In summary

A persistent teacher shortage has forced many California school districts to hire teachers who aren’t fully credentialed or are teaching out of their subject areas. More of those teachers are teaching classes at schools with high percentages of low-income students, undermining efforts to achieve academic parity with more affluent schools.

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New California education data helps tell an old story: Schools with higher rates of low-income students have more underqualified teachers. 

A CalMatters analysis of teacher credentialing data released this month by the California Department of Education found this correlation statewide as well as within districts. 

The state’s data from the 2020-21 school year details the percentage of classes by   school and district that were taught by fully credentialed teachers, intern teachers or teachers without proper subject credentials. The data also shows the percentage of classes taught by “experienced” teachers —those with more than two years of experience. 

The CalMatters analysis crossed the state’s data with student demographic information for the state’s 10 largest school districts— which collectively serve about a sixth of California’s public school students. It compared the 10 schools with the highest percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals to the 10 schools with the lowest percentages of those students at each of the districts.

Statewide, 83% of classes were taught by fully credentialed teachers in the 2020-21 school year. But at eight of the 10 largest school districts, classes at schools with the highest percentages of low-income students were more likely to be taught by a teacher without full credentials than at schools with the lowest percentages. Los Angeles Unified had the largest disparity among non-charter schools — the rate of fully credentialed teachers was 22 percentage points higher at schools serving more affluent families.

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The 2020-21 school year was the first full school year under the pandemic, which brought a pre-existing shortage of fully credentialed teachers to a breaking point. Educators and experts interviewed by CalMatters said early retirements surged and other teachers left the profession, sometimes in the middle of the school year. School administrators said they rushed to get vacancies filled, often hiring teachers without full credentials. Substitute teachers were also in short supply, especially for schools with high rates of low-income students.

Marcus Funchess, who oversees human resources at San Bernardino City Unified, said   the district has battled a teacher shortage for years. To fill vacancies, the district hired teachers who lacked a full credential as long as they demonstrated a commitment to staying in the district. Earning a full or “clear” credential typically requires a bachelor’s degree, completion of a credentialing program at a university and working as a student teacher. There can be additional testing or coursework requirements, depending on the grade you want to teach.

“If those teachers are interns, but they have a passion for our students, those are the educators we’re looking for because they’re apt to stay,” he said. “They’re not going to leave when the going gets tough.”

But Kai Mathews, a project director at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, said low-income students — defined as those qualifying for free or reduced price meals — have always had less access to better prepared teachers, mostly because their schools were underfunded. And schools serving more affluent families are able to fundraise to pay teacher salaries, allowing them to reduce class sizes.

The socioeconomic disparity among schools is often coupled with racial disparities,  Mathews said. A preliminary study she’s conducting shows that barriers to the teaching profession result in fewer qualified and experienced teachers of color, while students of color are more likely to be in classrooms taught by underqualified teachers. 

“What does it mean if we keep sending less prepared teachers to less resourced schools?” Mathews said. “There’s no additional pay, just additional heartache and struggle for teachers.”

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At Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, the 10 schools with the greatest share of low-income students reported 76.3% of classes were taught by fully credentialed teachers. At the 10 schools with the smallest percentages of low-income students, 98% were taught by fully credentialed teachers. Los Angeles Unified spokesperson Shannon Haber said the district is working to address these disparities for the upcoming school year.  

The disparities at the state’s largest school districts are the product of historical underfunding of public education as well as a system of teacher preparation that presents barriers to aspiring educators who come from low-income backgrounds, Mathews said. The credentialing process includes being a student teacher, which means working without pay to fulfill the teaching hours required. Additionally, the relatively low teacher salaries compared to those of other college-educated professionals can deter prospective teachers.

The state data, released for the first time, isn’t a perfect snapshot of teacher qualifications or experience. Statewide, credentialing data was missing for the teachers who teach about 7% of public school classes. 

“From my understanding, there could have been a transition from one teacher to another or a mid-year resignation,” said Funchess, assistant superintendent of human resources at San Bernardino City Unified. “It’s just a matter of not having all the information.”

“What does it mean if we keep sending less prepared teachers to less resourced schools?”

Kai Mathews, project director at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools

Officials at San Juan Unified in Sacramento County contested the data published by the state. According to the data, 75% of classes in schools with the highest rates of low-income students were taught by teachers with more than two years of experience. At schools with lowest rates of low-income students, 92% of classes were taught by experienced teachers. 

However, San Juan Unified spokesperson Raj Rai said  the district’s own data shows some of the schools actually have higher percentages of experienced teachers. Rai said the district would work with the state to address the discrepancy.

In at least one case, the percentage of classes taught by inexperienced teachers doesn’t match the percentage of inexperienced teachers at a district. At Long Beach Unified, the state’s data shows that 80% of the classes at the district’s 10 highest-poverty schools are taught by teachers with more than two years of experience. However, the district’s own report shows about 94% of teachers at those schools have more than two years of experience.  

Despite problems with the data for some districts, experts like Mathews say this data collection will help policymakers allocate funding more equitably. 

“I think we need to get serious about resources,” she said. “How much longer are we going to ask these schools that serve a majority of students of color to make do?”

An old story

California’s low-income students have long been less likely to have fully qualified teachers. A 1999 study conducted by The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning found that “More than 1 in every 10 classrooms in the state are

staffed by teachers who have not met the state’s minimum requirements.” The study also found that a student in a school with a large percentage of low-income students was six times as likely to have a teacher without the proper credentials. Twenty-two years later, about 17% of classes in public schools are taught by teachers with less than full credentials, according to the state data from the 2020-21 school year.  

Many experts arrive at the same explanation for the disparities: an historically uneven distribution of funding. For years, schools serving more low-income families received less money because the property taxes in their communities generated less revenue.

