Teacher Shortages: Public Education in Crisis

Teacher Shortages: Public Education in Crisis

by Joe Navarro and Mark Prudowsky. Posted July 3, 2022.

The following two pieces focus on a teacher shortage affecting all levels of California education.  In the first article, Joe Navarro, a retired elementary school teacher, shows how a teacher shortage made worse by the recent pandemic, has its roots in federal policies begun by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s.

Those policies created an environment which discouraged teachers from staying in the profession and shortchanged students by narrowing the scope of their educational experiences.

The second piece by Mark Prudowsky, examines how recent changes to the funding of community colleges have led to a crisis in the two vocational training programs he has been involved with in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Let’s Face It, We Have a Teacher Shortage Crisis

By Joe Navarro

In California schools we are facing a teacher shortage crisis. School districts have not been providing sufficient protection for teachers, other school staff and students against Covid-19, causing many to get infected and forcing them to stay out of school. Additionally, there aren’t enough qualified substitute teachers who can fill in when needed.

Staffing shortages have caused school districts to devise alternative plans where unqualified and underqualified people are sent into classrooms, drawn from a limited pool of substitute teachers or school district office personnel. Consequently, students often have to fend for themselves. Recent news reports have included interviews of students explaining that the adults sent in to substitute teach often don’t know the subject matter and request help from students to teach the lessons or request that students work on their own.

Classroom of teenage students during class.

Infection rates continually climb, causing some schools to temporarily return to remote distance learning. In California, as I imagine in other states, people have grown frustrated with state officials who initially take action like mandated mask wearing, getting tested and getting the vaccine, then buckle under pressure of anti-masking, anti-vaccine conservatives and businesses to stop the mandates, leading to major setbacks in battling Covid-19.

The teacher shortage problem is not a recent phenomenon that only began with Covid-19. There is a historical trend that has caused teachers to leave the profession early, long before Covid-19 appeared, which is not being addressed in the media or by state and federal government officials.

Teachers have been feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and blamed for all the failures of policies and practices that federal and state politicians have imposed on local schools. Since 2001 there has been a consistent move toward focusing on rote memorization, drill-and-skill instruction, high-stakes standardized testing, punishing students, teachers and schools, and jeopardizing public schools by replacing them with (often privatized) charter schools and gifting parents with stipends to send their kids to private schools. An all-out attack on public education was unleashed and embraced by states because test scores were tied to funding.

This goes back to 1983 with the publication of the apocalyptic report on education entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Initiated by President Reagan through the Commission on Educational Excellence, the report basically described the US education system as a disaster. It proposed fixing that system by returning to focusing on teaching the basics (meaning no creativity or multicultural subjects) and emphasizing rote memorization and drill-and-skill instruction (which generally results in students storing information in short-term memory, not long-term memory).

This strategy was embraced and promoted by Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Eventually, President GW Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That effort was continued as the Race to the Top (RTT) initiative pursued by President Barack Obama. This is the trajectory of education reform that has disillusioned many educators.

As a teacher I witnessed many of my colleagues lose confidence in the education system. Many felt that they were being blamed for conditions that were out of their control, such as which students had or lacked access to learning resources at home. Many teachers were forced to teach and test non-English speaking students solely in English even though the students didn’t understand the materials. Because of the NCLB formula for testing required that states raise the bar for passing the tests, teachers were forced to test often and teach test preparation techniques. In my first-grade class I was required to make the students take 22 tests one year. First grade students! I complained about the insanity of this to the district’s curriculum director, who in turn called my principal to complain about me. Teachers often asked out of frustration, “When will we have time to teach?”

Drill-and-skill instruction meant using an officially adopted textbook series which included the state adopted assessment skills and a school-year calendar of daily scripted lessons. Publishing corporations lobbied states to make their textbook programs the official and only textbooks to use in classrooms. Billions of dollars were made. One textbook representative announced that an administrator should be able to visit each classroom in a grade level on the same day and find that all teachers were on the same page. We were no longer expected to deliver child-centered instruction. Instead it became corporate-centered instruction…a boon for capitalists.

