Recruitment & Retention

Fewer High School Students Show Interest in Teaching, Study Says

By Ross Brenneman — April 21, 2015 4 min read
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Bad news continues to roll in for those watching the flow of people into the teaching pipeline: A new report released today by ACT Inc. says that interest in teaching among young persons continues to shrink.

“The nation must fill the pipeline to alleviate the expected shortfall in the number of available teachers,” the authors write. “Our inability to do so will force educational systems to think differently about how we deliver education—which might, in turn, have a negative impact on student success.”

The study asked students taking the 2014 ACT college entrance exam to identify future career interests. Some 57 percent of the graduating high school students in the United States took that test. The survey, combined with test results for those taking it, led to four findings:

1. Students are less interested in becoming teachers than they were in 2010. In 2010, seven percent of test-takers expressed interest in education majors. In 2014, that number dropped to five percent. The report initially frames this drop in terms of percentage (16 percent), but even the less-dramatic interpretation is firmly negative:

But digging into the report shows where the drop comes from, as the overall group is divided into sub-groups based on education interests. There are actually comparable gains among test-takers interested in becoming school administrative and support staff, for instance, which includes roles like principals and counselors, as well as those interested in being student-population specific educators (elementary, high school, etc.). Here are the administrative/support staff numbers, for instance:

The big drops come in those interested in education majors generally, and in subject-specific teaching.

2. Students who are interested in an education major have lower-than-average achievement levels on the ACT. In short, fewer students want to become educators, and those who do aren’t the highest-achieving, the report says. The report doesn’t point out that teaching involves more than subject-area mastery, although of course a math teacher should know math.

3. Male students aren’t interested in being educators. Young men are really uninterested in becoming early-childhood educators:

Almost three-quarters of the ACT-tested graduates interested in an education career are female. This number rises to nearly 95% among students interested in early childhood and elementary education.

Something to note: Women tested better in English, reading, and math, and only scored a tick lower in science.

4. There is a lack of diversity among students interested in education. For whatever criticisms can be made of the ACT study, this point falls in line with many other studies and anecdote: The teaching profession is very white. In this study, 71 percent of those interested in being future educators were also white.

And despite being the highest-achieving students in some subject areas, the survey shows that Asian students have almost no interest in being educators, echoing previous studies:

There are some caveats to the data. Many states had low ACT participation; among coastal states, only Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina had a majority of students take the test. Students selected their future majors during registration, and the form offered a list of more than a couple hundred majors. Maybe that’s a lot of choices for some teenagers. A spokesman for ACT Inc. said that of 2014 test-takers, 14 percent selected “undecided” and seven percent gave no response to the question.

The study makes three general recommendations on improving the teacher pipeline:

  1. Recruit more high-achieving college students uncommitted to other careers.
  2. Promote alternative pathways to teaching.
  3. Improve educator benefits to attract and retain more teachers.

The study’s proposed solutions focus on expanding the pool of interested students more than addressing why the current pool is so reluctant to embrace teaching. This is not the first study or report to offer such suggestions to the rising threat of teacher shortages. But as some observers have stated, the teacher-recruitment problem is much likelier a teacher-retention problem. Adding financial benefits may help, but working conditions in schools matter, too.

Another point: This is a survey of high school students before they’ve even taken a key college-entrance exam. Students change a lot in college, and the jobs they see themselves getting will change, too. (For instance: I am not yet a game-show host.) As an example, here’s another chart included in the report:

A plurality of students interested in education chose physical education and coaching as their preference. Students’ interests clearly do not reflect the reality of the teaching profession. There might be a shortage, yes, but that may be better reflected in data gathered from students who are actually in college.

And as the latest group of high school students graduates to college, maybe the education system can help create a profession more of those students will one day want to join.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.