Teacher Preparation

Fewer People Are Getting Teacher Degrees. Prep Programs Sound the Alarm

By Madeline Will — March 22, 2022 9 min read
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As teacher dissatisfaction rates rise and concerns about teacher shortages intensify, colleges of education are sounding the alarm: Enrollment has been steadily declining for the past decade, and the pandemic has likely made things worse.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education released its second comprehensive report of the state of teacher preparation on Tuesday afternoon, noting the many challenges facing the teaching profession—and some of the ways colleges are adapting. The report uses the most-recent federal data, which are from the 2018-19 school year, providing a benchmark on the status of teacher preparation before the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.

The downward trend has been consistent. Between the 2008-09 and the 2018-19 academic years, the number of people completing a teacher-education program declined by almost a third. Traditional teacher-preparation programs saw the largest decline—35 percent—but alternative programs experienced drops, too.

“It took us years to get to the place where we are now, and of course the pandemic has made the situation worse,” said Jacqueline King, an independent consultant and a co-author of the report. “There’s no magic bullet that’s going to turn this situation around.”

While pandemic-era national data aren’t yet available, AACTE has surveyed its members in both fall 2020 and fall 2021, and found that in both years, about 20 percent of institutions reported a decline in new undergraduate enrollment of 11 percent or more. That mirrors an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment.

Even before the pandemic, surveys showed that concerns about pay and working conditions were deterring prospective college students from going into the teaching profession. Now, teachers are saying they’re more stressed than ever amid staffing shortages and other consequences of the pandemic. Also, legislative and public efforts to curtail classroom discussions about race have led to intense scrutiny on teachers and their curricular choices.

“I think we’re going to see more and more high school graduates decide that maybe teaching is not the route” they want to take, said Weadé James, the senior director of development and research at AACTE and a co-author of the report.

The report found that the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in education declined by 22 percent between 2005-06 and 2018-19. At the same time, the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in all fields rose by 29 percent.

“For me, the report revealed there are no short-term or quick fixes to this issue,” James said. “Although we’re seeing innovative solutions [from colleges of education], the issue is so dire. … We need to think about systemic solutions to it.”

Diversity remains a challenge

Teacher-preparation programs have also continually struggled to recruit more diverse candidates, the report notes. Nationally, 80 percent of teachers are white, but less than half of public school students are.

Alternative preparation programs are more diverse than traditional colleges of education, the report found: 71 percent of those who complete a traditional program are white, compared to 55 percent of those who complete an alternative program that’s not based at an institute of higher education. But studies show that teachers prepared in alternative programs leave the profession at higher rates.

Colleges of education are working to cast a wider net for diverse candidates. For example, in 2020, NC State University’s college of education launched a five-day summer program for students of color and bilingual students who are heading into their senior year of high school and are interested in a potential career in education. North Carolina Central University, a nearby historically Black university, provides mentoring support.

Community colleges also can be a “key source of diversity” for the field, James said. The proportion of community college graduates who are African American or Latinx is double that of bachelor degree recipients.

There’s already an existing pipeline—21 percent of students who began as education majors at community colleges in 2011-12 went on to earn a bachelor’s degree by 2017—that can be bolstered, James said. Colleges of education must make sure they’re considering how best to support students who transfer from community colleges, she said.

Another major pool of potential teachers are those already working in classrooms: paraprofessionals and other school-based staff. Teacher-preparation programs are working to create pathways into the classroom for those educators, who also may be more likely to come from diverse backgrounds.

For example, Utah State University has partnered with some school districts to establish a certificate program for current paraprofessionals who only have a high school degree. If they earn the certificate, some of the participating districts will give them an hourly raise—and the paraprofessionals will have credits under their belt that can be applied toward an associate’s degree. If they choose to go on and earn their associate degree, Utah State will recruit them to earn their bachelor’s degree.

The certificate program, which is expected to expand to more districts soon, is a way to ease people into the profession, said Sylvia Read, the associate dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Utah State.

“Biting off a giant, four-year degree is a lot,” she said. With the program, “they get to have a chance to get their feet wet.”