Today, California distributes money more equitably to public school districts. Under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, schools with more English learners, foster children and students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals generate more money for their districts. 

But experts say this aspirationally equitable method of funding is often offset by other costs at schools serving low-income communities. Schools in these neighborhoods are more likely to be older and require more repairs, said Saroja Warner, director for talent development and diversity at the research nonprofit WestEd. These communities also may be food deserts and tend to have fewer public libraries.

“It’s sort of this perfect storm in high-poverty communities,” Warner said. “Teachers are another thing they don’t have access to.”

Kristin Bijur, who oversees human resources at San Francisco Unified, said private fundraising in her district allows schools in affluent communities to fund their own teacher salaries.  Those schools can hire more teachers and reduce class sizes. Schools in low-income neighborhoods, on the other hand, struggle to hire and retain qualified and experienced teachers despite getting additional state funding and federal Title I money for low-income students.

“The amount of private fundraising in San Francisco is a huge problem,” Bijur said. “That erases the strategy of Title I, which is an attempt to reckon with systemic racism.”

Additionally, class sizes are set without considering that students in low-income communities, who tend to struggle more with food and housing insecurities as well as other traumas outside their classrooms, might need more individualized attention. 

“Right now we’re applying the same staffing ratio to all the schools,” Bijur said. “We haven’t yet changed the conditions of teaching in high-poverty schools, which in the Bay Area tend to be schools with high numbers of Black and brown students.”

Students and teachers of color lose

Mathews, the UCLA expert, said a preliminary study conducted by her team shows that teachers without full credentials are more likely to be people of color. They are often stuck in the credentialing pipeline because they can’t afford to take an unpaid year to work as a teacher-in-training. 

“Getting a teaching credential is expensive,” Mathews said. “Not only are students of color receiving less, but the teachers who are getting less than stellar credentials are  teachers of color.”

In rural districts, Mathews said, the lack of nearby colleges and universities to recruit from results in a labor shortage for schools. And while some districts have the marketing budgets to hold teacher hiring fairs, others are stuck in these “pipeline deserts.”

“These are counties where there isn’t a teacher preparation program in a 50-mile radius,” she said. “You don’t even have the pipeline that’s being generated there. It’s almost impossible to get teachers to go to these areas that aren’t their hometowns.”

According to the CalMatters analysis, rural and smaller school districts had a disproportionate percentage of teachers with substandard credentials and less experience. While 83% of classes statewide were taught by fully credentialed teachers, that was the case for only 77% of classes at California’s smallest districts. And 90% of classes statewide were taught by teachers with more than two years of experience compared to 82% at small, rural districts.

“It’s sort of this perfect storm in high-poverty communities. Teachers are another thing they don’t have access to.”

Saroja Warner, director for talent development and diversity at WestEd

Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of California’s State Board of Education and   CEO of the education research center the Learning Policy Institute, said research shows that a fully credentialed teacher is the biggest factor contributing to student success. But keeping qualified and experienced teachers at the schools that need them most, she said, means creating working conditions that entice educators. Compensation is the most obvious way to keep teachers, she said.

“First, I would make sure teacher salaries were comparable to other professions that have college degrees,” Darling-Hammond said. “Teachers are on average paid 85% of what their college-educated peers make.”

Teachers union leaders said beyond compensation, districts need to reduce class sizes and make sure principals and administrators are supporting teachers to retain quality educators.

“What is the promise once they get here?” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, Los Angeles Unified’s teachers union. “Are we willing to lower class sizes? Are we willing to give them the professional development they need?”

But Myart-Cruz said she does not want raises or bonuses for just the teachers who work at schools with high rates of low-income students. She wants an overall increase in teacher pay and smaller class sizes across the district.

Ashley Alcalá, the president of the San Bernardino City Unified School District’s teachers union, also said she wants to see pay raises across the district. In San Bernardino, nearly all of the schools have a majority of students who are low-income .  

“When the majority of schools are high poverty, it doesn’t really make a difference where you’re teaching,” she said. “We’re going to be competing with surrounding districts if we don’t raise the salaries for everyone.”

Alcalá said the state data only tells half the story. She said while more experienced teachers tend to be more effective educators, she said newly credentialed teachers might also bring more enthusiasm and a willingness to try new methods.

“It’s frustrating,” Alcalá said. “If you have the right working conditions then people will stay. If you have an administrator who supports their employees and a school that has a culture that has a positive working environment, then people will choose to stay.”

Myart-Cruz and Alcalá say you can’t just target high-poverty schools with more money. They say the state needs to fix the entire education system.

“When you do surveys, it’s not the money that keeps teachers at a school,” Alcalá said. “It’s the culture, and it’s the administrators that teachers are drawn to.”

The state in recent years has funneled billions of dollars into addressing the teacher shortage. The most recent effort has been the Golden State Teacher Grant Program, which gives college students $20,000 in grants if they commit to teaching for four years at a school where at least 55% of students are English learners, foster children or students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. 

Darling-Hammond said she’s hopeful about the grant, saying four years is enough time for teachers to get invested and stay in their school communities as long as they receive the compensation and training they need from their school and district leaders.  

Teachers union leaders agree with experts that compensation and smaller class sizes   help attract and retain fully credentialed teachers. But building a healthy and stimulating environment for both students and teachers will make a school a more enjoyable place to work and to learn. This means hiring more mental health counselors as well as more art and drama teachers.

“The whole system is broken in its design,” Myart-Cruz said. “I want to see a holistic solution.”

 CalMatters Reporter Jeremia Kimelman contributed to this report.

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Joe reports on the students, teachers and lawmakers who shape California's public schools. Before joining CalMatters in 2021, he was the education reporter at KPBS, the public radio station in San Diego....

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