College & Workforce Readiness

Enrollment Is Down at Teacher Colleges. So They’re Trying to Change

By Madeline Will — August 09, 2018 6 min read
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Colleges of education are in a Catch-22: They’re needed more than ever to produce well-trained teachers as school districts struggle to fill certain positions. But fewer and fewer people are enrolling in their programs.

That’s one of the findings in a comprehensive report of the state of teacher preparation by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, released today for the organization’s 70th anniversary. The report examines the steps colleges of education have taken to revamp themselves in light of increasing challenges for the teaching profession.

Between the 2007-08 and 2015-16 academic years, there was a 23 percent decline in the number of people completing teacher-preparation programs. The largest decline—32 percent—has been at alternative programs (for people who already have a bachelor’s degree) that are housed in colleges or universities. But all types of programs have seen drops.

The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in education declined by 15 percent between 2005-06 and 2014-15. Across all other major fields, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred increased over that period.

There are a number of possible explanations for the decline of interest in teaching programs. According to a survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, as noted in the report, deans of colleges of education said the No. 1 reason for the enrollment drop was the perception of teaching as an undesirable career.

That perception is likely based on complaints about a lack of professional autonomy and low wages, the deans said. In a remarkable sign of discontent, teachers walked out of their classrooms in a half-dozen states this spring, frustrated with low pay, crumbling classrooms, and years of cuts to school funding.

Almost half of college graduates who become teachers leave the profession within a few years, the report notes.

To address these challenges, colleges of education are repositioning themselves, the report says.

First, they’re changing their curricula to better prepare candidates, most of whom are white, to teach a diverse student population. There is more of a focus on multicultural education, the report says, and more colleges are developing partnerships with school districts that serve low-income and minority students, so that teacher candidates can gain experience in those settings.

Renée Middleton, the dean of Ohio University’s college of education, said the school has developed a “community focus” when preparing its teachers. For example, the region is facing an opioid crisis, so the college is making sure teacher candidates are prepared to deal with the effects in the classroom. Candidates are also trained in trauma-informed instruction, she said.

“Teacher education is not an island unto itself,” Middleton said. “It takes all of us to deal with challenges.”

Teacher-prep programs are also beginning to shift away from standardized exams for candidates, and toward performance-based assessments—which evaluate multiple measures of teaching, including student teaching, the report says.

Critics of standardized exams have said they fail to measure effective teaching skills, and that nonwhite candidates tend to pass them at lower rates. The report notes that by 2019, at least 21 states will use performance assessments as an option or requirement for initial licensure.

Also, colleges are placing a stronger emphasis on student teaching and developing closer partnerships with school districts, the report says.

Too Many Elementary Teachers?

The report notes that there is a mismatch between the majors that students choose and the personnel needs of school districts.

While there isn’t a national teacher shortage, there are some perennial shortage areas, including special education, high school math and science, foreign language, and bilingual education.

However, the most popular major for aspiring teachers is elementary education. That field accounts for 21 percent of undergraduate education majors among all teacher-prep-program completers—whereas special education majors make up 9 percent. Just 4 percent of completers majored in English as a second language, and 2 percent majored in bilingual, multilingual, and multicultural education.

Better aligning districts’ needs and colleges’ outputs could solve teacher shortages, said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research group that has at times clashed with colleges of education.

“As much as it makes sense for us to look to higher ed to respond, ... it’s not in their self-interest to tell students who want to be a teacher, ‘No, we have enough candidates,’ ” she said.

Instead, she said, one solution could be for accreditation groups to tell teacher-prep programs that they must produce enough candidates in certain fields to meet the needs of the profession.

And school districts have more authority than they might realize, she said.

“If you’re not willing to place 100 elementary student-teachers because you don’t need to hire them, the university will have no choice but to become more strategic and more selective about how to fill those spots,” Walsh said. “It’s so straightforward ... and it would solve supply and demand in a couple years if districts stood up and asserted [their needs].”

For their part, higher education officials say they try to inform candidates about the realities of the profession before they choose a major.

“When students declare their area of interest, their adviser talks to them about anticipated openings, shortages, hireability, and helps students make informed decisions—but we don’t push them away from their area of passion,” said Nicole Thompson, the co-director of the division of teacher preparation at Arizona State University’s teacher college.

Still, she added, “the shortage [in Arizona] is fairly significant, so whoever we produce pretty much gets hired.”

And Ohio University’s Middleton said advisers do warn aspiring elementary teachers that they might have to move to another city or even another state to get a job. But there’s only so much colleges of education can do, she said.

“We’re giving [students] the data,” Middleton said. “It’s still their decision to major in it.”

Colleges Must ‘Be More Creative’

In states with persistent teacher shortages, like Oklahoma, Arizona, and Utah, policymakers have eased some of the requirements for becoming a teacher—at times bypassing colleges of education.

For example, the Oklahoma state board of education approved a record-setting 1,975 emergency certifications last school year. These certifications allow people without a teaching certificate to teach for one year, or allow a certified teacher to teach a new subject before getting recertified. And the board is on track to approve even more emergency certifications this year.

“It puts some pressure on this college to be more creative,” said Gregg Garn, the dean of the University of Oklahoma’s college of education. “How do we articulate the importance of really good preparation ... to be an extraordinary teacher?”

In addition to doubling down on teaching pedagogy and making sure student teachers are supported in the field, Garn said the college is trying to “take an innovative look” at how to retain teachers.

Part of that, he said, is setting them up for financial success. Oklahoma teachers, who walked out of their classrooms this spring in protest of low wages, are among the lowest paid in the nation. Teacher preparation can’t change that, Garn said, but the college has unveiled debt-forgiveness and financial-literacy initiatives to help teachers manage their money.

“I want great professionals to come out of this [college], but I also want people to have a really good life,” Garn said.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as With Declining Enrollment, Teacher Colleges Recalibrate


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