Shrinking number of teachers signals end of a dream career

LANSING — Many children aspiring to be teachers when they grow up could end up having a change of heart.

In the face of increased pressures due to standardized testing, new college entry tests, and a lack of societal respect for the profession, fewer students are pursuing teaching careers, education advocates say.

“Nationally and in Michigan, there are fewer students going into education,” said Corey Drake, director of teacher preparation at Michigan State University.

Enrollment in university education programs fell 10 percent nationally from 2004 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The number of initial certificates issued by the Michigan Department of Education has also been declining annually, according to Leah Breen, interim director of the department’s Office of Professional Preparation Services.

Drake said some smaller Michigan universities have seen enrollment in teaching programs dropping as much as 30 percent to 50 percent.

Standardized tests and national Common Core standards have garnered a much larger focus in the state in past years. Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook said these testing goals have altered how teaching is conducted and lowered the amount of input teachers have.

“Not one of them got involved because they thought they were going to be rich,” Cook said. “They want to teach. And they get there and find out, ‘I’m not doing that much teaching, I’m a professional test proctor.’”

James Muchmore, assistant chair of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies at Western Michigan University, said people have become too critical of teachers and teaching.

“While teachers do play a critically important role in our society, we tend to overstate their influence and often end up trying to hold them accountable for things over which they have little control,” Muchmore said. “We routinely link teachers to our country’s economy, as if third grade test scores are somehow related to worker productivity or the GNP.”

These challenges have also meant shorter stays in the classroom for many educators. Forty to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years, according to a 2014 New Teacher Center report. The report also states that about 13 percent of the nation’s teachers leave every year.

While some of these departures can be attributed to layoffs and other factors, Muchmore says job dissatisfaction also plays a large part.

“In the wake of the Great Recession, many states passed laws reducing teachers’ job security, cutting their salaries and benefits, increasing class sizes and limiting their collective bargaining rights,” he said.

Changes in legislation, including more difficult testing methods and teacher evaluations, have also been a factor, Cook said.

In 2013, Michigan introduced the more rigorous Professional Readiness Exam as a tool to evaluate aspiring teachers’ knowledge based on the Common Core, which outlines standards for knowledge among K-12 students.

The test, taken upon students’ entry to their university’s teaching program, has a 31 percent pass rate, which is very low compared to the state’s previous entry exam, the basic skills test, which averaged 89 percent.

The test can be taken an unlimited number of times, but students aren’t admitted to teaching programs until they pass or complete alternative methods for some portions of the test.

While the test is taken in a university setting, Drake said most of the preparation for the exam occurs during a student’s high school career, where the Common Core is a large part of curriculums.

“Students’ struggles to pass the exam are often a reflection of uneven high school preparation,” Drake said. “I am concerned that it might particularly be contributing to a less diverse group of teachers entering the profession. … A diverse teaching force is critically important for all students — we need teachers who bring diverse perspectives, knowledge.”

Breen, of the Michigan Department of Education, defended the PRE test, saying teachers should be able to demonstrate the same knowledge their students will be tested on, regardless of deficiencies in their own K-12 educations.

A committee of K-12 educators and representatives from various Michigan universities developed the test, which focuses on the core subjects of reading, mathematics and writing, as well as various topics that students should have learned in high school.

Drake fears the test could disproportionately affect prospective teachers from urban and small rural schools, where students do not have access to the same resources as districts with more funding.

“I think we need to look carefully at the test to make sure it is not biased, as well as consider multiple measures of preparation for teaching,” Drake said. “We certainly do not want it to be the case that students who received a lower quality high school education cannot become teachers.”

A change in public attitude is needed before teaching becomes a more popular career choice, Muchmore said.

“Teachers impact the emotional, physical and intellectual well-being of our children. They play a key role in helping to shape and sustain our society from one generation to the next,” Muchmore said. “At some point, people will realize that the current round of teacher-bashing is counter-productive to the well-being of our society, and it will change.”

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