Nan Austin

Wanted: New teachers, a system that values them

First grade teacher Gina Rafatti leads students in a lesson using tablets at La Rosa Elementary in Ceres in September 2015.
First grade teacher Gina Rafatti leads students in a lesson using tablets at La Rosa Elementary in Ceres in September 2015. Nan Austin

Teachers will be in short supply in short order, judging by the falling numbers of college grads signing up at teacher prep programs.

Here are the numbers, as laid out by the California Teacher Corps at a Feb. 10 conference:

  • Enrollment in California’s teacher preparation programs declined by 76 percent from 2001 to 2014 and has fallen below the number of estimated hires by school districts around the state.
  • The number of preliminary teaching credentials issued to California-prepared individuals decreased by 58 percent from 2003 to 2015.
  • One-third of those teaching now will be retiring in the next 10 years, which means California will need more than 100,000 teachers.

Teacher job fairs, rarely even held during the Great Recession, are once again filled to capacity with employers. Teachers with special education, math and science credentials are in short supply, and more students in those classes are being taught by interns learning on the job or teachers with waivers or emergency credentials.

The shortage is real, but amid all the alarms going off, little is being heard about the problems that helped create the shortage or systemic solutions that could ease the crunch.

First, teachers going straight from college to teaching start at around 22 and are expected to retire around 62, which, doing a little math, means about 25 percent retire every 10 years even when the pipeline is flowing smoothly. The jump to around 33 percent happening now can be traced in part to widespread layoffs of only younger teachers during the Great Recession.

California’s seniority-only rule of layoffs has many problems. Slamming doors in the face of new blood to the profession belongs on that list.

A lower court ruled in 2014 the state’s first-in, first-out law unconstitutional in the Vergara v. California lawsuit pressed by the nonprofit Students Matter but put the issue on hold for appellate review. Arguments were heard by a state appeals court Feb. 25 in Los Angeles; a ruling is expected in the next 90 days.

The case almost certainly will head to the California Supreme Court for a final decision. However the court rules, public opinion stands firmly against seniority-only layoffs, shows an April 2015 poll by the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Times. A survey of 1,500 voters found only 11 percent supported seniority-only layoffs, while 82 percent felt some measure of performance should be taken into account.

“Californians want their children’s teachers to succeed and want to give them every tool possible to succeed, but they are also willing to take stronger steps to remove ineffective teachers in the classroom,” said poll director Dan Schnur in releasing the USC Dornsife/LA Times report. “At a certain point, if teachers don’t succeed, voters want to replace them with people who will.”

Principals don’t like the status quo much, either, according to a Teach Plus survey released Feb. 23. Not So Golden: Principals’ Views on California Teacher Layoff Policies found 69 percent of California’s public school principals are dissatisfied with the state’s current system for layoffs, believing it negatively affects teacher quality.

The report found principals at schools across socioeconomic levels support using performance and seniority for layoffs, weighting performance an average of 69 percent. A Teach Plus January 2015 survey of 506 traditional public school teachers around California found that 71 percent of teachers supported the use of teacher performance in the classroom in determining layoffs and that overall teachers favored an equal use of performance and seniority in layoff decisions.

The lack of job security for younger teachers goes beyond layoffs, however. It also applies to energetic new teachers who have gone the extra mile and created special programs or gotten extra training to serve the children they teach, only to be tossed aside when a veteran teacher wants the room.

Bumping rights treat teachers as factory widgets, so faceless and interchangeable the needs of children or colleagues need not be considered. Giving senior teachers with the same credential the right to push teachers hired even one day later to a different campus flies in the face of treating teachers as professionals.

The credential system provides a baseline, giving districts the flexibility to move kindergarten teachers to sixth grade if needed while requiring high school teachers to have a strong grasp of their subject. Beyond those basics, many teachers develop expertise in an area of their subject, in serving particular kids or as part of a novel teaching practice that no credential exists to distinguish.

Fremont Open Plan, for example, has its own system of mixing young students between classes. That requires strong communication and classroom management skills, as well as a willingness to flex between age groups. Not everyone with an elementary teaching credential fits that mold, but bumping rights say that does not matter.

Davis High’s highly decorated Lindsey Bird, who runs the school’s Language Institute for new immigrants, created a curriculum to help students understand U.S. culture and navigate the social hurdles of high school. But with only a social studies credential, she could be bumped off campus any time by a more senior teacher with no training in or understanding of the immigrant experience.

Another factor in the worsening shortage is change – in this case very public, very political change. An entire generation’s worth of training got declared obsolete, replaced by far more demanding instructional styles. Some teachers embraced the change, declared it long overdue. Others felt overwhelmed, even betrayed.

The public in large part has taken the role of armchair quarterback, deploring the new standards and tests on the one hand but insisting kids need a better education on the other, catching teachers in the crossfire. NFL quarterbacks have to learn to take the play-by-play critiques of a beer-bellied crowd in stride. But teachers did not enter the profession expecting to have everyone from cashiers to TV pundits telling them how to do their jobs better.

Besides the switch to Common Core, technology has upended many teaching routines just as many younger teachers so at ease in digital domains were laid off. Those not initially comfortable with working online quickly found their students teaching them, turning the daily lecture on its ear.

On top of all the academic changes, a grassroots movement has realized schools are the one place where many poor children can regularly receive services, and a good education is the door to a better future for them. Equity and access are the key tenets of a philosophy that deposits a host of out-of-school challenges on the schoolhouse steps.

While there are no cumulative numbers available yet, it seems inevitable the stress alone from recent years would create a greater-than-average rush to retire or just leave.

So what’s a state to do?

Replenishing the ranks will take a realistic portrayal of what strong teaching in a changed world looks like, what personal strengths it takes and what satisfaction it offers.

It calls for changing the rules to be fair to all teachers, not just those with the most time on the books. And it calls for some thoughtful discussion of teacher supports and advancement to make it more inviting as a profession.

This next generation has a drive to change the world. Teaching offers a pathway to do that and, with some movement toward valuing newcomers’ ideas and energy, could exert a powerful draw.