction. Mentorship, professional development, school leadership, classroom autonomy, and assistance with wrap-around services so that teachers are not saddled with ancillary administrative tasks would all be a great help.
Established mentorship is key. The Learning Policy Report noted how effective these programs had been in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Toledo, Ohio, and in Rochester, New York. In those cities, attrition rates for beginning teachers dropped by more than two-thirds when they received quality mentoring during their first year.
Chang of PUC said the assistance should continue even for experienced teachers in the form of professional development opportunities including workshops and group planning days.
“We provide a ton of professional development,” she said. “We have full day PD’s as well as seven other half days that are two to three hours of professional development about seven to eight times a year just hosted by the Home Office.”
Urbanski of the American Federation of Teachers said a greater role for teachers in out-of-classroom leadership functions would be an incentive. “Professional development, curriculum design, even leadership of schools and programs should be restored to the teachers themselves,” he said, rather than to the former teachers on non-teaching staff who more often fill those roles. An outspoken advocate of what he refers to as teacher autonomy, Urbanski said it should be mandatory that all adopted policies be vetted “through the collective wisdom of teachers.”
Ephraim urged the allotment of time for teacher collaboration built in to the school day. “In our school system right now teachers only get to do this for 45 minutes once a week, or on a professional development day,” she said. More collaboration she said would allow teachers to get help from each other and also lead to better and more creative teaching.
Mark Gooden, a University of Texas expert on principals, said the importance of a strong leader cannot be overestimated. He said principals should be willing to try new and innovative things, but on the flipside, they must bear ultimate responsibility.
Experts including Kini lament the challenge of recruiting new teachers because of the beating that educators have faced in the public narrative. “Nobody wants to come into a profession where they’re seen as the bad guy or the source of the problem, especially when they’re going to be paid a low salary and enter with high debt,” she said. “The package doesn’t add up.”
Zimmerman said it will require change at a fundamental level. “We still don’t really regard teaching as intellectual work. People who are intellectually able do not want to enter a profession that is not regarded as intellectual.”
“We still don’t really regard teaching as intellectual work. People who are intellectually able do not want to enter a profession that is not regarded as intellectual.”
However, this leaves teacher’s unions in a difficult predicament. To serve their constituents, unions are obligated to speak out on the many problems teachers face, be that low wages, insufficient classroom assistance, or teacher evaluation methods. However by bringing to the fore those fraught areas, Ephraim said unions may in fact be dissuading young people from the profession.
It is an issue central to the work that Urbanski leads at TURN, a union organization that seeks to boost union effectiveness. He said that unions must take care in their messaging and always propose what might be good solutions when speaking about a problem, solution-driven unionism, as he called it.
“To quote Randi Weingarten, ‘we need for unions to articulate what they are for, not just what they are against,’” he said. “Every time we have done that, we have much better success than when we limit our positions to only articulating what we are against.”
Wellford Wilms, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education, said things are going to worsen before the shortage begins to improve. He said he fears that classroom size will rise before solutions begin to take effect, and worries this may lead parents to pull children from public schools in favour of charter options.
“And the real harm is going to be for the poor urban districts where the schools are bad enough to start with,” Wims said. “The more students who leave for charters, the less able will be the students left behind.”
Wilms attributes the glacial pace of classroom reforms—despite the opportunity improve the shortage—to gridlock and the “party politics” of education. Despite a mutual first-priority of student outcomes, unions, teachers, school district officials, principals, local government, and parents fail to come together in meaningful ways.
“The unions cannot get it together,” Wims said. “They would be a natural ally to parents, to improve public school as a place where teachers like to teach. But for some reasons the unions just can’t do the smart thing very often.” “Nothing seems to change,” he added.
Urbanski also fears that things will worsen in the short term, however, he believes that workable solutions will emerge, especially he said, as new technology comes into play.
Kini said she hoped that California and other states would use this shortage as an impetus to enact more future-minded policies. She encouraged an “approach that’s investing in well-prepared teachers and in the pipelines and programs that will bring them into the profession and importantly keep them in the profession.”
When asked if new types of programs or solutions might come into play, Corcoran said, there was potential for “hybrids,” programs similar to the partnerships and residencies between districts and local universities discussed above. However he cautioned that the “mutual suspicion” between traditional and alternative programs might inhibit collaboration.
Back at the downtown district office in Los Angeles, Avila and his team have been busily working to fill vacancies for the 2016-2017 school year. Last year his staff stayed late hours and worked weekends to make it happen, and may well again. The work is hard, the teachers scarce, and the reforms slow. But Avila knows inaction is not an option. “We can’t wait for legislation,” he said. “We have to do things now.”