Shortages of teachers are often most acute in certain fields, particularly bilingual/English as a Second Language, special education, mathematics, Spanish, and the physical sciences. Sometimes students are taught by a revolving door of substitutes. Other times students from the affected class are added temporarily or permanently to different classes, thereby increasing class size. When substitutes are not available, which is frequently the case, other teachers may be assigned to “cover” the class during their preparation periods, a practice which solves the immediate problem but has long-term consequences for staff morale and attendance when teachers become exhausted and frustrated. It is difficult to ask students to take their education seriously when their school appears incapable of providing them with a regular teacher.
The most common vacancy areas were special education and middle school classroom teacher. While some vacancies may seem minuscule, it is not minor from the perspective of the students without teachers. The highest-poverty schools are most likely to have teachers hired after the beginning of the school year. The highest-poverty elementary, K-8th grade, and middle schools each had at least twice as many teachers hired after September 15 as their counterparts with less than 80 percent low-income students. The vacancies are concentrated in the same set of high-poverty schools year after year, a situation that is exacerbated by placing the least experienced teachers in these schools.
With about seven percent of the teaching force brand-new in any given year, new teachers can be found in every school. But the school assignment process has the effect of concentrating new teachers disproportionately in positions where it takes the most grit and skill to succeed. New teachers are most likely to be found in the highest-poverty schools. For example, 11 percent of the teachers at schools with at least 90 percent low-income students had less than one full-year of experience in the district, compared to five percent at schools at which less than 80 percent of the students were poor. At schools where 90 percent or more of the students are classified as low-income, the average number of years in the district was 10, and about half of the teachers in these schools had five years or less of previous teaching experience in the district.
The “senior” colleagues may only have a few years’ more experience than the newcomers. The concentration of new teachers in particular schools presents an enormous challenge for mentoring efforts: there are simply not enough veteran teachers to go around. Further, many of the new teachers at middle schools have no experience in the middle grades and had little interest in teaching those grades when they applied to the district. These disparities in teacher experience occur in part because of school transfer rules that provide the first pick of jobs to teachers with the most seniority. A brand new study concluded that the general pattern is for teachers to transfer from higher-poverty schools to those with lower-poverty. The longer a teacher is employed by the system, the more opportunities arise to transfer to a lower-poverty school.
Since new teachers are more likely to be found in high-poverty schools, and new teachers are less likely to be fully certified, it follows that schools with higher percentages of low-income students also have higher percentages of emergency-certified teachers. 82 percent of the teachers at the highest-poverty schools (defined here as 90 percent or more low-income) were certified to teach, compared to 92 percent at schools with the lowest rates of student poverty (less than 80 percent low-income). While this inequity is evident in each of the years we examined, the disparity between highest- and lowest-poverty schools has intensified over the three years since 2017. The inequity has grown in part because, while certification rates declined across school poverty levels, the highest-poverty schools experienced a larger drop. The highest-poverty schools also tend to have high percentages of minority students. Our data show that the percent of certified teachers at a school declines as the percent of minority students increases. In 2017-2018, 96 percent of the teachers at schools at which less than half of the students were minority were certified, compared to 86 percent at schools with 90 percent or more minority students. From 2018, schools with the lowest minority enrollment maintained roughly equivalent levels of teacher certification, while schools with high-minority populations saw their teacher certification levels drop.
Once hired, new teachers often experience a rough start to the school year. For new teachers, late hiring and school placement mean that they have little time to learn about their school or the neighborhood it serves, meet their colleagues, set up their classrooms, evaluate the teaching materials available to them, or plan appropriate lessons. Those who arrive after school starts sometimes face students who have been taught by a series of substitutes, a situation that often creates a classroom culture of disorder that is difficult to change.
While some school principals do an exemplary job with new teacher induction, high percentages of the respondents to a new survey reported that they finished their first week at the school without basic supports and information from administrators. During this period, two-thirds were not given the district’s Curriculum Scope and Sequence for their courses; nearly three-fourths were not given student forms; a third were not given a staff handbook, and only half were told who their union building representative was. Focus group research indicates that high school teachers receive less assistance than teachers at other school levels. There were, however, some significant differences in their responses on these and other items by school level. For example, elementary school teachers were more likely than others to say they felt safe in their buildings, and substantially higher proportions of new high school teachers reported that their buildings were clean (39 percent) and that students were added or removed from their classes on a daily basis (45 percent).