California faces a dire teacher shortage. Should other states worry, too?

Report suggests that California expand routes to the classroom to fill positions

California should consider recruiting teachers as early as high school and offer clear pathways to the classroom for aspiring educators who transfer from other careers or states to mitigate a chronic teacher shortage.

Those are two of the policy recommendations in a new report by the nonprofit California-based Learning Policy Institute, which suggested seven strategies to get more teachers into the classroom, especially in hard-to-fill positions.

“When California last experienced severe teacher shortages in the late 1990s, it took a wide array of programs to begin to stabilize the teaching force,” wrote the authors of the report. “Most of these have, unfortunately, been discontinued or sharply reduced since then, leaving the state with few existing tools to use to address the current situation.”

Related: What high performing countries have to teach us about teacher training

The authors suggested that California invest in a program that would recruit new teachers from colleges, other states, and other careers and simplify the path to the classroom. Aspiring teachers interested in teaching high-shortage subject areas should be given incentives, such as funds to cover tuition and living expenses or loan forgiveness. And recruitment efforts should start early, the authors said, by offering free teacher preparation to the top 5 percent of high school graduates at each high school in the state and providing exposure to the teaching career during high school.

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, said in a statement that if California does not address its teacher shortage, it will only get worse and lead to “greater inequities among students in different communities.” That could set back California’s attempts to reform education, including the roll out of new learning standards, she added.

According to federal data, enrollment in California’s teacher preparation programs fell from more than 719,000 during the 2008-09 school year to 499,800 during the 2012-13 school year. The number of teaching credentials issued in special education dropped by 21 percent between 2011-12 and 2013-14, according to the Learning Policy Institute report, and over the past four years, the number of credentials issued to new math teachers dropped by 32 percent.

At the same time, the demand for teachers has increased, according to the report, with the state’s educator job website listing twice as many open positions at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year as it did during that time in 2013.

Nationwide, there are persistent teacher shortages, mostly in specific subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math, (STEM), and special education classrooms. A 2013 study by Education Week found that colleges in many states are overproducing elementary teachers while simultaneously experiencing shortages in other areas.

Related: The Every Student Succeeds Act includes some new ideas on how to train better teachers

Some experts have suggested that the overall, the teacher shortage crisis has been exaggerated.

“I don’t think a national teacher shortage story is the right story,” said Daniel Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes of Research, at an October education writers’ conference. “I think the right story is why do we chronically have this problem in some areas and not others.”

Goldhaber said that data often used to show a teacher shortage tends to only focus on a narrow period of about five years from 2008 to 2013.

“You get a broader perspective when you extrapolate,” Goldhaber said, adding that when looking at data between 1984 and 2013, teacher production has increased on a whole, with a few dips here and there. “This does not look to me like the production of teachers in this country is falling off a cliff.”

More important is the lack of institutional response to the persistent lack of STEM and special education teachers, Goldhaber said, which may not just be the fault of teacher education programs. “It’s not clear that [programs] actually have an incentive to produce those types of teachers,” Goldhaber said.

He added that despite challenges in attracting STEM and special education teachers, the percentage of districts that offer incentives to these teachers has barely increased over the past few years. “The obvious thing to me is that you pay people more if you have a harder time recruiting and retaining them,” he added.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader is Mississippi bureau chief. She covers preK-12 education primarily in the rural South. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the… See Archive