Long Beach Unified, one of the largest school districts in California, is facing a worrying but all-too-familiar problem: Finding enough qualified teachers, or even substitutes, to fill what some experts see as a growing shortage in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic.
This year, leaves of absences in Long Beach increased by 35 percent, and fewer than half of its 1,100-member substitute pool signaled a willingness to work, Assistant Superintendent David Zaid told researchers from the Learning Policy Institute, which recently published a report on the teacher shortage in California. “When you think about going from 1,100 all the way down to 450, that was a significant amount,” Zaid said.
Long Beach’s experience tracks with a nationwide shortage of substitutes. In an Education Week survey conducted at the end of last year, nearly three-quarters of school and district leaders cited it as a major problem, with most saying they’ve had difficulty covering classes as a result.
But the country’s teacher shortage runs far deeper than substitutes. It has morphed into a serious, existential threat for the profession. And there are indications it may be getting worse.
The LPI report found the stress of COVID-19 starting to contribute to early retirements, prolonged leaves and burnout in the rural and urban districts they surveyed. Some systems are asking existing teachers to take on additional responsibilities to fill gaps, along with leaning on administrators, interns and, increasingly, under-credentialed teachers to cover classes.
The number of under-credentialed teachers and those using emergency permits to teach are typically a good indicator of shortages, says co-author Desiree Carver-Thomas, because districts are only authorized to hire them when well-qualified teachers are not available.
“Most districts have found teachers to be in short supply, especially for math, science, special education and bilingual education,” the authors write. According to federal data, more than 40 states have reported similar shortages for the 2020-21 school year.
A Pipeline Problem
The causes of teacher shortages are complex—and the result of patterns and trends that are years in the making. The teacher workforce typically consists of a careful balance between those exiting the profession and those returning to the classroom or entering for the first time, in addition to factors like class size. In a given year, a sudden spike in retirements or a drop in college graduates pursuing teaching as a career can have a big impact.
This past summer there were fears of a mass exodus from the profession due to retirements, which could have plunged the teacher corps into crisis. One Education Week poll showed nearly a third of all educators considering leaving their jobs. But retirements were actually down in some states that reopened early, and they were up only slightly in others. It was the same story among the California districts included in the LPI report: Retirements were causing problems for only about a third of districts. In interviews, though, administrators worried that the longer the pandemic drags on, the more chance that older teachers concerned for their health and taxed by expanding workloads will start to trickle out of the classroom.
The real issue may be lining up their replacements—namely enticing enough college students to enter pre-service teaching programs.
“The signs are concerning,” says Michael DiNapoli, the deputy director of federal policy at LPI. “We’ve long had an attenuated pipeline into the profession.”
Over the past decade, enrollment in teacher prep programs has declined by more than a third, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Recent data suggests that overall higher education enrollment is down 4 percent in fall 2020—particularly among Black and Native American students, which is troubling for a field that is trying to recruit more-diverse teachers.
Driving the drop are concerns about the cost of college and fears of ballooning student debt.
“It’s hard to say it will be very appealing for young [students] to go into a profession that just at the beginning underpays you by about 20 percent relative to other professions,” says Emma García, an education economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “That is a pretty significant cut in your paycheck, and that is a penalty that has been growing for the last couple of decades.”
When teacher shortages get dire, they can have an adverse impact on students, who benefit greatly from highly-qualified teachers that stay in the classroom and hone their craft. An earlier LPI report from 2016 estimated there could be as many as 100,000 vacancies for well-qualified teachers nationwide—with many under-credentialed teachers and substitutes picking up the slack, especially in under-resourced communities.
“There is an impact on equity,” says Jeffrey Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, on a call with reporters to discuss the LPI report. “And we’ve seen that in many lawsuits in the past. When there’s a teacher shortage, what’s hit most are the schools serving low-income students and students of color.”
In general, experts warn against short-term fixes to deep-rooted problems. LPI has signaled support for teacher residency programs that help diversify the teaching workforce and encourage retention. And they’ve identified numerous federal grants that, if funded or properly distributed, could help train more-qualified teachers and help them graduate debt free.
Some of the suggestions in the LPI report mirror the conclusions of an Economic Policy Institute brief, which suggested raising teacher pay, removing onerous licensing requirements that keep otherwise well-qualified teachers out of the classroom and designing stronger professional support networks that boost teachers’ investment in their careers. That last point is a longer-term ambition, but one that could help make the field more attractive to new teachers and those who have already left the classroom.
“If you really look into what the data says about what teachers think about the profession, they say they lack support,” García says. “For your young students, it’s very hard to say, ‘I’ll go into teaching’ knowing that there are very weak supports and very few opportunities for professional development. It doesn’t make the profession very appealing, frankly speaking.”
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