Understanding and Addressing the California Teacher Shortage

A high school teacher lectures in front of a whiteboard in a crowded classroom.

The California teacher shortage defies easy explanation. Teachers in California are among the highest paid in the United States (measured by average salary relative to the state’s average income), yet California has one of the most severe teacher shortages in the country. The California teacher shortage can be attributed to challenges specific to the state. It also, however, reflects the broader issues affecting school districts nationwide, making it a valuable case study for educators.

California’s Teacher Shortage

Recent estimates suggest 75% of California’s school districts face a shortage of fully trained teachers. The problem is particularly acute at the high school level. Math and science teachers, as well as special education instructors, are in the highest demand.

The severity of the problem becomes clearer when one considers the scale of California’s educational infrastructure: The state has almost 10,000 public elementary and secondary schools serving some 6.5 million students.

Contributing Factors

California’s school system is characterized by high attrition rates and an insufficient supply of new teachers. Contributing factors include:

  • Difficult working conditions. Underfunded schools, large class sizes, and insufficient professional development and training for teachers are among the factors that make teaching difficult.
  • Low salaries. Teachers in California earn some of the highest average salaries in the country, but salary ranges vary widely. Furthermore, California ranks among the costliest states in which to live.
  • Poor job security. Budget shortfalls in California make teacher layoffs a perennial threat, even when schools are understaffed. The lack of job security discourages potential candidates from pursuing the career.
  • Low enrollment in teacher preparation programs. California’s education programs are not attracting sufficient numbers of aspiring teachers to make up for shortages or keep up with the state’s population growth. (California's population, currently around 40 million people, is expected to reach 45 million by 2050.)

The factors contributing to California’s teacher shortage are interrelated and can be self-perpetuating. For example, difficult working conditions lead to higher attrition rates; higher attrition rates result in understaffing; and understaffing strains school resources and negatively impacts student-teacher ratios, creating more difficult working conditions.

The Impact on Education

The California teacher shortage impacts students, teachers, and schools:

  • Lack of credentialed teachers. Efforts to fill the large number of teaching vacancies in California schools have resulted in more teachers with limited experience, many of whom are not fully credentialed. To address acute staffing needs, the state issues intern credentials, short-term staff permits, and provisional internship permits to individuals without adequate teacher training.
  • Overcrowded classrooms. Teacher shortages increase teacher-student ratios, creating overcrowded classrooms. Overcrowding creates classroom management issues and can lower student learning outcomes.
  • Lack of support staff. Budgeting strain affects the hiring of essential school staff. Education leaders in California have identified a pressing need for more mental health professionals, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but hiring counselors, social workers, and psychologists tends to take a backseat when teachers are in short supply.

Disproportionate Impacts

California’s teacher shortage’s effect on schools and students is inconsistent. High-minority and high-poverty schools bear a disproportionate burden and face greater challenges.

Hiring and retaining teachers is particularly challenging for high-needs schools that are already underfunded. Teachers in schools that serve high-poverty communities make less money than peers working in low-poverty schools, and training gaps are greater. Consequently, high-needs schools employ more non-credentialed teachers.

Addressing the Problem

A one-size-fits-all solution to the California teacher shortage isn’t on the horizon, but California lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to address the problem. They’ve funded new teacher education undergraduate programs, teacher recruitment and retention initiatives, and programs designed to help school staff members become credentialed teachers.

The state has also earmarked funds for special education, bilingual programs, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.

Despite these efforts, California remains in dire need of more teachers. The state will have to take additional measures to close the gap. Education researchers recommend several strategies:

  • Attract more out-of-state teaching candidates by loosening qualification requirements.
  • Boost incentives for community members and non-teacher school staff members (librarians and instructional aides, for example) who want to become teachers
  • Create more mentoring programs to support new teachers.
  • Offer student loan forgiveness programs, particularly for those who fill positions in high-need subjects or schools.
  • Increase scholarships that cover tuition and other costs associated with teacher preparation programs.
  • Offer hiring and retention bonuses.

Creating Solutions in Education

Ongoing efforts to address California’s teacher shortage––identifying and quantifying education budget shortfalls, evaluating student impacts, devising strategies to boost teacher training and recruitment, and advocating for greater funding––is the work of education leaders. Such individuals believe that transformational change in education is both necessary and possible.

Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program develops practitioners and leaders who address the most pressing challenges facing schools, including teacher shortages. Learn more about how the program prepares educators for leadership roles inside the classroom and beyond, including policy and advocacy roles.

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Business.org, “Best-Paying States for Teachers in 2020”

California Department of Education, “Average Salaries & Expenditure Percentage - CalEdFacts”

Economic Policy Institute, “The Teacher Shortage Is Real, Large and Growing, and Worse Than We Thought”

EdSource, “California Legislature Approves State Budget; Here Are the Highlights for Education Funding”

EdSource, “California’s Persistent Teacher Shortage Fueled by Attrition, High Demand, Say Newly Released Studies”

EdSource, "More New Teachers in Pipeline, but California Falling Short in Producing Fully Qualified Ones"

EdSource, “Schools Want to Hire More Counselors Amid Budget Woes”

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Learning Policy Institute, “Understanding Teacher Shortages: 2018 Update”

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Public Policy Institute of California, California's Population

Teach California, High-Need Subject Areas