With pressures on teachers at a boiling point, California needs new pathways into the profession
Bay Area teacher Michele Lamons-Raiford — who has been in the profession for 20 years — said that this was the first year she had thought about what life might be like outside the classroom. Simmering for years, the stresses on K-12 educators are now threatening to push unprecedented numbers out the classroom door.
For many, the pandemic was the deciding factor: Already facing what often seemed impossible demands, teachers struggled to keep students engaged with distance learning. And the return to in-person instruction brought a whole new set of challenges, as teachers wrestled with supporting students through the dramatic academic and social emotional effects of Covid.
As one veteran Sweetwater teacher, Louise Williamson, said, “I was excited to return to my classroom this fall and see my students at Hilltop High School in person. About three weeks into the school year, I felt like a failure.”
Even before the pandemic, teacher shortages had reached crisis proportions. California has been among the states hardest hit, with 80% of districts experiencing shortages. Since the pandemic, the problem has only grown more acute.
The impact of teacher shortages on students is deep and direct, particularly in this time of recovery. When a resource teacher in her school left in the middle of the year, Azusa teacher Angela Wright left her fifth and sixth grade class to a substitute and stepped in to replace her colleague. With one teacher departure, two classrooms of students lost a trusted adult to guide them. It is not surprising, then, that student achievement and engagement is heading in the wrong direction: School absences are up; high school graduation rates are down; enrollment in community and four-year colleges has significantly dropped.
In addition to overall shortages, California also has a long way to go to have an educator workforce that reflects the ethnoracial and linguistic diversity of our state. Despite evidence that a diverse educator workforce has a positive impact on student engagement, learning, and other outcomes for all students, the California teacher workforce remains predominantly white. Although only 22% of California’s students identify as non-Hispanic white, approximately 61% of public-school teachers in California do.
District leaders are attempting to address the teacher shortage and diversity crises through several strategies including offering short-term bonuses, relaxing certification rules, revamping professional development and deploying administrators to the classroom. For long-term solutions, we must attract more of our young people to enter the teaching profession and give them the training and support they need to succeed.
Fortunately, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed investments in Golden State Pathways does just that — by building and strengthening on-ramps that jump-start the preparation of young people for careers and postsecondary work in K-12 education.
In contrast with traditional high school, where college-prep curriculum is confined to the classroom and some students pursue career-tech opportunities separately, pathways bring it all together. Rigorous academics are integrated with career technical studies, student supports and work-based learning opportunities — like apprenticeships and other opportunities for hands-on learning — that allow local leaders to leverage the diverse resources in their communities and prepare students for work as early childhood educators and paraprofessionals immediately upon high school graduation.
Already several California districts are leading the way. At the Teaching Career Academy at Hollywood Senior High School in Los Angeles, students are preparing for education through partnerships with local elementary schools and others who expose them to opportunities in the field. They leave the academy ready for immediate employment or postsecondary work. And through a dual enrollment program with a community college, students can apply for an associate teaching credential, allowing them to earn college credit while getting real-world experience teaching in a child care facility.
By allowing local education agencies to develop new pathways, Golden State Pathways funds can be used to build upon these linked programs and support the development of new programs in communities that desperately need them. Building this pathway within a community that has great need for well-prepared, diverse educators creates a mechanism for local leaders to amplify the assets within their local community and leverage them to improve opportunities for their students.
A diverse, well-prepared teaching workforce, with close ties to the community, is critical to the success of young people and to California overall. The pandemic exacerbated teacher shortages that must be addressed, and it also shined a light on the need to find new ways to engage and empower our young people. With thoughtful implementation to reach the communities and students who need it most, Golden State Pathways promises to help us do both.
Sarah Lillis is executive director of Teach Plus California, a nonprofit organization that trains and empowers teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues.
Anne Stanton is president of the Linked Learning Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for high-quality college and career preparation through pathways.
This piece originally ran on EdSource on June 13, 2022.