Creative solutions and state and federal supports needed to solve teacher shortages

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, schools are struggling to fill teaching positions — and not only due to exposure to the virus. A new report by the Learning Policy Institute, Teacher Shortages During the Pandemic: How California Districts Are Responding, shares the results of a survey of a sample of California superintendents and human resources administrators conducted in August and September 2021, which shows the severity of teacher shortages many districts are experiencing and mitigation strategies.

This ongoing problem in education has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. From 2012–13 to 2019–20, the number of substandard credentials and permits — either student teachers or those teaching on one-year permits or waivers — issued in California nearly tripled to more than 13,000 annually. Ten out of the 12 districts surveyed hired about the same or more teachers on substandard credentials this year compared to pre-pandemic years.

Adding to the issue is an increase in teacher retirements and resignations, as well as an attempt to fill more positions funded by COVID-relief dollars that will aid in student learning recovery. Two-thirds of surveyed districts had an increased number of vacancies over pre-COVID years and experienced greater challenges in filling these positions. Five out of eight large districts reported that increased retirements and resignations contributed to more vacancies than usual.

Adding to the problem, the higher demand for teachers is not reflected in the number of teacher candidates currently preparing for a credential. “In the decades before the pandemic began, enrollments in California teacher preparation programs were in sharp decline, having dropped by more than 75 percent between 2001–02 and 2013–14. There was a modest uptick in enrollments between 2014–15 and 2019–20, but a previous report has estimated that it would take at least another 17 years at that rate of increase to return to 2001 enrollment levels,” the report stated.

District solutions

Districts are using many tactics to try and fill open teaching positions. Several surveyed districts have focused on increasing their substitute pool through raising daily wages. One small, rural district in the survey used signing stipends and bonuses to try recruit and retain teachers — but to no avail. Despite offering a $15,000 signing bonus and a $3,000 moving stipend to fill positions in high school math and music, the district had no applicants when the survey closed.

Some of the districts in the study implemented Grow Your Own programs and teacher residencies to try to fill the gaps. One district uses state funding from the Classified School Employee Credentialing Program to help with tuition reimbursement as classified staff and substitute teachers completed coursework toward their credentials. Teacher residencies are a model that has worked well for Los Angeles Unified School District and San Francisco USD. The programs consist of one-year of student teaching with an expert teacher while completing their coursework. When they become teachers, they receive two years of further mentorship and often receive a stipend and tuition assistance in exchange for working for a high-needs school for three to four years.

In an attempt to retain the teachers they already have, many surveyed districts invested in other student supports — such as counselors, aides and intervention specialists — to help ease teachers’ workload.

More state and federal support needed

The report concludes with a list of recommended policy solutions at the state and federal levels that would help ease the burden for districts, including:

  • Recruiting and retaining teachers by improving compensation through additional federal action. The average U.S. teacher earns at least 20 percent less than other college-educated workers, even after the work year difference is taken into account. The report authors suggest that college should be free for educators, as student loans often cost “far more in repayment than a teacher’s salary will support.” Suggested ways to offset this free education include federal loan forgiveness, service scholarships and a teacher tax credit.
  • Implementing a statewide recruitment initiative to help potential candidates navigate the complex process of becoming a teacher. The report points to a previous state model to aid in recruiting teachers — the Teacher Recruitment Incentive Program, which operated from 2000 to 2004, and established six regional teacher recruitment centers that employed full-time recruiters, provided credential and career counseling to prospective teachers, disseminated information on available state-funded incentives, conducted college campus and community-based information sessions on job opportunities in teaching, and referred candidates to teacher preparation programs.
  • Investing in community college to four-year university pathways that recruit and prepare aspiring teachers earlier in the educational process. The state could consider investing in “2+2” partnerships that allow candidates to begin teacher preparation at a community college, with clear course articulation agreements that enable them to complete teacher preparation and credentialing requirements at a four-year institution.
  • Increasing the capacity of higher education to prepare teachers in high-demand fields. To support this work, the state could establish capacity-building grants for teacher preparation programs. A similar program, funded at $10 million in 2016, was successful in launching new four-year teacher preparation programs in certain high-need fields at more than 30 institutions of higher education that partnered with more than 50 community colleges.