Teacher Preparation

Study Details Barriers to Career-Changers Going Into Teaching

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 10, 2008 7 min read
Ruth Petkaitis, a graduate of Connecticut’s Alternate Route to Certification, teaches kindergartners music at Mary M. Hooker School of Environmental Sciences in Hartford, Conn.
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Experts are pointing to a new opinion survey and research analysis as evidence of a need to overhaul teacher training, compensation, and support, in order to appeal to potential career-changers interested in teaching.

Demand for new teachers is expected to exceed 1.5 million over the next decade, as members of the baby-boomer generation of teachers retire. And career-switchers could become an increasingly important source of fresh talent: More than two of every five college graduates between the ages of 24 and 60 would consider teaching as a second career in the future, according to the survey released last week by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Among a subset of respondents especially interested in teaching, 27 percent said they would consider doing so within the next five years, according to the survey findings, which the foundation released along with a research analysis that lays out a range of recommendations on teacher policy.

But unlike new teachers entering the field through college-based teacher-training programs or highly selective recruitment organizations such as Teach For America, the broader pool of midcareer professionals is much harder to target, analysts said.

“They are at home; in jobs in every sector of the U.S. economy; they are in the military,” said Arthur E. Levine, the president of the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation. “That makes it harder to attract them or know how to recruit them.”

Interest in Teaching

A pool of 1,100 people with an interest in teaching in the future were polled about specific school environments that might appeal to them. A response of “extremely appealing” reflected a score of 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale.


SOURCE: Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

For the survey, Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a Washington polling firm, conducted telephone and online interviews with 2,300 college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree. Forty-three percent of respondents said they would consider teaching in the future.

Pollsters identified a subset of about 1,100 respondents deemed potential teachers, who were given an extended survey. The results of that survey found interest among those prospective teachers in shortage subjects and in certain types of schools, including those that serve low-income and minority students.

Among the potential teachers, the extended survey found that 45 percent expressed interest in teaching in high schools. It found that those people interested in high school teaching were more likely than other potential teachers to hold degrees in the so-called stem fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, specialties for which schools tend to have a hard time finding qualified candidates.

Pay an Obstacle

Despite their interest in teaching, the potential teachers harbor concerns about about the modest pay and working conditions associated with the field, the poll found.

Forty-three percent of those potential teachers said policymakers should ensure competitive salaries, and 30 percent recommended improving the condition of schools to make teaching a more attractive profession.

Only 36 percent said a salary under $50,000 a year would be acceptable to them Sixty-eight percent of potential teachers said they would expect to take a pay cut if they were to enter teaching.

The survey also suggests that, by raising salaries, policymakers could broaden the pool of midcareer professionals interested in teaching. Thirty percent of the respondents who said they would not consider teaching said some aspects of teaching appealed to them, and 44 percent of those respondents cited poor pay as the top obstacle to considering the profession.

The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points for all respondents, and plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for the subset of potential teachers.

An unanswered question is how best to structure compensation for older recruits.

During a telephone conference call to unveil the findings of the new poll, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein argued that they suggest a need for front-loading teacher salaries and offering compensation bonuses to the highest performers.

“So much [of teacher compensation] ends up in defined-benefit pension plans,” he said. “I think a lot of teachers are not going to be around to accrue long-term pensions.”

Susan Moore Johnson, an education professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who has studied potential career-changers, noted that some districts have proposed alternatives to reworking the entire salary structure by starting off midcareer entrants on higher rungs on the salary ladder. Others have offered financial bonuses. But not all the schemes have proved effective at attracting older recruits into the profession and retaining them, Ms. Moore Johnson said.

Tweaking Training

Aside from pay and working conditions, 23 percent of the potential teachers surveyed said policymakers could encourage them to teach through the development of certification and training programs designed to help them make the transition into the career.

A majority of the potential teachers said it was very important for such programs to be close to their homes, include clinical training in classrooms with experienced teachers, contain coursework that builds on their professional experience, and provide for mentoring during their first years of teaching.

Mr. Levine said that many current alternative teacher-training programs are oriented to young postgraduates rather than recruits with workforce experience.

“For a lot of these people, what the survey says is that [alternative-route] programs are the wrong programs,” Mr. Levine said. “They are not looking for short programs, they are looking for strong preparation.”

He pointed toward content-based pedagogy as one crucial component. Few alternative-route programs offer such pedagogy classes for teachers in all subjects, according to an analysis the Woodrow Wilson foundation released along with the survey.

Connecticut’s Alternate Route to Certification, a transition program designed for midcareer professionals begun in 1988, is one such program. It uses actual classroom teachers as instructors, noted Maria Davoodi, the associate director of the program, which is administered by the state department of higher education.

As a result, districts report that graduates of the program are among the most successful in engaging students, she said.

“The content is unique; they make it fun and bring kids out into the field,” Ms. Davoodi said, recalling one educator, a sailing specialist, who taught physics classes from the deck of his boat.

Other Supports Needed

On a large scale, though, Ms. Moore Johnson cautioned, teacher programs targeting midcareer professionals could be difficult to design, because of the diversity of that population, which includes graduates in their mid-20s as well as people who have been established for a dozen or more years.

“It think it’s very hard to say what the ideal program is,” Ms. Moore Johnson said. “It’s clear that midcareer entrants potentially have real strengths and assets to bring to teaching that could enrich a school. But it’s a mistake to assume that people can immediately move into teaching positions and know what to do, just based on the fact that they are more mature.”

Ms. Davoodi acknowledged that some of Connecticut’s alternative-route alumni have struggled in the transition from being high-powered executives to being part of a learning team.

“They don’t always take to constructive criticism that well, and they have to get used to that culture in schools,” she said.

As a result, Ms. Davoodi said, the program now includes at least 90 days of coaching for its teacher-candidates who have entered the classroom; a unit on transitional issues for midcareer teachers, such how to make ends meet on a 10-month salary; and voluntary professional-development sessions for people who complete the program.

Other analysts said districts must play a role in differentiating the supports for teachers entering the field on different tracks.

“There is a view [among districts] that a teacher is a teacher, for equity reasons,” said Edward Liu, an assistant professor of educational administration at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who studies teacher hiring and retention in urban districts but was not involved in the new survey. “That’s kind of problematic if the new incoming pool of teachers is diverse. It’s like saying we’re going to teach all kids the same regardless of their background.”

Mr. Liu seconded the survey’s call for classroom-based clinical preparation for midcareer entrants.

“There’s that romance of teaching, and then there’s the reality of teaching,” he said. “There’s the potential for a huge reality shock [for career-changers] if teacher-preparation programs don’t smooth the way for them. Otherwise, the fear is that you will get another revolving door of midcareer people.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Study Details Barriers to Career-Changers Going Into Teaching

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