Most California schools report trouble finding qualified teachers

General music teacher Rosanne Forgette leads third graders at Rowland Elementary School in song.
General music teacher Rosanne Forgette leads third graders at Rowland Elementary School in song.
Gina Ward/Rowland Unified School District

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Three out of four California school districts struggle to find enough qualified applicants for open teaching jobs, a new survey reports.

The survey, conducted with the California School Boards Association of more than 200 school districts, is the latest attempt to probe the depth and scope of what researchers at the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute fear is an "emerging" teacher shortage in the state.

In the survey, 88 percent of responding districts said they faced a shortage of special education teachers. Roughly three out of five districts had trouble filling openings in math or science.

"Addressing this crisis effectively," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor emeritus who leads the Learning Policy Institute, in a statement, "is going to take research-based teacher recruitment and retention strategies supported by the state and adapted to each district’s specific needs."

Though many responding districts cited teachers retiring or leaving the district as contributing factors for the crunch, most ultimately laid blame with a "shrinking supply" of qualified candidates.

In 2004-05, there were more than 64,000 people enrolled in teacher colleges or preparation programs, state figures show. By 2014-15, that number had dwindled to 20,000.

But some survey results also hint at a problem with factors more complex at play than a scarcity of applicants. For one, 83 percent of low-income districts reported teacher shortages, while only 55 percent of more-affluent districts did.

For another, Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education, said she suspects the state's teacher colleges are churning out enough graduates — but that attrition plays a large role as well.

"We are preparing them," she said in an interview in October, "but something happens when they get in the classroom."

Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Michelle King also said in October that her question for teacher colleges isn't necessarily whether they're preparing enough teachers, but whether their preparation equips them to stay in the profession long-term.

"Or am I constantly in this revolving door where [teachers are] in, then they’re out, and I’ve got to get more?" King said. "That’s a huge piece, because that's where we see the leakage … After about 3 years, they don’t stay.”

Symms Gallagher said the problem is likely much more complex than a statewide shortage.

"Some of the suburban districts, they don’t have a problem getting STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] teachers. LAUSD does," she said. "It is also understanding the shortage is down to a district [level] … What is that district doing that we might help?"