Classrooms without teachers

In many large school districts, hundreds of teaching positions were unfilled as school year began

How many classrooms in America’s largest school districts are missing a teacher when the school year starts?

A small but significant number, according to new data obtained from those districts, though it varies widely. In Los Angeles and Houston, virtually all teaching jobs were filled. But in Chicago, nearly 6 percent of teaching jobs were vacant.

Districts used their own definitions for a “vacant” position, meaning the numbers may not be directly comparable. Still, they highlight how several big districts, by their own admission, are not able to fill teaching jobs by the time school starts. Research and experience suggests that students stand to suffer, particularly those in already struggling schools.

Districts with vacant teaching positions have less-than-ideal options. They can use short- or long-term substitutes; raise class sizes; or leave non-classroom positions like reading specialists unfilled.

Researchers and advocates say the problem can be addressed through a combination of short-term policies — like improving hiring policies that make it difficult to get into the classroom quickly — and long-term reforms, such as improving pay and working conditions to make teaching a more attractive job.

Matt Kraft, a Brown University professor who has studied how students are affected when their teacher who is hired late, summed it up: “It’s bad for kids,” he said.

In Chicago, budget questions lead to empty jobs

Chalkbeat requested the number of vacant or unfilled teaching positions at the beginning of the school year from the 15 largest school districts in the country, as well as how many teachers were employed. Their answers varied widely.

In Chicago, which was recently lauded as the urban district where students make the fastest improvements, there were nearly 1,300 teacher vacancies. As the district serves almost 400,000 students, this suggests that tens of thousands of students were affected.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said funding issues that left principals unsure of how much money they would have to hire teachers were at the root of the high vacancy rate.

“Last summer’s budgeting process was marked by an unprecedented level of uncertainty due to the state’s delay in funding education,” Emily Bolton said in a statement. School budgets would be released early this year, she said, giving principals more time to plan.

She said that if citywide social work and nursing positions — which are officially classified as teaching positions — were excluded, the vacancy rate would fall to 4.5 percent. Bolton also provided data showing that the number of open positions had been cut in half by the beginning of December.

Hawaii, which has one statewide district, reported 470 teaching vacancies to start the year.

“Filling teacher vacancies is one of the greatest challenges, as Hawaii shares the national trends of increasing teacher shortages and fewer numbers of individuals entering the profession,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Education.

Teacher vacancies in largest 15 school districts, 2017–18

District Teachers employed at start of school year Vacancies at start of school year Vacancy rate
New York City 77,000 900 1.16%
Los Angeles 24,166 12 0.05%
Chicago 20,413 1294 5.96%
Miami-Dade County (Florida) 20,005 147 0.73%
Clark County (Nevada) 18,541 413 2.18%
Fairfax County (Virginia) 15,526 97 0.62%
Hillsborough County (Florida) 15,401 258 1.65%
Broward County (Florida) 14,892 184 1.22%
Orange County (Florida) 13,650 79 0.58%
Hawaii 12,850 470 3.53%
Palm Beach County (Florida) 12,820 136 1.05%
Gwinnett County (Georgia) 12,150 0 0.00%
Houston 11,975 13 0.11%
Dallas 10,207 129 1.25%
Philadelphia 8,771 98 1.10%

Source: Public records requests from school districts. In the case of New York City, information came from a district spokesperson.

Vacancy rates may not be comparable.

Mireille Ellsworth, a high school teacher in Hawaii for over a decade, says she sees positions sit empty every year. It has a significant impact, especially when the vacant teachers would otherwise be assisting her students with disabilities.

“When I start the school year with a teacher that is not a [special education] teacher — just a substitute — that is really difficult,” she said. “They’re supposed to be helping with … adapting the lessons and the curriculum to the students’ unique needs.”

Including Chicago and Hawaii, nine of the 15 surveyed districts reported a vacancy rate of over 1 percent.

Should the numbers be a major concern for policymakers? On one hand, all 15 of districts reported that the vast majority of their teaching positions were filled. But in large districts, having even a small share of positions vacant means a substantial number of students going without a dedicated teacher.

“This is one where percentages are less important than the absolute number,” Dan Weisberg, the head of TNTP, a consulting group that has worked with districts to overhaul their hiring practices. “Getting close is not good enough — you need to fill every one of those vacancies.”

Some districts report doing so. Los Angeles, a district about the size of Chicago, said there were only 12 open positions at the start of the year. A district spokesperson credited recruitment practices, partnerships with local teacher preparation programs, and a program to award early contracts to certain candidates in hard-to-staff schools. The district has also touted its retention rate among novice teachers: 94 percent in the 2015–16 school year.

Kraft, the Brown professor, warned that the true number of vacancies may be higher than districts report, as some may manipulate definitions of “vacant” or have principals who attempt to hide vacancies to avoid having a teacher placed in their school.

“I think you can take [these numbers] as a lower bound,” Kraft said.

How it plays out inside classrooms

Classrooms without full-time assigned teachers aren’t just a logistical problem for schools. Those vacancies also mean students learn less.

That’s according to peer-reviewed research from Kraft, along with Brown’s John Papay. They found that students taught by late-hire teachers had slightly lower math and reading scores on year-end exams.

The study suggests that the harmful effects come not just because students get off to a slow start when a teacher is hired late, but because late-hired teachers are less effective than others. This highlights a potential hidden cost to schools that hire late: top teachers have already been snapped up.

Poor students, students of color, and students who attend struggling schools are more likely to bear those costs.

An analysis by the Chicago Teachers Union found that vacancies in the city were concentrated on schools on the south and west side, which serve more students of color and those in poverty. And Kraft’s research on an anonymous urban district in the South found that schools with more vacancies tended to serve more low-income students. “In some ways, your averages mask the real story,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kraft points to some ways to avoid late hiring: creating a streamlined hiring process, ensuring principals realize the detrimental effects of late hiring, and setting school budgets as early as possible.

Those budget timelines can be critical, because some districts have had to issue layoff notices only to scramble to rehire teachers later. Research shows that this causes teachers to leave their schools, even if their positions are not ultimately eliminated.

Sarah Rothschild, an analyst for the Chicago Teacher Union, said this has been a problem.  Pointing to budget issues, Chicago Public Schools regularly lays off teachers in the summer and then rehires for the same position months later, “at which point those people left for the suburbs or other jobs,” Rothschild said.

Offering bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, like those in special education and in high-poverty schools, could also help. Recent research has found that this approach is an effective way to retain teachers, and fewer teachers leaving means the district needs to make fewer hires.

More fundamentally, improving teacher salaries and working conditions is likely to attract new teachers and get others to stay. “That’s a big, long-term solution — not a quick fix,” said Kraft.

Corey Rosenlee, the head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, emphasized pay, arguing that the state needs to spend more on schools.

“It’s not going to encourage people to go into the profession if they feel they can’t make a living off of it,” he said.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”