We followed the curriculum. It failed to help students learn. Students were blamed, especially Black, Brown, and Native students. Teachers were blamed. Parents were blamed. Principals were replaced with tougher principals.

In the end, the failing students were generally Black, Brown, low-income and immigrant students. Creativity in the classroom was disallowed. Non-English language textbooks were removed from classrooms. We were not allowed to use our classroom funds to purchase things like successful math programs (even though we demonstrated that they improved students’ growth in math) because they were not part of the officially adopted textbooks. Students demonstrated growth in academic areas throughout the year, but they were labeled as non-proficient because they didn’t meet the ever-rising test results bar. Once again, the response was to focus and limit the education of Black, Brown, and Native students to the failed curriculum involving rote memorization and drill-n-skill instruction.

Teachers had to attend endless meetings about improving test scores and the latest gimmicks to improve scores. One of the worst examples was a district in-service training to meet with an author who created a book of stickers that identified each of the curriculum standards to paste in lesson plans.

On top of this state officials were trying to think of ways to save on education costs. California has a two-tier funding policy: one for affluent school districts that are basically self-sufficient and well-funded; and, one for low-income districts that rely on state funding and Title I funds (for low-income students) from the federal government. The funding is tied to enrollment and test results. Each district doesn’t know from year to year how much they will receive. The Federal and State governments also withhold a portion of the funding, which local education agencies never received. Consequently, many districts are on the verge of being taken over by a state trustee or making drastic cuts in the education programs. Reading, writing and math are sacred. Everything else is on the chopping block: anything seen as supplemental such as art, music, libraries, special programs; measures to avoid identifying students who have special needs and disabilities; and salaries and benefits.

After a few years of this, many veteran teachers felt unappreciated and scapegoated for failing educational policies and practices. It was reported in the news media that 50% of all new teachers quit teaching within five years. Veteran teachers took early retirement options, including me. Forcing veteran teachers to retire was seen as a way of cutting costs since older teachers earned more money. But that put into classrooms less experienced teachers in the classroom for years to come. And fewer people were interested in becoming teachers. This continues to this day. Whether the reform is labeled No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or Common Core, it’s the same thing. Republicans and Democrats have both failed.

The response to Covid-19 by federal, state and local agencies has become another layer in the convoluted and complex problems that plague the US education system. In order to repair this education system, we need to build universal support for public education. Next access to educational resources has to be made equitable. Schools must provide supportive learning environments free of racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic policies and practices. Schools must also replace drill-and-skill rote memorization strategies with the teaching of critical and analytical skills so that children can grow up to be social problem solvers. Finally, schools should be made into a safe learning environments free of exposure to harmful illnesses and diseases.


Author’s Bio: Joe Navarro is a retired elementary school bilingual/bicultural classroom teacher. In retirement he has worked as a substitute teacher in many K-12 classrooms, including at the California School for the Blind. He has also taught adult education classes for English language learners and citizenship classes, as well as adult GED preparation classes in the community and for incarcerated adult inmates.

Mr. Say and Mr. Do: California Community College Cuts Harming Students

By Mark Prudowsky

Once a week, I ride the East Bay BART north. As it leaves Fruitvale station, to the east is the old Sunshine Biscuits plant, shuttered thirty years ago. In its present incarnation as a storage facility, pickups and U-Haul 16-footers belly up to docks once stacked with Keebler cookies when the plant employed hundreds of Oakland residents. Just north of Sunshine Biscuits, a Dollar Tree, and then the helter skelter of a junk yard’s trucks and cars. Alongside a fence fronting 12th Street sits a block-long row of plastic and nylon sheeted shelters and thirteen bunged-up motor homes whose owners lack the intent or means to move them.

