The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why today’s college students don’t want to be teachers

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

Teacher shortages around the country have been big news in the education world this year, as has Teach For America’s recruitment issues and stories about fewer applicants to some college of education. What’s going on? In this post, Stephen Mucher, who directs the Bard College Master of Arts Teaching Program in Los Angeles, looks at the declining interest among college students in going into the teaching profession and suggests how to turn that around. He assesses the impact that the modern school reform movement — which has put teachers in the crosshairs — is having on this dynamic and makes suggestions about how to turn it around.

Mucher’s research interests include history education, history of American education, the development of historical thinking processes in adolescents, historiography and disciplined inquiry in secondary classrooms, urban education, the history of teacher preparation, progressivism, and Americanization.

By Stephen Mucher

Campus activism is back in the news.

From Missouri to Yale to Claremont McKenna, protests have drawn attention, not only to historic inequities, but also to the dramatically different ways students experience race and ethnicity in the classroom and on the quad.

As someone who visited over two dozen campuses last year, I am not surprised by these developments. The protests, as well as their critics, say a lot about the state of American university. But this unrest may say even more about K-12 schooling.

My purpose for visiting colleges was simple: To identify and recruit the best graduating seniors to teach in public schools. In the past, my appeal to youthful idealism and meaningful work would have generated some significant career enthusiasm. But over the past several years my recruitment efforts, by most any measure, has fallen flat.

Critics like to argue that today’s generation is too selfish, impatient, apathetic, or distracted for the kind of committed public service required of teaching professionals. I am unconvinced.  From M.I.T. to U.S.C., Appalachian State to Cal State, Michigan to Berkeley, Amherst to Occidental, I still meet brilliant, dedicated, inspired young people who are ready and willing to serve. Many are politically engaged. Many are active in projects that range from mentoring youth in under-resourced neighborhoods to creating ambitious non-profits that address real world social need. Many will willingly accept unpaid internships or join national service organizations upon graduation.  And until recently, many flocked to Teach For America. What I routinely see is a generation that needs to make a difference.

Calling today’s undergraduates privileged or spoiled is similarly reductionistic.  Certainly, economic diversity remains a persistent problem in American higher education. But one can find numerous examples of students who, despite growing up in poverty and navigating tragically under-resourced schools, persevere to become the first in their family to attend college. These remarkable individuals are among the most likely to pursue careers in social work, community organizing, or public health with plans to return home and give back to their communities.

But they do not want to become teachers.

This is more than just an unfortunate trend.  When our brightest young college graduates, especially those who reflect the increasing diversity found in our public schools, eschew teaching we need to ask why.

In California, a decade of steadily declining enrollment in teacher education programs finally drew attention recently when several districts scrambled to find qualified teachers for unstaffed classrooms.  The use of emergency credentials has skyrocketed. And state voters are noticing.

A new poll released this week from EdSource and the Learning Policy Institute shows that 64 percent of voters consider the shrinking supply of teachers “very serious.” Researchers found a similar concern about the need for diversity in the teaching workforce. Voters also worry about the expanding teacher qualification gap that divides poor and wealthy districts.

At a briefing to announce these findings, officials recommended a series of policies designed to attract more teachers: Better pre-service preparation, scholarships, loan forgiveness, higher salaries, professional mentorship, in-service training, and more time for collaborative work.  University of California-Davis Education Dean Harold Levine went further, urging leaders to do more “by creating an environment free of teacher bashing and the politicization of our jobs.”  Without explaining how, Levine added that the state should “inspire more students of color to become teachers.”

One subtext of the poll focus and recommendations is the possibility that the recent implementation of the Common Core State Standards, along with changes in how teachers teach, might make the profession more attractive. Participants at the briefing encouraged a public advertising campaign that could present this changed profession as a recruiting incentive.  Learning Policy Institute President Linda Darling-Hammond summarized the need. “At a time when California is implementing new standards, it’s important that all students have access to teachers who are well prepared,” she noted. “A teacher shortage will set back the state’s education agenda.”

But finding candidates to fill this role, especially good candidates, may be more difficult than policymakers are willing to admit. Despite their clear interest in public service, the students I meet betray little enthusiasm for teaching as it now exists. And I see even less indication that major trends in public education—standardization, the proliferation of testing, the elimination of tenure and seniority, and expansion of school choice—have made teaching any more attractive as a career option.  Prospective teachers, much like the young educators already working in schools, are especially skeptical of accountability measures that tie a teacher’s job security or pay grade to student test scores. And many are bothered by the way teachers are blamed for much broader social problems.

As a result, today’s college students, including those currently marching on campus, are significantly less likely than their parents to see teaching as a viable way to become agents of social change. Of all age groups, voters 18-29 are the most pessimistic about the teaching profession. Only 24 percent are “very likely” to encourage a friend or family member to become a K-12 teacher today.

Clearly we need to address more than just a teacher shortage. America’s public schools need better teachers. Part of any solution to this problem will be found in promoting effective preparation.  Teacher education can make an average teacher better—an investment that has a profound impact on learning for a countless number of struggling K-12 students. But we also need to think about why our most accomplished college graduates never even consider this pathway in the first place.  In an increasingly diverse society marked by troubling inequality, who decides to teach may loom even larger than how they are prepared.

My own observations, backed by several recent polls, suggest that young people are indeed daunted by a profession that has changed.  “All teachers do now is read from scripts and administer tests all day,” a Senior psychology major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro told me last spring.  But few such promising undergraduates have had opportunities to consider how teaching, in its best contexts, offers limitless opportunity for self-exploration, personal growth, creative expression, and strong sense of social purpose.

Unfortunately, such contexts are rare in schools that are dramatically segregated by race and social class. Such contexts are rare in districts where reward systems focus on standards and privilege test scores. And such contexts are rare in states where salaries and job security is susceptible to the whims of administrators and elected officials.

Today’s top college graduates are savvy enough to understand this. They intuit what pollsters already know is happening in schools.  In a comparison across 14 professions, teaching ranked last among respondents who felt that their “opinions seem to count,” or included workplaces with “an environment that is trusting and open.”  Three out of four teachers complain that high stakes testing takes too much classroom time away from actual teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 teachers feel that linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores is “unfair.”

But there is some ground for hope. Despite joining an embattled profession, teachers continue to report that their work feels purposeful and emotionally satisfying.  Teachers who can look past these obstacles and create space to make a difference in a young person’s life still report a positive overall job experience. The young people I meet are intrigued by this possibility.

Policymakers and elected officials addressing the teacher shortage would be wise to tap into what still makes teaching attractive. Today’s young professional wants to be an agent of change. Many would gladly join a teaching profession that demanded creativity, autonomy, and initiative. Many would jump at a chance to remake classrooms that reflect their own backgrounds, interests, quirks, humor, intellect, and connection to students in a specific community.  As college activist question one-size-fits-all education and looks beyond their campus inequality, they are likely to ask happened to the teaching profession. They could ask why so few of their peers are in classrooms.  And they could ask whether teaching still has a soul.

I hope we hear these voices.  This generation is in a better place than most of us to reclaim the profession. And they have a chance to remind us what once made teaching beautiful in a million different ways.