Opinion: Daily Journal

Fewer College Students Choosing Education Nationwide

Fewer students are enrolled in teacher education programs in North Carolina and in nearly every other state in the nation. What is driving this nationwide trend, and what can we do about it?

Those who pay attention to state politics have heard it again and again. Enrollment in teacher education programs has dropped because Gov. Pat McCrory and evil state legislators do not “respect” the teaching profession.

But it is not too late to repent, they say! Let us throw off everything that hinders paying teachers more and the tax code that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race to raise taxes that the Moral Monday folks have marked out for us.

If only it were that easy.

The truth is that education school enrollment is dropping nationwide, and there isn’t much that McCrory and legislative leaders can do about it. According to the latest Title II reports published by the U.S. Department of Education, there was a 30 percent drop in education school enrollment between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years. Among Southern Regional Education Board states, only Kentucky had an increase in teacher education students during this period. North Carolina’s decrease was 19 percent.

Interestingly, between 2008-09 and 2011-12 North Carolina’s education school enrollment increased by 20 percent. North Carolina, like most states, took a hit in 2012-13.

Nearly 110,000 fewer students enrolled in teacher training programs in the United States from 2011-12 to 2012-13. During this period, only five states increased student enrollment in traditional teacher education programs. North Carolina, 44 other states, and the District of Columbia had net enrollment losses. (Data were not available for Florida.)

Is money the answer? States that “respect” teachers by paying them handsomely have also had notable enrollment decreases in their schools of education. According to the National Education Association, the average teacher in Massachusetts earned an estimated salary of $74,805 this year. Yet enrollment in the state’s traditional teacher education programs dropped by nearly 1,200 students from 2011-12 to 2012-13. California, a state with an average salary of just over $72,500, had 5,800 fewer students in teacher training programs in 2012-13 than it did a year earlier.

Alternatively, Utah has one of the lowest average teacher salaries in the nation but increased its education school enrollment by 100 students, remarkably the largest increase in the nation over the last two school years. These facts suggest that teacher salaries are not the primary consideration for college students when selecting a course of study.

That is not to say that salary and benefits are not relevant issues. Compensation matters. But we have to assume that economic conditions, parental input, and other personal considerations still play a dominant role in a student’s decision to declare or change a major.

What is less clear is whether the media-fueled perception of teacher mistreatment has something to do with the drop. I suspect that few college students choose a major based on the reported working conditions of any specific group of professionals. That would require experience (which they don’t have) or research (which they don’t do).

There are two options. Either go through schools of education or go around them.

I believe that we should expand the applicant pool by looking elsewhere. Teach for America, Troops to Teachers, and other lateral-entry programs bring qualified, but noncredentialed, individuals into the teacher work force. Let’s do more of that.

In addition, state statute allows charter schools to employ a percentage of noncertified classroom teachers, flexibility that many district schools covet. State education officials should try to find a better balance between federal law, which places some limitations on who may or may not teach in district schools, and the personnel needs of the state’s districts.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.