SFUSD Tackles the Teacher Shortage

Originally published at www.thebaycitybeacon.com.

San Francisco’s new Superintendent faces the public school district’s most daunting challenge: not enough teachers.

Last month, when we looked at the prime concerns that would be facing the San Francisco Unified School District’s new superintendent, the District’s ongoing teacher shortage was at the top of the list. Now the District has a new leader: Dr. Vincent Matthews, himself an alumnus of San Francisco’s school system. The burden of finding — and keeping — those new teachers now falls upon him.

In addition to our acute housing cost situation, San Francisco faces many of the same obstacles to teacher retention as the rest of the country: high burnout rate stemming from a lack of practical preparation for the job, poor classroom conditions, and frozen wages. Meanwhile, the new administration in Washington isn’t helping.

On the bright side, other government bodies are pitching in to help. Both the City and County and the State are doing what they can to fast-track affordable teacher housing. That still leaves the district and Dr. Matthews with the monumental tasks of incentivizing people to become teachers in the first place, and to stay in the classroom, particularly in the neediest schools.

The District has tried some strategies including signing bonuses as well as new programs to encourage college graduates to become teachers, funded from both inside and outside the district. Other strategies have attracted controversy. Last year, a move to hire teachers for urgently needed positions from Teach for America, a nonprofit with connections to the charter school movement, encountered stiff resistance from United Educators of San Francisco, the union which represents the majority of district employees.

The newest initiative looks to continue the outside-the-box approach. Last month, the District announced a partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development to expand the college’s Embedded Master of Arts in Teaching program. 15 graduate students from the program, which combines a working residency with distance online learning, will be placed in the District’s highest-need middle schools, in the southeast part of the City, starting in July.

During the 2016–17 academic year, its first, NYU’s EMAT embedded its students with Great Oaks and Brooklyn Prospect Charter Schools in New York City. This year, it expands to four public school districts across the country in addition to San Francisco’s.

Like the District’s work with Teach for America, EMAT faces some institutional skepticism, largely due to its connection with charter schools. In addition to its work with Great Oaks and Prospect during its pilot year, the program’s distance learning component relies on infrastructure provided by HotChalk, where Jeanne Allen, a founder of the Center for Education Reform, served as senior adviser for two years.

In a recent Examiner article, UESF Vice President Susan Solomon speculated that the program could lead to even worse teacher turnover. That said, the union has already been in partnership since 2010 with the District, AmeriCorps, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford University on another teacher residency program. That program has trained 150 teachers in the last seven years. Meanwhile, the District has well over 200 positions to fill next year.

Vested interests and ideological differences, on both national and local levels, make the teacher shortage a thorny political issue and not just a practical matter. The scale of the problem is bigger that any one camp can solve, and that means that San Francisco’s schools will continue to reach out for more partners.