Teaching Profession

Survey Asks Californians If They Want Good Teachers (They Do!)

By Ross Brenneman — November 19, 2015 5 min read
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Californians are worried about a shortage of teachers, a new survey suggests, but lack unity on some solutions to that problem.

The survey was published Tuesday by EdSource and the Learning Policy Institute, a think tank founded this fall by well-known education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond.

“At a time when California is implementing new standards, it’s important that all students have access to teachers who are well-prepared in those subject areas,” Darling-Hammond said in a press release. The survey shows agreement from respondents.

But as the survey only offers a light overview of teacher labor supply issues, it might be helpful to understand the state of California’s teaching workforce first.

What is California’s teacher supply situation?

Many articles about teacher shortages start with the front end of the teacher-recruitment process: Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs. And California’s doesn’t offer a rosy picture, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote about last fall:

An important thing to keep in mind, though: Teacher-prep enrollment is not a guarantee of either program completion or licensure. Here are the credentialing numbers from the 2013-14 school year, the most recent data available from California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing:

As the table shows, teachers coming from out of state increased since 2012, making up for some of the ground lost by in-state teachers. Notice, though, that the rate of decline among California-prepared teachers has diminished every year since 2011, which is when the steepest drop occurred.

What’s behind the decreases in teachers prepared by California programs? That would be special education. Again, from the CTC report:

Among multiple-subject and single-subject credentialing, the numbers have started to level off since 2011. However, the number of educators earning specialist credentials—or, in layman’s terms, special education teachers—continues to drop at an increasing pace. (Multiple-subject teachers are basically elementary school teachers, and single-subject are high school teachers; middle school teachers are mixed into both.) And special education is one place where out-of-state teachers aren’t making up any of the difference.

As I wrote this summer, special education teachers are in short supply, and pretty much always have been, everywhere. An NPR story last week noted why special education vacancies can be so persistent:

On top of the normal demands of teaching, special education teachers face additional pressures: feelings of isolation, fear of lawsuits, and students who demand extra attention. Many are the only special-needs teacher in their grade or their school, or sometimes in the entire district. And then, there's the seemingly endless paperwork.

Bilingual and high school STEM teachers have also been in constant demand across states.

A shortage of students entering teacher-preparation isn’t without consequences—the more people who enter the pipeline, the more that are likely to come out—but yes, there’s nuance there: It’s not just about the quantity of teachers, but the type.

Another point: In the years after the Great Recession, districts in California laid off, or threatened to lay off, thousands of teachers, which may have caused some reverberations around future career interests among students, as well as some other consequences.

Finally: The “state of California” is not necessarily suffering from teacher shortages, so much as many of its districts might be. As the Sacramento Bee reported last spring, school districts in San Juan and Sacramento both projected flat or declining enrollment, thus slowing the pace of new teacher hires. The Los Angeles Unified School District also trimmed its workforce this summer.

In short: California’s teacher supply has waned in the past five years, but the drops appear to be slowing, except among special education teachers, who have always been in high demand.

How do Californians feel about teacher shortages?

The EdSource/LPI survey asked general questions to 1,002 registered voters split about evenly by gender: Half white, a quarter Hispanic, and the remainder mostly split between Asian and black people. More than two-thirds didn’t have any children.

To prime respondents, the survey pointed only to certification numbers and persistent subject-area shortages. The questions that ensued drew almost inevitable answers: Two-thirds of respondents said that a teacher shortage was “very serious,” and that it was “extremely important” for the state to encourage more people to become teachers.

Most respondents also thought it was at least somewhat important that teachers be rigorously trained, have ongoing development and mentorship, and get a full year of practice teaching. You’d kind of expect that, too. “No, I’d prefer that teachers not have mentors or support,” is a thing people don’t say.

When it comes to possible solutions, though, despite all the support shown for fully prepared teachers, only one-quarter of respondents were totally opposed to hiring teachers who were still in training, or uncredentialed:

This question reflects a real divide in education policy, and pervades the survey: To fix teacher shortages, do you make it easier to get educators into the classroom?

(It’s worth noting: Darling-Hammond is the chair of the CTC, and a critic of deploying teachers who are still in training.)

I suspect many districts would choose to fill a vacancy before worrying about who fills that vacancy, if those are the only options. Just this week, for instance, Nevada announced a new set of grants aimed at putting 134 teacher-candidates through fast-track alternative-certification programs for the explicit purpose of getting them into schools quicker.

Whether a teacher comes through a fast-track or emergency-licensure program doesn’t automatically mean they will be poorer in quality, but it’s clear Nevada authorities don’t want to wait for the kind of teachers they might otherwise prefer, and it’s hardly the only state to use such measures.

The survey certainly suggests that residents prefer properly trained teachers. Yet if a question had been phrased, “Would you support a well-regarded professor of several years, who had strong in-school mentorship and training, teaching in a local high school?” perhaps responses might have shifted.

Or maybe the survey could have asked: Should teachers working in shortage areas be paid more than their colleagues?

And while the survey mentions general salaries, it doesn’t go into working conditions, which are one of the biggest drivers of the kind of teacher attrition that leads to vacancies.

Teacher shortages are generally more complex than this survey lets on. The solutions may be, too.

More on teacher shortages:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.