The station after Fruitvale, Lake Merritt, is where I exit the train. A few hundred paces south is Laney College where I teach commercial wiring and the National Electrical Code as a part time instructor. Many of my students are the first in their families to attend college in a state with a string of annual budget surpluses in the billions of dollars―the recent 2021-22 surplus was $75 billion. Both the college and the 12th Street area near Sunshine Biscuits coexist with neighborhoods where median home values exceed a million dollars. Both sites are mere miles away from the tech center of Silicon Valley where the combined wealth of the tech giants is measured in the trillions. These power and wealth dynamics come at the expense of students like those at Laney who stubbornly cling to a hope that their children and grandchildren can have a better shot, more opportunities, than they or than that of the folks encamped by the Sunshine Biscuits facility.

Laney College athletic fields in foreground, classrooms to left, and Lake Merritt in the background. Photo from Laney College website.

Amidst this wealth, Laney College’s electrician training program crams 40 students into classes with one instructor. Both of the classes I teach use Zoom for the lectures. This platform, necessary during the pandemic, has serious limitations, primarily with regards to lively engagement. Because it cuts overhead, all indications are that Laney and other community colleges intend to maintain Zoom. This will not benefit the students.

The hands-on, in-person component of the commercial wiring class I divide into two sections, meeting alternate weeks. This means the students are only receiving half of the hands-on experience written into the curriculum. Why? The physical space won’t accommodate that many students and the absurd 40:1 ratio limits meaningful engagement as well as any notion of safety in the presence of power and sharp-edged hand tools and gear energized by 208 volts.

In 1967, California’s 1960 Educational Master Plan was amended to place community colleges as an entry point for any high school graduate. The plan allowed a student to attain an Associate of Arts degree in preparation for a four-year state college or university. The plan also offered classes to train students in both the theory and practice of a vocational skill. Under this system, generations of working-class students took advantage of the low-cost of community college. Communities of color have relied on this system in their struggles to create better access to jobs, housing and health care and to attain  a better future for future generations. According to the Chancellor’s office of the California Community Colleges, in the academic year, 2021-22, of the 1.8 million students enrolled in California’s community college system, 69% come from “diverse ethnic backgrounds.” At Laney and City College of San Francisco, 80% of students I interact with come from communities of color. Recent funding cuts, erosion of government support, and increased roles for private sector foundations and lobbyists are doing great damage. The community college governance is broken.

In 2018, the Chancellor’s office under the administration of then Governor Jerry Brown, ushered in the Student Centered Funding Formula. Its purported goals were admirable. Chief among them: close the achievement gap between white students and students of color and increase equity.

In practice, this change prioritized the earning of degrees over pragmatic acquisition of skills, shutting out many of the part-time students struggling to make a living as they learned. Whereas previously a community college was reimbursed for each butt in a seat, the new formula privileges completion above any other goal.

Associated Students of Laney College, 2017 Facebook post.

Before the reform, I taught in the construction program of City College of San Francisco. Most of my students took one or two courses, got a certificate of completion and had their wages bumped up a dollar or two an hour or got a promotion or both.

Most students are not prepared to quit their jobs, lose income, seniority, and benefits in order to enroll full time to attain an Associate of Arts degree, incurring student loans in the process. Students’ reluctance to play along with the dictates of the new funding formula means classes for full and part-time students are being cut and schools like City College and Laney have lost whole chunks of their former budgets. Two years ago, City College’s construction department had five full time instructors, three part time instructors, and a wide array of classes. Today there are just two full time instructors. Only a handful of classes remain.

Is this new funding formula achieving its goals? I recall an old friend’s quip: Ain’t about Mr. Say. It’s about Mr. Do. Because of budget shortfalls and the resulting lack of instructors, students in the electrical program at Laney now must wait as many as two years to take classes required as part of the licensing program they are enrolled in.

Recently, my students asked to meet with the administration when they learned the chair of the department was retiring at the end of the summer. Due to the lack of instructors, she has been teaching seven classes a semester during the pandemic, each with more than 40 students. When my students asked if a replacement had been hired, they were told no. When they asked if the administration could promise to hire someone, administrators said they could not make that promise. After the meeting, one of the students remarked: “At least they were honest.”

