California's Teachers Too Few, Too Unprepared

New America Media, News Report, Annette Fuentes Posted: Dec 10, 2008

Editor's Note: A new report out today shows that California's public schools often have teachers who are under-prepared for the subjects they are teaching, making it more challenging to raise student achievement. Annette Fuentes is NAM's education editor.

California's public schools need more and better prepared teachers to face the challenges of raising student achievement, especially in the lowest performing schools and in teaching algebra.

Those are among the key findings of the tenth annual "Report on California's Teaching Force," released today by the nonprofit Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning in Santa Cruz. The report highlights some improvements in an otherwise static picture of a statewide teacher shortage in which teachers are too often under-prepared for the subjects they are teaching.

On the positive side, the report found that the number of teachers without full credentials has been whittled down in the past seven years from more than 42,000 to fewer than 15,500. But the most under-prepared teachers are concentrated in the lowest-performing schools, typically the ones attended by Latino and African-American students. That in turn affects achievement among those students.

"The achievement, which is the bottom line, is still very problematic, although we have seen some growth," said Patrick Shields, research director of the report. "But the gap between white and Asian students on one hand, and African-American and Latino students remains the same. And if you're a poor student, Latino or African-American, you are more likely to have a teacher who is not prepared."

Shields said that in a labor market where teachers are scarce, experienced teachers too often leave the toughest schools for jobs in schools where there are more resources and fewer challenges.

Another problem spotlighted in the report is the drastic shortage of qualified algebra teachers. Last school year, one-third of middle school algebra teachers held credentials in a different subject area or were unprepared. Again, schools with the lowest achieving students had fewer credentialed teachers than schools with the high achievers.

The adoption last July of a statewide mandate that all eighth graders must take algebra only
exacerbates the problem.

Until then, half of eighth graders were taking algebra and half were taking general math, with testing that matched the curricula. But the federal education department required California to test all eighth graders in algebra, prompting the state to expand algebraeven without qualified teachers.

"It's a real problem," Shields said. "Our first recommendation: whenever the state makes these sweeping changes, they have to consider the consequences." Aside from training up more new math teachers, the state needs to provide support to the current math teacher workforce, such as with summer institutes, Shields says. But that comes with a price tag in a time of austerity. "It's hard to do anything that doesn't cost some money," he said.

Among other findings, the report reveals the California State University system as a key source of new teachers to fill the shortage. The state colleges graduated 1,289 new teachers credentialed in math and science last academic year, which was a 68 percent jump over four years. But even those gains were swamped by declines in enrollment in teacher preparation programs since 2001 and a drop in credentials issued.

The solution, according to the report, is to continue and amplify training programs that will raise teacher achievement levels in the classroom so they can in turn lift up their students.

"We need greater investment in professional development in this state. Algebra is a perfect example of this," Shields said. "If you're going to ask kids to do more, you have to ask teachers to do more. And if you're going to ask teachers to do more, you have to give them the tools to do it."

The report and summary materials can be found at

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