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What Happens When Young People Don’t Want to Be Teachers?

Why would young people today want to become teachers? Or perhaps more importantly, why wouldn’t they?

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We all recognize teaching as an opportunity to change lives and remember the teachers who made a difference for us. But weigh that intrinsic satisfaction against low wages, little public respect and an ever-growing workload, and the minuses often win out. And now that a rebounding economy offers more professional options, our country faces a serious challenge to educating the next generation.

New analyses by Education Week and the ACT, presented at an Education Writers Association conference panel on April 20, detail the troubling state of affairs.

By the numbers

Stephen Sawchuk, an Education Week associate editor who moderated the event, analyzed enrollment in teacher preparation programs. He found declines in the key states of New York, Texas and California, where the number of teaching candidates went from 44,692 in 2009 to 26,231 in 2012. This comes amid imminent Baby Boomer retirements that will create more teaching vacancies and new state policies that make it harder to enter teaching in the name of raising standards.

There’s also a mismatch in what types of teachers are prepared and what school districts need: Colleges of education prepare far too many elementary teachers, and not nearly enough candidates for special education and high school math and science. And far too few want to teach in high-poverty schools, where the work is more demanding.

ACT vice president Steve Kappler presented these grim findings that corroborate the Education Week conclusions:

  • Fewer students are interested in teaching. Only 5 percent of the 1.85 million U.S. high school graduates who took the ACT in 2014 said they intended to pursue a career as an educator. That’s down from 7 percent in 2010.
  • Teaching is failing to attract top talent. Students interested in education have below-average achievement on the ACT, particularly in math and science.
  • Prospective educators don’t reflect the diversity of American classrooms. Nearly 75 percent of those interested in teaching — and almost 95 percent of those interested in early childhood and elementary education — are female, and 71 percent are white.

Diversity challenges

La Vonne Neal, dean of the college of education at Northern Illinois University, pointed out that the pool of teaching candidates is automatically limited by the fact that only 52 percent of black males and 58 percent of Hispanic males are graduating high school at all. (She cited data by the Schott Foundation for Public Education.)

Neal, who recently co-authored a book with recommendations to diversify the teaching workforce, noted the origin of the national teacher shortage: In the decade after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation order in 1954, approximately 38,000 black teachers and administrators lost their jobs because of racism. (White parents didn’t want their kids to have black teachers.) Teaching was once one of the few professional options for African-Americans, and for all the resources that segregated schools lacked, they often had excellent instructors.

Money matters

Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, noted that the United States pays its teachers only 60 percent of what other college-educated workers earn. Her organization found that in many states, teachers who are the main breadwinners in their families earn so little they qualify for public assistance.

While compensation is a “huge” factor in determining career choice, Brown said, schools also need to be attractive places to work. Often they are not. Teachers come out of preparation programs that sometimes let almost anyone in the door. They get very little useful feedback on their instruction, and they have “virtually no opportunity to distinguish themselves for excellence” through pay increases or promotions.

“It’s not the kind of job that, frankly, many millennials or high-achieving young people see themselves going into for their career,” Brown said. She sees a big opportunity for schools to restructure themselves and work better with their neighboring colleges of education to prepare the right candidates well. This is local business, after all: She noted that 61 percent of teachers get jobs within 15 miles of their hometowns.

If attracting teachers is an escalating problem, retaining them is another.

Robert Floden, an associate dean of education at Michigan State University, gave perhaps the most disturbing statistic of the day. What’s the most common number of years of experience among American teachers? One.

“It’s a very real change in the demography of the occupation,” Floden said. “There are a lot more people with very little experience.”

For the future of the country, the implications of that change are staggering.