Financial, political factors discourage would-be teachers

Last updated: April 20. 2014 11:46PM - 4547 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

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Amanda Bast knows she’s graduating without a job lined up this May. She knows she’s entering a field where employment opportunities have been declining, where critics of her chosen profession seem to be growing, and where how her performance will be evaluated is radically changing.

She doesn’t care. She wants to be a teacher.

“I know I’m not doing this for the money,” the Lehigh Valley native and Wilkes University senior said brightly. “If I wanted to do it for the money, I would definitely not have chosen teaching. I chose teaching because I enjoy it. It’s something I’m passionate about excited about.”

Bast, who turns 22 today, is one of what has become a rapidly dwindling breed in recent years: an education major, training to be a teacher. News reports of the phenomenon have grown increasingly common, from California to here in the keystone state.

Earlier this year, The Allentown Morning Call cited statistics showing the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s 14 schools have seen enrollment in education majors drop from 18,685 in 2004 to 12,569 last fall — a nearly 33 percent fall.

There have been similar declines in Luzerne County’s three private colleges, where teacher education has long been a staple. Exact comparisons weren’t possible because of variations in how data is collected — enrollment of students studying to teach in high schools is particularly tricky because they are often majoring in the subject, not in education — but the trend is undeniable.

King’s College saw undergraduate enrollment of full-time education majors drop by 38 percent from 2004 to 2013 — 287 students versus 178.

Wilkes University saw full-time enrollment in elementary education programs drop by nearly 45 percent, from 146 to 81. But enrollment for those planning to teach in high school has been more stable: 41 in 2005 (zero in 2004) and 39 in 2013, though that’s still down dramatically from a high of 91 in 2009.

Misericordia University saw the number of students training to be elementary or middle school teachers drop by nearly 36 percent, from 137 to 88. Enrollment for a job teaching in high school dropped by 33 percent, from 58 to 39.

Why has the profession been losing so much traction as a college option?

Political impacts

For starters, the profession has become a political target by some, Misericordia teaching education professor Joseph Rogan said. “Since Gov. (Tom) Corbett slashed $1 billion in support to public schools, 20,000 teachers were furloughed,” Rogan wrote in response for comment.

“Students who would love to major in education read the papers – they know the cuts mean fewer jobs. So, the message made loud and clear by the cuts is that this is not the right time to go into teaching,” Rogan said.

Corbett has consistently insisted he did not cut spending, and that the nearly $1 billion less in his first education budget resulted from the end of federal stimulus money the prior administration had used to fill education budget gaps.

Rogan contends the political attacks of public teachers go beyond budget cuts, with attacks on teacher unions and reforms that include new “Common Core” curriculum standards designed to be more rigorous. Like many critics nationwide, Rogan does not dispute the value of the new standards, but he questions whether sufficient money and time have been provided to make the changes.

“The ‘reformers’ recipe – increase standards while cutting resources – is a surefire plan to make educators look bad,” Rogan argues. “If the anti-schoolers succeed at destroying the reputation of public education, their next move will be to privatize schools.”

Reductions in state funding impacted job openings in another way, Wilkes Interim School of Education Dean Rhonda Waskiewicz pointed out in an email response: Less money for districts means bigger class sizes, “which limits the need for additional teachers.”

King’s College spokesman John McAndrew pointed to two other relatively recent changes shaking up the industry: a shift from two teacher certifications covering elementary and secondary education to certifications covering three grade ranges — pre-kindergarten through fourth, fourth through eighth, and seventh through 12th.

And McAndrew points to a two-year moratorium Corbett placed on state requirements that all teachers complete 180 hours of professional development every five years to keep their certifications. The moratorium, which expired June of last year, was intended to save districts money, but it also may have cut the number of teachers taking additional courses at area schools.

Pay considerations

While taxpayers often complain about teacher salaries, Rogan notes “a recent study found that 60 percent of college graduates would love to go into teaching, but they feel that it does not pay enough. On average, teachers earn far less than professionals with similar educations.”

Rogan points out teachers have spent the same amount of money getting through college as many other professionals, yet can expect lower starting salaries. “College tuition is the same for persons who major in education as it is for other professional areas. Because they earn more, graduates who go into those other professions have more confidence that they can repay their student loans.”

According to the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher union, the average starting salary for teachers in 2012-13 was $36,141.

Montana had the lowest average starting salary at $27,274, while the highest was $48,631 in New Jersey. Pennsylvania’s average starting salary was $41,901.

Of course, overall average salaries are higher, particularly in districts with a lot of veteran teachers nearing the top of the pay scale. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the state average in 2012-13 for classroom teachers was $63,218. it was slightly lower in Luzerne County, $60,306.

Prospective teachers face another uncertainty that is not yet linked to pay, but can impact job retention and placement. Gov. Corbett has overseen the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system that bases half of a teacher’s rating on student standardized test scores.

Critics of that idea point out that standardized test results are statistically linked to student demographics. The lower the family income, the lower the scores. Similarly, a teacher with a high percentage of English as Second Language Learners or students in need of more learning support may face a tougher challenge in boosting scores than teachers with more homogeneous classrooms.

Kingston native and Wilkes senior Mitchell Yamrus said the new evaluations have been a topic of conversation among education majors. “There could be problems,” he said, posing a hypothetical situation in which an administrator wanting to get rid of a teacher “could possibly give them the worse class to teach in, but I can’t say that is going to happen.”

Yamrus, 22, is planning to teach high school biology, and dismisses most of the concerns about the shifting profession with a simple philosophy. “It doesn’t deter you. It’s still a job that needs to be done,” he said.

Adapting to change

Local institutions have had to make changes with the drop in enrollment.

At King’s, McAndrew said the drop in traditional undergraduate enrollment has been offset by a “fast-track program” that has 45 students, and by adding new programs “including the curriculum and instruction master’s program, the autism endorsement program, and special education PK-8 and 7-12.”

Misericordia has avoided laying off staff or dropping programs by spreading work around. “For the last many years, it has been routine for all of us to teach an extra section or two each semester. We have cut the number of sections in (some) courses, where we could do so without raising class sizes,” Rogan said.

Misericordia has also combined elementary and special education programs, he said.

Wilkes has started a post-bachelor’s degree “initial teaching certification program at the middle level (grades 4-8)” Waskiewicz wrote, recognizing that many adults are deciding on second careers as teachers.

Wilkes also has a program that sends up to six education majors to student teach at an international school in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Both Bast and Yamrus took advantage of the program.

Yamrus said it was a valuable experience because “classrooms today are more diverse than ever, and there’s no place more diverse than in an international school.”

Bast, who admits she’s “a very optimistic person,” agreed, adding that “teachers are so respected there” and students were eager to sign up for additional programs, including a “girl power thing trying to get girls interested in American sports.”

She liked it so much that, while her preference would be to get a job teaching near where she grew up, “for me, I need to move out, try new things and new places. I’m even thinking of going back to Malaysia to teach.”

Rogan argues demand for teachers will inevitably grow in coming years as the economy picks up and veteran teachers feel its safer to retire. Besides, he adds, to a person who wants to do it, “teaching is still the best job in the world.”

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