Soapbox

California’s teacher shortage is becoming a crisis

Chemistry teacher John Bressler, left, looks through supplies as student Jackson Contreras waits at Bella Vista High School in Sacramento last month. A teacher shortage in California is particularly acute in science and math.
Chemistry teacher John Bressler, left, looks through supplies as student Jackson Contreras waits at Bella Vista High School in Sacramento last month. A teacher shortage in California is particularly acute in science and math. rbenton@sacbee.com

It’s hard to imagine that after nearly six years of constant pressure on school districts to balance budgets through teacher layoffs, we could be talking about a serious teacher shortage.

But here we are. As a report by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing recently noted, in 2013 there were fewer than 20,000 students enrolled in teacher preparation programs, less than half the number in 2008.

The inclination is to think that there are thousands of teachers who were let go during the recession and who are ready and willing to fill these jobs. Unfortunately, few younger, less-experienced teachers hung around after seeing their jobs disappear; many chose different careers.

More than 20 percent of California teachers have more than 20 years of experience. Many of them will retire just when districts are trying to bring staffing back to pre-recession levels, and just when the pipeline of teachers to replace them drastically narrows.

The reality of teacher shortages in Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley counties hits home when one scrolls through job postings on EdJoin.org, the state’s online repository of available education positions. The Stockton Unified School District has 60 vacant teaching positions despite the school year being nearly over.

The dearth of new teachers entering the classroom has obvious negative consequences: larger class sizes, more long-term substitutes or teachers with emergency permits, and even worse shortages in subjects such as math, science and special education. Vacancies also disproportionately impact schools serving low-income communities, which are traditionally harder to staff.

Not only do we need to identify a lot of new teachers in coming years, but we also need teachers capable of serving a rapidly changing student population. Every year, we see an increasingly diverse student body in our public schools – more low-income students, more English language learners and more immigrant families.

How are we going to recruit new teachers to meet this incredible need?

We must reach out to college students and to those already in jobs but seeking opportunities to make a difference on the next generation. We must make excellent public education the most pressing issue for our emerging leaders so that more and more find their way to the classroom.

We know great teachers come from all backgrounds, so we need people from all walks of life to consider entering the profession. We need those who can use their privileged upbringing to address inequity, but also those who share backgrounds with students and can be role models. To bring that diverse talent into the classroom, we must build a more welcoming environment that celebrates the contributions of all teachers and supports them as they grow as professionals.

We must also move beyond the false divides to foster increased collaboration between traditional and alternative routes into the classroom. While education schools remain a mainstay of teacher training in California, high-quality alternative programs broaden the pool of aspiring teachers, increase the diversity of our teacher workforce, and focus on filling positions in high-need schools and subjects.

Recruiting our next generation of great teachers can only be done by acknowledging this critical need and working together.

Lynn Beck is dean of the University of the Pacific School of Education. Nikolas Howard is executive director of Teach For America-Sacramento/Stockton.

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