Budget shortfalls are occurring throughout California. Combined with the pandemic, the result has been a decline in enrolment in most schools and departments. Yet, enrollment in skilled trade programs like the one I teach in is up nearly 20%.

Currently, demand for workers with the kind of training we provide our students is higher than it has been in my lifetime. Several factors are at play: workers in these trades who are my age are retired or are about to do so. Meanwhile, California has enacted ambitious renewable energy goals that will require a large cohort of trained technicians to achieve. The trade unions with their better funded apprenticeship programs will only fill a portion of this demand. They have largely abandoned the residential sector and therein lies the greatest opportunity for my students, provided the program they are enrolled in does not further unravel.

I’m a retired contractor. For more than 30 years, I dealt with inspectors, engineers and other contractors. I chased after scofflaw clients, filing liens and winning settlements in courtrooms. I trained more than a score of women and men who worked under my supervision. I attended professional development classes every year to maintain my license in good standing. I wrote proposals, sweating the labor and material costs of solar arrays, restaurant kitchen rough-ins and trims and hundreds of residences. I did payroll, paid workman’s comp and liability insurance, posted surety bonds. Those experiences are typical of many who work in the field. Whether or not they have a sheepskin, I would argue they have at least the equivalent of a masters. When asked why the administration is not hiring more instructors, it points to a minimum requirement of an Associates’ degree to teach. As a consequence, departments hire academically trained engineers, many of whom have forgotten more about electrical theory than I’ll ever learn. However, they lack the type of hands-on experience students need to master the trade. The training program needs both the academically trained AND those with hands-on experience.

Laney’s administration will claim that even if someone with hands-on expertise had a degree, they would not suffer a 50% reduction in wages or salary to teach full time. Likely true. However, there are tradespeople willing to teach an evening class to supplement their income. Some want to give back and enjoy the give and take of a classroom. The pool of hands-on field trained candidates grows larger when you consider those who have retired.

Some years ago, the academic senate of Los Rios district in the Sacramento area, after meeting with the skilled trades departments, agreed to recognize that someone who left high school and pursued a career in the skilled trades for ten, fifteen, twenty years and more, clearly met the minimum requirements.

Proficiency in the field―wiring circuits, bending pipe, troubleshooting a motor’s worn bearing or a fault current in the windings―does not mean that person knows how to reach students. One must know how to create curricula, adjust a lesson plan that is not working, know how and when to reach out to a student who is struggling, sometimes with issues having nothing to do with schoolwork. Just as important, an instructor must be sensitive to diverse cultures, gender issues, and socioeconomic backgrounds. An instructor, because of the war on drugs, might have students of color who were incarcerated for possession while white users partied unworried about consequences.

The demand for the jobs we are training students for will remain strong. Unless something is done to address the decline of the programs that train students, the situation, already desperate, will worsen. What is the way forward?

A few years ago, recognizing the severe shortage of mechanical contractors who install equipment to condition the air in homes and commercial buildings, a coalition of contractors, suppliers and community colleges got an initiative on the ballot to develop more training programs in the community colleges. It passed. A similar initiative to incentivize the training of more electrical and mechanical instructors with hands-on field experience, coupled with training these instructors how to teach in a classroom setting would help. This cannot happen while the present funding formula is in place and if the state government cedes more and more power to the foundations and lobbyists who are about the business of shrinking and starving the colleges.

The chancellor’s office can claim it wants to close achievement gaps and increase equity. It can claim it wants to train students for the new technologies. Or,it can force community colleges to offer fewer classes with bloated, unsafe, unproductive, instructor/student ratios while it shuts down English as a Second Language classes and other supplemental programs which have proven successful for years. It can’t do both however―Mr. Say. Mr. Do.

