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California Makes Gains in Teacher Quality, Study Finds

New America Media, News Report, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen Posted: Dec 15, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- California teachers are better prepared than ever, and the number of under-qualified teachers has diminished sharply, according to a recent report from The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Since 2000, the number of under-prepared teachers in California has dropped from 42,000 (20 percent of the teaching workforce) to less than 11,000, just under 4 percent of Californias teacher workforce of 360,000.

For the past decade and longer, California has had a deep emphasis on improving teacher content knowledge, and [the report] shows that this knowledge and strategy has taken a hold, said Margaret Gaston, executive director of the Center, a Santa Cruz-based organization.

The Status of the Teaching Profession 2009 includes an examination of data on the high school teaching force, case studies of various types of high schools across the state, and interviews with high school teachers and principals.

Teacher effectiveness, preparation and distribution are key issues for California policymakers as they prepare to apply for grants from the federal Race To The Top program. The program is competitive and will award a total of $4.35 billion nationally to states for educational reforms and mandates a teacher evaluation system.

Gaston said that the report shows that California is in a good position to compete for Race to the Top funds. In light of Race To The Top and other federal funds, California has demonstrated its ability to identify an area to develop policies and practices to address [teacher preparation] disparities, said Gaston, and weve seen that result in the field.

Yet the report found that major problems continue to plague the teacher workforce in California and drastic budget cuts making it difficult to fix them. Chief among them is the unequal distribution of highly prepared teachers. In schools with the lowest numbers of minorities, just two percent of teachers lack full credentials. But in schools with the most minorities, 12 percent of teachers lack full credentials. Students in the highest minority, highest poverty or lowest performing schools are five times more likely to have a teacher who is under-prepared.

Not surprisingly, principals from the lowest income schools report the least amount of confidence in their teachers. These principals were eight times more likely to be concerned about the teachers subject knowledge than principals from schools with fewer poverty-level students.

And while some gains have been made to improve equitable teacher distribution, experts fear that the state budget cuts may have severe negative impacts on these efforts.

The budget issue has made it more difficult [to improve equitable teacher distribution], because schools have less money in the coffers, said Phil Lafontaine, director of the Professional Development and Curriculum Support Division of the California Department of Education. The cuts are affecting everything.

The report also highlights the disconnect between teacher preparation and the educational needs of students. The majority of principals interviewed said that their teachers have strong knowledge of their subjects and can teach those subjects well. However, they express worry about the teachers ability to adjust their teaching to the needs of particular students, to incorporate real world examples and application to their lessons, to use data to understand what individual students may need help with, and to advise students on their plans for after high school.

Teachers are being asked to do much more than teach, and high school is a much more complex enterprise, said Gaston. Its fair to say that the challenges they are facing now are extraordinary.

Indeed, 70 percent of principals report that some sort of student advising is a daily practice, and teachers are doing 80 percent of that advising because of deep cuts to school counselors and social workers.

These problems are compounded by the fact that the state will lose one-third of the teacher workforce through attrition within 10 years, which could leave California with a teacher shortage. Nearly 100,000 teachers are older than 50 and will likely retire in the next seven to 10 years. At the same time, the number of new teachers has dropped by nearly one quarter in the past few years, and the number of students enrolled in universities and credential programs is significantly down.

What we are faced with is an environment where great numbers of in-service practicing teachers are pink-slipped. This influences the pool of potential candidates we have, because they are not seeing it as a profession that has any immediacy to it, said Mark Baldwin, dean of the College of Education at California State University, San Marcos. We try to explain to them that, yes, pink-slips are a real phenomenon, but we are going to need more qualified teachers than we have.

How the economic downturn will impact teacher retirement is yet to be seen. The average age of retirement in California is 61, says Gaston, and the Center will track how the recession impacts retirement plans.

The current budget downturn is still too fresh to see if its made a difference in the retirement rate. What we do know is that despite the fact that the economy took a dip earlier this decade, it still didnt affect the rate at which teachers retired, said Gaston.

We just hope that newer teachers can stick with the profession through this very dark period, Gaston said.

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