Bay Area STEM Learning Impacted by Staff Shortage

A shortage of teachers makes a day in the life of many public middle or high school students seem chaotic these days, especially in STEM subjects. Examples from Bay Area Parent’s informal survey of students and parents include:
           An unprepared math substitute told a class of ninth-graders that he had no lesson plan so they could break out their cell phones or work on homework.
           For months, a sixth-grade science class had a different substitute teacher almost every day, including an overworked principal and vice principal.
          A high school math class had no teacher or substitute for almost an entire period before the vice principal came to watch the students.
            Teachers for other subjects are filling vacancies during their prep periods, even if they have no background in the subject.
“It’s a dire situation,” says Desiree Carver-Thomas, researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a national non-profit with headquarters in Palo Alto, which provides independent research to improve education. “Even before the pandemic, there was a shortage of teachers, and now it’s worse.”
The Learning Policy Institute conducted a study of 12 school districts in August and September 2021 and found that the hardest to fill subjects are math, science and special education. Reasons for vacancies included increases in teacher retirements and resignations, along with a limited supply of candidates and a demand for more teaching positions, according to the study.
“In general, fewer people have been going into teaching careers. Then there was the pandemic, and there were more retirements and resignations,” Carver-Thomas says.
Once students returned to in-person learning, districts received federal recovery funds to help struggling students, creating more teaching positions which just lead to more vacancies, she explains.
STEM Majors Avoid Teaching
Math and science teaching positions have always been more difficult to fill, and the pandemic only made it more challenging, Carver-Thomas says. “People studying math and science have more career options that are more lucrative than teaching.”
Kristen Ashford is one of the few math experts who opted for a teaching career. Currently a math teacher at the Jefferson Union High School district in Daly City, Ashford enjoys teaching math to 10th- through 12th – graders, but understands why some choose other professions.
“There were a lot of stresses this past year in particular,” she says. “In general, teachers don’t have enough time to prepare (for lessons) and to collaborate with peers. They can spend 16 hours a day dealing with everything. The hours can really accumulate.”
While she loves teaching, at one point she did consider pursuing another career because of the stress. She took off two years from teaching and worked at a county social services office.
“I missed teaching. I missed the creativity. I missed the students,” Ashford says. She especially enjoys building relationships with students who are at a point in their lives when they are finding themselves.
But Ashford is a rarity. When she was studying math in college, her peers had little or no interest in teaching. What also concerns Ashford is the number of students choosing not to major in STEM subjects. She calls it “alarming.” With unprepared teachers in STEM classes, this trend may continue, she concludes.
Drawing More STEM Educators
Changing how math and science are taught in school may help increase the number of students majoring in STEM and possibly bring more teachers to these subjects, Ashford suggests. High schools need to get caught up with more innovative teaching practices.
For example, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) make science accessible and useful to students.
“Ideally, as teachers use this (NGSS), more students can get pulled into being interested in science and seeing the connections to their lives and across topics – not just ‘I’m in third period chemistry,’” Ashford says. “Also, CTE pathways like engineering, technical engineering and computer science may spark students’ interests to pursue these degrees. It often feels like once students love learning STEM, we have a chance of getting more folks involved in STEM fields, and teaching STEM.”
School districts are trying a variety of ways to draw in qualified teachers.
In the Bay Area, the cost of housing makes it difficult for teachers to stay in the area. Some districts, like Jefferson Union, are building affordable housing on their property specifically for teachers. The district has nearly completed 182 units for educators at 50% below market rate, says Daina Lujan, Jefferson’s director of human resources. Housing is scheduled to open by May.
Over the years, the district has had difficulty filling vacancies for science and math teachers. This school year, it’s been challenging to find substitutes. As a temporary fix, Jefferson Union turned to teachers from abroad. It’s worked out well, Lujan says. Through the organization Alliance Abroad, the district fills some open positions with teachers from the Philippines who live with host families.
“We have a large Pacific Islander population in our district, and it works out for students to have teachers that look like them,” Lujan says.
The Budget Problem
At nearby San Francisco Unified School District, the teacher shortage has been compounded by a $125 million budget deficit. While there’s a shortage of teachers for specific subjects, positions for other subjects have to be cut, says Kristin Bijur, SFUSD’s chief of human resources. Positions hardest to fill include math, science, special education, bilingual Spanish and physical education, she says.
“The pandemic has been hard on educators and schools,” Bijur says. “Many teachers have to teach their own classes plus cover for colleagues who are out sick or taking care of sick family members. Many students returned to school in person having struggled socio-economically and academically during distance learning. These circumstances come on top of the high cost of housing in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area and the rate of pay for teachers relative to other industries and fields of work.”
In the short term, SFUSD has increased the pay rate for substitutes and moved some of its teachers on special assignments to vacant positions.
For long-term solutions, district officials hope that several teacher training programs bring more educators. In its Pathway to Teaching Program, participants work as full-time teachers while earning their credential.
There is also a teacher residency program. Participants spend a year learning from an experienced educator while taking graduate courses. They begin full-time teaching the following year.
The district’s Para to Teacher program trains classified staff to become teachers in high need subjects.
Training programs, better conditions and better compensation are all the right steps to attract qualified candidates, says Carver-Thomas of the Learning Policy Institute.
Unfortunately, many schools, out of desperation, hire unprepared teachers with substandard credentials, she says. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of substandard teaching credentials, permits and waivers tripled.
“It’s understandable that they are hiring people who are not prepared, but it really has a negative impact on students’ learning,” Carver-Thomas says. “It’s important to get teachers in comprehensive preparation programs.”


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