Tamara Moore thought of herself as a career teacher, but she could see burnout in her future. In her first year, she was putting in 60 hours a week but was troubled by how her school focused more on raising test scores than on working with her to meet the needs of students.
"I felt like I — as an individual in the classroom — didn't matter," Moore said.
Her experience encapsulates some of the root causes of a California teacher shortage that is bad and getting worse, according to a new survey released Wednesday.
The staffing problem is both wide and deep, with 75% of more than 200 districts surveyed reporting difficulties with filling positions and low-income urban and rural areas hit hardest.
"It's a national phenomenon, but we are probably on the more severe side," said Linda Darling-Hammond, head of the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute, which oversaw the research. "This is partly because we had cuts and cuts for years in our budget for education."
Reduced funding levels have contributed to difficult working conditions, such as larger class sizes.
LaTeira Haynes teaches biology and other science classes at Dymally High School in South Los Angeles. Her district, L.A. Unified, recently reined in some class sizes, but her smallest class still has 35 students; her largest, 47. In all, she is instructing 250 students this semester. The challenge is much greater than conveying scientific concepts en masse.
"There are so many things that our students need besides content, and if there are not systems and structures put in place to help teachers, you kind of feel like you're fighting an uphill battle," Haynes said. "That sense of loss and failure makes a lot of teachers leave."
In Moore's case, the factors nudging her toward the door were the heavy workload combined with concerns about the school's direction.
Between 20% to 40% of teachers, according to the new research, leave the profession in the first five years, a figure that rises to 50% in some school systems, especially those such as Moore's school that serve low-income and minority students.
At the same time, fewer prospective teachers have entered the training pipeline, a decrease of 75% over the last 10 years, Darling-Hammond said.
Even though school funding has improved with the economy, the supply of new teachers has not kept pace with those leaving, including many who are retiring.
Darling-Hammond said the reputation of the profession has taken a battering and there is a dearth of necessary financial incentives, such as programs to help teachers pay for higher education.
"For us, we've been just fighting against it," said Michael Hanson, superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District in the Central Valley. "The valley floor is a tough place to be. This is not everybody's destination for work or teaching of any type."
Nearly halfway into the school year, he still has 24 vacancies to fill and he's also worried about next year. His coping strategies include staging hiring fairs months ahead of other school systems. He also has a solid recruiting pitch: A teacher's salary is enough to buy a home in the Fresno area, which is an advantage over higher-profile urban areas.
Nearly 30% of districts with shortages report the high cost of living — relative to teacher salaries — as a factor.
To fill his positions, Hanson said, "we've been doing the sub thing and it's absolutely brutal. They work their butts off and we're thankful for them, but it's not the same."
The survey findings are detailed in a brief released by the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research, policy and advocacy group, and the California School Boards Assn. The survey was completed by representatives of 211 school districts in the association's delegate assembly — a sample that generally reflects the demographics of California's approximately 1,025 districts, according to the groups.
The survey found that 83% of districts serving the largest concentrations of low-income students report having teacher shortages, compared with 55% of districts with the fewest.
Many districts are backfilling with teachers who are not fully trained and those who are teaching outside their fields of specialty.
"High-poverty districts report filling their vacancies with teachers who have substandard credentials more than twice as often as low-poverty districts (71% vs. 30%)," the research states. "They also report filling vacancies more often with substitute teachers (29% vs. 13%)."
But such imperfect solutions also increase turnover, the data indicate.
The teacher shortage at L.A. Unified is situational, with a greater effort needed to fill openings in classes for disabled students and in middle-school and high-school math and science.
Moore, who teaches elementary school, spent more than a year looking for work in the Los Angeles area and applied to school districts and independently operated charter schools. She never got a call back from L.A. Unified. Her only prospect two years ago turned out to be the charter school with which she quickly grew disenchanted.
L.A. Unified is doing more hiring now, adding nearly 1,500 new teachers and counselors this year to a workforce of 25,275. The newbies included 300 elementary teachers. The district says it was fully staffed on the first day of school, but since then 139 positions have opened up.
Moore avoided a quick exit from the profession.
Instead of leaving teaching, she found a new job at Citizens of the World Mar Vista, a different charter school. At this campus, "we care about who students are as people and what they will bring to the world when they grow up as adults."
"I still find myself working between 50 and 60 hours a week," Moore said. "But I am willing and able to go the extra mile."
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7:37 p.m: This article was updated to add additional teacher voices, analysis from the study and information about L.A. Unified hiring this year.