Sign up for Chalkbeat New York’s free daily newsletter to keep up with NYC’s public schools.
But the teaching force in the nation’s largest school system hasn’t emerged from the pandemic unscathed.
Last year, New York City public schools saw a higher rate of teacher attrition than any time in the last decade, and the pool of educators shrunk by roughly 2,000, mirroring the yearslong decline in student enrollment, according to Education Department data.
Hiring for certain hard-to-fill positions also remains a big challenge, with bilingual educators and high school special education teachers near the top of the list of shortage areas.
Efforts to diversify the disproportionately white teaching force continue making slow progress, with recent classes of new teachers that are far more representative of the city’s student body than the teaching force as a whole, which was 55% white in 2022, according to city data. The student body is just 16% white.
City officials say the teaching workforce is still in a strong position for now, and that both hiring and attrition are trending in better directions than last year, though numbers aren’t finalized until October.
“We should be thankful that we are in a better position than a lot of districts, including some large urban districts,” said First Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg.
More help is also on the way. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that New York state is investing $30 million in a teacher residency program that subsidizes the cost of master’s degrees and certification requirements for new teachers. The state will also award funds to districts that come up with promising plans to diversify their teaching forces.
But there are big challenges on the horizon as the city struggles to continue hiring bilingual educators to keep pace with a historic influx of English language learners and prepares to comply with a new state class size law that could ultimately force the city to increase its teaching force by an estimated 9,000.
Here’s a look at how the disruptions of the past few years have reshaped New York City’s teaching force, and some of the changes that lie ahead:
The teacher workforce has shrunk
In the years prior to the pandemic, and even during its height, the city’s teaching force stayed at a relatively stable number, usually hovering between 78,000 and 79,000, according to Education Department data shared earlier this summer.
But that number dropped below 76,000 last fall – the biggest reduction in recent years.
That’s not altogether surprising: The city’s K-12 enrollment has fallen by more than 120,000 over the past five years. Schools that lost enrollment faced budget cuts last year after the city began phasing out federal pandemic relief funds. And the percentage of unfilled teaching positions in city schools remains low, under 2% citywide in the 2021-2022 school year, with the highest vacancy rates at the poorest schools.
But it’s worth understanding the forces behind the drop.
The reduction was due to an unusually high rate of teachers leaving between fall 2021 and 2022, and a comparatively small hiring class last fall.
More than 8% of the city’s teachers left the Education Department between fall 2021 and fall 2022, the highest rate of attrition in at least the past decade.
Much of that higher-than-usual attrition likely came from an exodus of teachers who refused to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school staff. But educators are also confronting mounting levels of burnout and stress.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew sounded the alarm this week, warning that New York City is not immune from the national teacher staffing challenges.
“For years, everybody said, ‘Well New York City would never deal with it.’ Well, we are,” Mulgrew said at a press conference Wednesday. “It was always, ‘People will come from all over the country to live in New York City and teach.’ Well, that’s no longer true, and this is a big problem.”
On top of the higher attrition, the Education Department hired fewer than 3,900 new teachers last fall – down from 4,500 in 2019. Officials have pointed to national trends including low percentages of teacher certification candidates completing their programs as part of the problem.
A spokesperson said the Education Department is anticipating 4,500 new teachers this year, but won’t have a final count on new hires or attrition until October.
Shortage areas persist
The overall numbers don’t tell the whole picture of teacher hiring in New York City.
Specific teaching roles have long been harder to fill – what education officials call “shortage areas.”
The number of candidates per open position fluctuates wildly depending on the specific teaching role. At one end, the position of early childhood educator got about 30 applicants for every hire last year. At the other, applications for the role of high school special education teacher fell hundreds short of the number of open positions.
Math and bilingual education are also among the areas for which the Education Department gets the fewest applicants per job.
The shortage areas can create staffing crunches for schools and even threaten to put schools out of compliance with laws governing staffing ratios for students with disabilities and English language learners.
The citywide teacher workforce numbers also mask significant differences between schools. In general, higher-poverty schools see more teachers leave every year and have more open positions at the start of each school year.
In the highest poverty schools, more than 1 in 6 who started at the school in fall 2021 had left by fall 2022, either to go to another New York City public school, or out of the system. In the wealthiest schools, by comparison, just 1 in 10 teachers left last year. The constant churn at high-poverty schools means less continuity for kids and higher proportions of inexperienced teachers at schools with the highest levels of need.
It also translates to more vacant positions at high-poverty schools when the year starts – forcing some schools to scramble to find substitutes or even ask teachers to cover courses outside of teaching license.
Challenges are on the horizon
Even as New York City seeks to regain some of its footing with teacher recruitment this year, there are big challenges ahead.
In the immediate term, an influx of roughly 21,000 asylum seeking students since last summer has increased the need for bilingual teachers, both in Spanish and other languages.
The Education Department made some small-scale efforts last year, including a program to bring in 25 teachers from the Dominican Republic that was soon mired in controversy. Currently, the city has roughly 1,700 bilingual teachers — and just half of the schools that enrolled asylum seekers last fall had a bilingual educator on staff, according to an analysis from the Independent Budget Office.
Schools Chancellor David Banks said in a press conference last week that the city has been in conversations with the teachers union and the state about ways to bring in more bilingual teachers, but he declined to share details.
Mulgrew said some teachers who speak multiple languages have certificates to work as bilingual teachers, but opt not to because the “state requires them to go back into a probationary status if they want to switch… we don’t feel that should be there any more.”
In the longer-term, city officials are already sounding the alarm about the teacher recruitment implications of the new state law capping class sizes across the city.
Education Department officials are estimating the law will eventually require the city to increase its teaching workforce by 9,000 members in order to shrink class sizes.
That means hiring significantly more teachers in the coming years, on top of the normal 4,000 to 5,000 the city has to hire every year to replace those who left. That’s sparked concerns among some experts that the quality of new teachers could fall, offsetting some of the educational benefits of the lower class sizes.
Education Department officials pointed to some homegrown efforts to expand the new teacher pipeline, including a program that allows paraprofessionals to get their teaching license, and vocational classes to help high school students prepare to become teachers.
But Weisberg said a big part of the pipeline problem is that “particularly in New York state, it’s really expensive to become a teacher.” A “big chunk” of would-be teachers can’t afford to get their credentials, he added.
The program Hochul announced Wednesday could help with that — and send additional teachers into the pipeline right as the city needs to up its hiring, Mulgrew argued. New York City was not among the first round of districts to receive the state grant money, but the city has an application in and expects to be approved, according to a union spokesperson.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.