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Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as Shortage of Consumer Sciences Teachers Hitting Home

Shortage of Consumer Sciences Teachers Hitting Home

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Joseph L. Lupo is running out of places to find teachers for his district's family and consumer sciences programs.

Four years ago, the Butler County Joint Vocational School District in Ohio was so short of qualified teachers that Mr. Lupo, the superintendent, phased out parenting programs for pregnant teenagers and reassigned those teachers, who were certified in home economics--the precursor to family and consumer sciences--to regular high school classrooms.

After he exhausted that solution, he begged several home economics teachers who had been out of the workforce for a while to accept positions. Two of them quit before the end of the school year.

Finally, this year, Mr. Lupo was forced to ask a high school to close its family and consumer sciences program because he couldn't find a teacher for it.

"I sure hope there's some relief in sight," Mr. Lupo said.

He isn't the only administrator who feels that way. School systems across the country are having trouble hiring teachers in general, and jobs in such subjects as mathematics and science are well-known for being hard to fill. But the shortage in family and consumer sciences, though severe, has received little attention. And the situation could easily get worse: Teachers are retiring from the field faster than young people are entering it.

One reason for the shortage is that family and consumer sciences suffers from an image problem.

While the field has shifted its focus to financial management, career planning, interpersonal communications, and other skills required for balancing family and work, many people still think of it as cooking and sewing.

Meanwhile, federal vocational education money targeted for family and consumer sciences dropped significantly in the 1990s, and universities have been closing down certification programs for the field because of low enrollment. In nine years, the number of family and consumer sciences teachers graduating from universities has dropped by nearly two-thirds, from 852 graduates in 1986-87 to 315 in 1995-96, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Family and consumer sciences looks less attractive to women now that fields such as medicine and engineering have opened up to them, said Valerie Chamberlin, a professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Vermont. She is the only family and consumer sciences education professor in her state and one of the few in New England.

"Society's view of the profession is outdated when the profession itself is not outdated," Ms. Chamberlin said.

National Standards

Several groups are trying to change that perception.

The National Association of State Supervisors of Family and Consumer Sciences, an affiliate of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Vocational Association, released national standards for family and consumer sciences in May.

The standards are intended to show how family and consumer sciences should be a rigorous curriculum that teaches young people how to coordinate family, work, and community responsibilities. The standards include broad skills, such as being able to "demonstrate management of financial resources," as well as more traditional home economics skills, such as knowing how to "produce, alter, or repair textile products and apparel" and plan menus.

"I think the content is far too important to be left to chance," says Judith A. Hetherly, the chairwoman of the National Coalition for Family and Consumer Sciences.

Ms. Hetherly, who is making a video to help promote the national standards, said that as schools close their programs, other teachers have to pick up pieces of the curriculum.

"They have no background. They maybe have had one three-hour course on nutrition, and they're the expert," she said.

Folding family and consumer sciences into other academic courses is actually the best way to make sure the subject matter is taught, countered Eleanor Dougherty, a senior associate for the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit organization working to raise student achievement.

She doesn't see family and consumer sciences programs as worth saving, given that schools have enough problems teaching students core academic subjects, such as mathematics, English, and history.

"We have to focus our energies on these core areas," Ms. Dougherty said.

'The Job for You!'

Some states have launched publicity campaigns to generate interest in family and consumer sciences.

This fall, Deb Halling, the head of family and consumer sciences education in South Dakota, and another state employee traveled to six regional meetings of school guidance counselors across the state.

"We told them to look at this career opportunity that's open to students," she said.

She also told them where young people can enroll to get a degree in the field--South Dakota has only one such university--and gave them brochures to pass along.

Ms. Halling said she knows of four small towns in South Dakota that have closed their family and consumer sciences programs because they could not find teachers.

"I realized that, 'Gee, we need to do something and one is to provide labor market information,'" she said.

In Kentucky, the University of Kentucky used federal and state vocational education money to print and distribute 200,000 posters to schools last year announcing the shortage of family and consumer sciences teachers and promoting the field. "Are you interested in health and wellness, financial fitness, clothes, interior design, children, and working with teenagers? Then here's the job for you!" the poster says.

The state education department is urging high school teachers to identify students interested in family and consumer sciences and then pass their names along to universities for recruitment.

Kentucky is strapped enough for family and consumer sciences teachers that a handful of them came out of retirement this year to fill vacancies. But those teachers can work for only 100 days a year, or they'll lose some of their retirement benefits.

No More Sewing

Many state efforts to increase the pool of family and consumer sciences teachers are too new to have had a measurable impact.

But Ohio, which experienced a shortage of such teachers earlier than many other states and also introduced remedies sooner, is starting to see enrollments in college programs in the field increase. While state programs have been graduating 35 or so family and consumer sciences teachers every year, there should be at least 65 teachers graduating this year, estimates Dee Allenspach, the state director of family and consumer sciences education programs.

Supply, however, still won't meet demand, she said. Starting next year, about 150 to 175 family and consumer sciences teachers in Ohio are expected to retire each year for the next 10 years.

Several years ago, the Ohio education department notified guidance counselors of the shortage. It also started a campaign in which it asked every family and consumer sciences classroom teacher to mentor one student each year to follow in his or her career footsteps.

Ohio students' interest in family and consumer science remains strong, a fact that Ms. Allenspach attributes to the curriculum, which the state updated five years ago.

When asked if the students are also taught to sew pillows or vests, as home economics students did 20 years ago, she said simply, "We have none of that."

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Page 7

Web Resources
  • Visit the Future Homemakers of America for information on both lesson planning and current legislation affecting family and consumer science teaching.
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