Rethinking the California Teacher Shortage

Another year passes where California schools and districts scrambled to recruit enough teachers to fill hundreds of empty classrooms for the 2015-2016 school year. As California lawmakers have ignored the teacher shortage for nearly a decade, educational stakeholders need to rethink how they conceive of the teaching profession; otherwise, hundreds to thousands of California classrooms will soon be without teachers.

It is important to understand a few things that make the teaching profession different from other careers with similar entry requirements. First and foremost, teachers are government employees, which historically means they earn less money than private sector employees with similar education levels. This suggests that current and future teachers are not in the profession for money. Many choose to teach for other reasons such as the desire to work with kids, flexibility during the summer months and job security.

Additionally, new research suggests that the teacher labor supply is highly localized. This means that most teachers prefer to teach close to where they went to school or teach a similar demographic of students. The implication is that high poverty and rural schools struggle to recruit teachers, because on a large scale, they are not producing high numbers of students who become teachers, let alone attend or graduate from college. These facts alone make the teacher shortage even more difficult to address. Yet, the attention given to statewide recruitment efforts to solve the crisis has been lackluster at best.

Unfortunately, less individuals are interested in teaching in California schools. From 2008 to 2015, the enrollment in California’s teacher credentialing programs dropped by over 50% according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Pair this with new accountability standards with Common Core and the aging workforce, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning estimates that California will need to recruit over 100,000 teachers to keep pace over the next decade.

If teacher shortage has been a problem for a while, why has the California legislature yet to pass a single law in the last decade making the teaching profession more appealing? The answer is that California lawmakers have made clear that making the teaching profession easier to get into is preferable to raising incentives for becoming a teacher in the first place.

For example, the California Department of Education has allowed nearly a dozen different pathways into the teaching profession. From emergency permits to teaching “internships,” people who desire to pursue teaching no longer have to fulfill the student teaching and course requirements to begin teaching. Instead, alternative licensure programs such as Teach For America (TFA) allow these individuals to immediately begin teaching students while simultaneously taking courses that illustrate best teaching practices.

Regardless of one’s opinion on TFA or other alternative programs, the fact remains that these programs are not designed to be a long-term solution for the teacher shortage. Instead, they are a temporary means of providing seemingly qualified individuals to lead otherwise empty classrooms. However as long as schools are able to fill these empty classrooms before the first day of school, regardless of the qualifications of the teacher, pressure on lawmakers is eased until the following year when the crisis resurfaces once again.

The crux of the issue is that over 50% of teachers permanently leave the teaching profession after just five years in the classroom. Under certain licensure categories such as the temporary license permit in California, the statistic changes to 70% of teachers leaving after two years and 80% of teachers leaving after three years.

As we economists say, the teacher shortage in California is a direct result of a dysfunctional labor supply. In other words, people who should become teachers are choosing to pursue other careers, and the people taking their place are not the right candidates for this very difficult, yet respectable career. If California wants to fix its teacher shortage, lawmakers need to consider comprehensive teacher reform that changes who is applying to become a teacher.

As more teachers retire or otherwise permanently leave the profession, pressure should be placed on lawmakers to reform the current credentialing system and make teaching more desirable for recent college graduates. By resorting to the lowering of standards and qualifications, we only devalue teaching as a long-term career option and increase dissatisfaction for those who are currently making an impact in the classroom.