Helping reduce the barriers to entry

Another program offered by Utah State is for paraprofessionals and teachers with emergency licenses who want to become fully certified special education teachers. Participants can continue working in schools while taking classes online at a reduced rate. Because of this program, the college’s special education department has more than doubled its enrollment, Read said.

Finances are a major barrier to entry into the teaching profession, and “grow-your-own” programs that allow candidates to earn a paycheck while working to become a teacher can lessen the load.

“It’s very difficult for folks who can’t rely on family resources, who are going to have to go into debt to think about going into a career that is less well-paid than others, to do a clinical experience that traditionally they’re not paid for, that takes away time they could be doing a part-time job,” said King, the co-author of the AACTE report. “The economics of it are challenging.”

Paola Sztajn, the interim dean of NC State University’s college of education, said she attributes an upward trend in enrollment—up 16 percent since 2015—to the university’s commitment to create the conditions in which future teachers can succeed.

“We’ve made a lot of investment in scholarships to increase our capacity to provide support for students,” she said. “I think that is making it more viable to become a teacher. We want our teachers as much as possible to graduate without debt.”

The AACTE report also noted a mismatch between the types of teachers colleges of education are preparing and the teachers most critically needed by schools. Foreign language, bilingual education, science, math, and special education are all high-needs shortage areas, yet elementary education remains the most popular specialty for prospective teachers, covering 40 percent of all program completers.

Special education is the second-most popular specialty, but teacher-prep programs are still not producing enough to meet schools’ needs, the report found.

To help address these shortages, AACTE’s James said colleges of education should try to recruit students with disabilities or who have learned English as a second language. That personal experience might draw those students to the classroom—but currently, students majoring in education are no more likely than other students to report having a disability and are less likely to report that English was not the primary language they spoke as a child.

Some colleges of education are coming up with ways to steer students into those high-needs specialties. For example, the University of Maryland College of Education awards in-state students who pursue education majors in critical shortage areas a two-year $2,000 scholarship.

The eligible specialties are determined by what the state needs, said Zephaniah Bartie, the college’s recruitment coordinator. This year, that includes special education, high school Spanish, art, computer science, and middle school math and science, among other specialty areas.

And NC State’s college of education has partnered with several school districts in the state that are experiencing teacher shortages to build a pipeline of qualified teachers. Students who are selected for the program will do their student-teaching in one of the participating districts and then commit to teaching there for two years after graduation. If they complete the requirements, they’ll receive a $10,000 financial award.

Prospective teachers in all subject areas can apply to the program, but preference is given to those planning to teach math, science, and special education. “Our mission is to support the state and produce the teachers the state needs,” Sztajn said. “We want to be part of the solution to the problems.”

Could some teacher-prep programs close?

King said her “No. 1 worry” is the growing number of programs that award very few degrees in education. In 2018-19, there were 357 institutions out of 1,370 that awarded 10 or fewer bachelor’s degrees—up from 268 in 2015-16.

Many of those programs are located in small-town, rural areas. King said she fears that some are at risk for closure if enrollment keeps declining.

“Even though they don’t graduate a lot of students, they can be a main educator-preparation program for their community,” she said. “If that program closes, that capacity is gone.”

Oklahoma City University’s decision to phase out both its early-childhood and elementary teacher-preparation programs due to declining enrollment made headlines recently and sparked concern about the pipeline into the profession.

Heather Sparks, the director of teacher education at OCU, said that while those programs were always small, there had been a continuing decline in enrollment over the past decade. In early 2020, campus administrators made the decision to phase out those programs. Just three students are left to graduate. (There are about 120 students left in the university’s other teacher-preparation programs, which include music education and secondary education.)

Sparks, who graduated from OCU’s early-childhood education program, hopes that eventually, interest will increase enough that the university will be able to bring these programs back. In the meantime, she’s been discussing with state legislators some of the obstacles to strengthening the teacher pipeline in Oklahoma. One of the big challenges is the state’s low teacher pay, she said. Oklahoma teachers make on average about $54,000 a year, according to the National Education Association—well below the national average of $65,090 and below the average salaries in neighboring states, such as Texas.

“Little by little, once we can get everyone on board in recognizing that this is a problem—that we’re not crying wolf here, this is something serious—then hopefully we can get some relief,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Fewer People Are Getting Teacher Degrees. Prep Programs Sound the Alarm

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