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Report: Student Interest in Pursuing Careers in Education on the Decline, But Enrollment in Intro Teaching Courses Rises

Today’s high school students are showing less interest in pursuing careers in education,  and teachers in the profession are feeling burnt out and underpaid, according to a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).Megan BorenMegan Boren

The report – created in partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education – examines responses from teachers-in-training and available student data to discern how members of Generation Z – those born between 1996 and 2012 – view careers in education.

Student interest in working in education continues a generally downward trend across eight states in the U.S. South, the worst still being Louisiana with 3.7% in 2022, according to researchers’ analyses of ACT data. Arkansas, which among the eight usually has the highest interest, saw decreasing interest at 6.1% in 2022 compared to 6.9% the year before.

The scope of the study was primarily confined to data from Kentucky and Tennessee. In those two states, on average, education-related subjects are the sixth most popular intended major. This puts the major below the likes of science, social science, engineering, business, health sciences, and those undecided.

Among high school students who did intend to major in education, female students continue to make up the vast majority in both Kentucky and Tennessee at 77% and 83%, respectively. Though in the former, there was a slight decrease from 79% the year prior in 2021. In Tennessee, the 83% in 2022 marked an increase from 80% in 2021. Tennessee also experienced declining male student interest in education, with rates falling from 19% of interested students in 2021 to 16%.

White students continue to make up most of the students intending to major in the field, according to ACT data shown in the report. The gap in numbers between racial and ethnic groups is distinct and hard to miss. In Tennessee, in 2022, white students made up 78% of those intending to major in education, followed in second by Black students, who made up 9%.

Despite decreasing interest for working in education, enrollment trends for the two states’ high school introductory teaching courses complicated the story.

According to the report, enrollment in Tennessee’s Teaching as a Profession courses has been on the rise from 2018 to 2022, alongside the number of schools offering such courses. In 2022, more than 5,000 students have enrolled in at least one of the teaching introductory courses offered at 125 of Tennessee schools. More students of color than before are enrolling in these courses as well – 31% of enrolled students in 2022 were students of color – according to the report.

“We think it is possible that interest in teaching might have declined even more over this period had the introductory courses not been available,” the report read. “By taking introductory courses in teaching, some high school students may decide that the positive aspects of becoming a teacher, such as a desire to work with and impact young people, may outweigh the negatives, such as low salaries, student disciplinary challenges or lack of flexibility in the workday.”

Demonstrating how teaching can be a rewarding and impactful career choice to students at an early age may present “a glimmer of hope and light” and a means to fight for the future of the profession, said report author Megan Boren, who leads teacher workforce policy initiatives for SREB.

For this study, the researchers did not inquire into why these students were enrolling in such teaching courses, Boren said.

Today’s educators are also not earning their teaching credentials via traditional pathways of higher education as much anymore, according to the report. Instead of pursuing degrees in education, more and more teachers are learning how to teach through alternative pathways, such as teacher apprenticeships.

“A growing share of newly hired male teachers and teachers of color in Kentucky and Tennessee are entering teaching through alternative pathways,” the report read. “Kentucky teachers of color are more likely to enter the profession through alternative pathways. Over half of newly hired teachers of color in Tennessee entered through an alternative, job-embedded program. Alternatively prepared teachers also trend older, as many are switching from another career.”

Regardless of pathways, however, the U.S. faced declining numbers of those preparing to be teachers from 2012-2020, the report noted.

That’s not to say that the preparation provided by these routes is sufficient either. Eighty percent of new Gen Z classroom teachers said the instruction they received lacked in some capacity. And more than half (63%) of Gen Z teachers-in-training reported that they don’t feel as though they will be sufficiently prepared to teach their own classes.

Of the Kentucky teacher candidates and future teachers surveyed by SREB and Vanderbilt, a sizable majority (78%) cited poor, unlivable wages and lacking resources as reasons for them leaving the profession within the next few years.

And ample development support and resources were cited by 80% as a reason for staying.

These collective findings indicate that improving early recruitment, alternative pathways, and support for new teachers coming from these different routes may be ways to boost numbers and diversity of capable future teachers, the report suggests.

Boren says she thinks the education field won’t be able to attract and retain new talent unless the profession is seen as accessible, stable, and secure.

"It's really about just focusing in on what are the reasons that any human being would want as they plan for and walk into a career,” she explained. “You want to be able to feel like you're doing good, you have a purpose. You want to feel like you're rewarded and respected for your hard work, and that you're able to see yourself in that profession for a long time.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten called for an end to “culture wars” that make schools “political battlefields,” attributing dissatisfaction among teachers to antagonization from political figures in the South.

“We need to stop the culture wars, start treating teachers like the professionals they are, and focus instead on real solutions to help kids and communities thrive,” said Weingarten. “One practical approach, in addition to paying teachers family-sustaining wages, is to create Grow-Your-Own programs, which strengthen and diversify the educator pipeline and give the teachers of tomorrow the opportunity to build a successful career.

“Right now, more than three-quarters of teachers wouldn’t recommend the profession to their own children. That needs to change.”

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