Foundations like Lumina and Gates have an increased presence in the education sector, not confining their initiatives to community colleges. Is it cause or coincidence that the shrinking of community colleges and the shrinking of government funding are happening at the same time that Lumina and other foundations and their lobbyists are playing larger roles? Lumina in particular has been very active in recent years in California. Are the residents of California prepared to put the future of the state’s educational system in the hands of groups who have shepherded through the recent funding formulas and the resulting destruction of programs and opportunities for students, nearly 70% from communities of color?

Students at Laney College. Photo from Laney College website.

What has to occur to provide the opportunities for students at Laney and throughout California? A return to a robust system of community colleges will require students and their allies―their parents, teachers, those administrators who know these changes do not serve students―to put forward a different vision. What are some immediate tasks to be done? People skilled in research can scrutinize the motives of those behind changes that are destroying the traditional role of community colleges. Students and their allies can craft an alternative strategy to unite people around.

The various teachers’ unions are exhausted from waging the war of attrition at the many campuses throughout the state. They too, in alliance with students, must play the long game. At the state level, the unions have to hire people to develop a strategy to restore funding and ensure that community colleges can once again be vital parts of California’s public education economy. This strategy can succeed if a broad coalition comes together to put the needs of students and their communities first.

In the 1980s, then Governor Pete Wilson ended tuition free community college education and attacked affirmative action, women’s studies, Black, Latino and Asian studies. 7000 students and their supporters marched in the streets of Sacramento and were partially successful in defending these hard-won programs. This effort was only possible because of the existence of robust student organizations throughout the state leading a broad coalition.

I look at the recent changes to community colleges in the context of the past 40 years when the super-rich accumulated more and more of the marbles. They have stacked the courts and gerrymandered representational districts. Today, a minority of the country dictates who can vote, who gets a quality education and who goes to jail.

Is a different set of changes possible? A few years ago, two members of the Golden State Warriors dynasty that made the NBA finals five consecutive years and eventually won three titles, engaged in a verbal clash during a timeout on the bench. In the following days, sports press and fans fretted over the damage to team chemistry. Andre Iguodola, a talented and wise teammate of the two tweeted: “You can’t climb a mountain if it’s smoooooove.” This expedition team led by students and their allies in education will have to unite civic, business, and religious leaders and their circles to scale the mountain. When we judge the success in reaching the peak, delivering the resources to educate our future tradespeople, it will be based not on what the powers that be say, but what we force them to do.


Author’s Bio: Mark Prudowsky spent 30 years as an electrical contractor, first in Chicago and later in North Carolina before retiring in 2014.  When not teaching part time at Laney, he harvests a wide variety of fruits, veggies and greens from his cottage garden.

1 thought on “Teacher Shortages: Public Education in Crisis”

  1. Susanna Kerstholt-Molloy

    Thank you both Joe and Mark for these articles. I am a retired teacher of 18 years in San Bruno. Although I am retired, I have been subbing in our district and have just been offered a part time Reading Specialist position at the school where our four children attended. Joe, I appreciate you putting together this article that accurately describes what is happening in the classrooms. I retired mainly because of the lack of support in a room full of nearly 30 students with many needs that are exhausting to say the least. There is so much more we can do for our students, but school districts are more interested in buying new curriculum and spending much needed resources on what is new and flashy. Our students need human beings to connect with and help them to navigate this ever complex world we live in.
    Mark, one of our son’s has just completed an apprenticeship program with the Electrical Union and is now a full journeyman. We are so very proud of him. Although he entered school with needing speech services, which led to reading difficulties, he has worked extremely hard to master becoming an electrician. I am so very thankful to the Special Ed teachers he has had throughout his schooling who helped him to accentuate his strengths. They are like family to us.
    We have witnessed over the years the dismantling of hands on wood shop and car mechanic classes at the High School level. I think this is part of the breakdown in opportunities for working class and students who are not seeking a four year college degree to be cut off from careers that could give them a livable wage.
    I look forward to reading more articles that help to shed light on what is happening to our young people in education.
    Thank you again, Susanna

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