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.

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”