Severe K-12 Teacher Shortage Projected if Current Trends Hold

After years of teacher layoffs due to budget cuts during the Great Recession, school districts across California are again on a hiring spree.  The pickup in demand, however, comes at a time when the pool of fully credentialed teachers is shrinking.  The mismatch between the need for more teachers and the availability of qualified candidates has drastic implications for students enrolled in the K-12 system.  It is critical that the pipeline of candidates that will stand in front of these students and guide them during these formative years is strong.

To assess the extent of the shortage across the state and in Los Angeles County, first a quick inventory of the number of students and teachers enrolled in traditional and charter public schools the 2014-2015:

A total of 295,000 teachers instruct 6.2 million students in California, and 1 in 4 of those teachers and students are in Los Angeles County.  With such a significant share of the K-12 population, a teacher shortage will have a great impact on this region.

Projecting the need for additional teachers over the next five years against the supply of talent demonstrates that shortage will be significant by 2022.  On the supply side, the number of newly minted teachers is dropping.  Whereas approximately 16,500 new teaching credentials were issued in 2011-12 according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, that number dropped by about 1,000 to 15,500 in 2015-2016.  A snapshot of enrollment in teacher preparation programs from the Learning Policy Institute below indicates that trend will likely get worse.  Enrollment has dropped precipitously by 76% from 2001 to 2014:

On the demand side, the need for new teachers is driven by student enrollment, retirements, and teachers exiting the profession.  In several counties in California, particularly in Los Angeles County, enrollments are declining due to a net decrease in population and lower birth rates.  However, projected enrollment declines are more than offset by the likelihood that nearly 10% of the workforce will retire in the next five years and just under 5% leave every year for reasons other than retirement, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

To sum up the gap between the supply and demand for new teachers in the next five years in the chart below, the state will face a deficit of around 21,000 teachers by 2022 if current trends continue.  That number is equivalent to the overall demand for teachers in Los Angeles County during the same period.

The analysis above does not consider the fact that the current average class size of 21 in California is significantly above the national average of 16.  A reduction in class size to the national average would require the state to fund and certify an additional 94,000 teachers.  Furthermore, private schools in operation across the state hire from the pool of newly certified teachers.  They are not incorporated into the analysis above as private school data is less readily available.  The number of students enrolled in private schools in LA County, as an example, is estimated at 200,000.

The teacher shortage does not affect every academic discipline and geography equally.  The Learning Policy Institute found that the teacher shortage is most acute in math, science, and special education.  In mathematics and science, the number of credentials awarded to new teachers dropped by 32% and 14%, respectively, from 2011 to 2015.  In special education, the number of credentials issued dropped by 21% between 2012 and 2014.  Furthermore, the National Center for Education Statistics found that teacher attrition is highest in poor, urban schools, where an average of about a fifth of the entire faculty leave annually.

There are multiple causes for the decline in interest in the teaching profession.  From a practical standpoint, the salary relative to the high cost of living in markets like Los Angeles, as well as the lengthy and costly process for receiving credentials, can dissuade job candidates who would otherwise join the profession.  From a perception standpoint, the profession has lost its appeal, as evidenced by a recent survey that shows only 5% of high school students taking the ACT are interested in joining the profession, a decline of 16% between 2010 and 2014.  Declining teaching conditions as well as highly publicized teacher layoffs during the budget downturn are likely culprits.

The most readily available solution to school districts who cannot find teachers with full credentials to fill open positions is to hire talent with substandard credentials.  These are individuals who have completed some, but not all subject matter and teacher preparation requirements.  In 2015-2016, 56 California counties requested over 10,000 documents of this type, also known as intern credentials, permits and waivers.  That number is more than double the number of substandard credentials issued in 2012-13.  Los Angeles County alone requested nearly 20% of those documents, accounting for a significant portion of non-fully credentialed teacher requests.  This is a short-term strategy that is ultimately unsustainable and leads to less than desirable outcomes for students.

Addressing the teacher shortage will require a multi-pronged strategy with significant resource and time commitment by governments, nonprofits, and the private sector.  Critical components of that strategy should include:

  • Offering service scholarships or loan forgiveness programs that cover the cost of tuition and living expenses, particularly to teacher candidates who commit to teach in high-need fields and locations. Such programs have a strong record of success.
  • Conducting outreach and recruitment at the secondary and postsecondary level that promotes the benefits and desirability of the teaching profession
  • Increasing teacher pay, particularly in high cost of living geographies.
  • Evaluating opportunities to reduce the time and cost to become a teacher in the state of California. The teacher credentialing process in California is more time intensive than in many other states, for example, requiring a fifth year of higher education in addition to a baccalaureate.
  • Offering teacher residencies at the post-baccalaureate level. These teachers could immediately fill vacancies in shortage fields and be provided training and incentives to have successful and lasting careers.
  • Eliminating barriers to re-entry for retired teachers, or postpone their exit through incentives.


Special thanks to Teach for America Accelerate fellows Kaili Akar, Michael Chiang, Jess McKay, and Anna Zimmerman for their research and analysis in support of this briefing.