Aspiring teachers duck science, special education

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Like other states, Illinois has few minority teachers to head classrooms that are becoming more and more diverse. Less than a quarter of the students who graduated from state colleges of education in 2000 were minorities, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. In contrast, 40 percent of the state’s schoolchildren were minorities.

The survey of minority college students sponsored by CATALYST and Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois (FTCI) offers both good news and bad news for narrowing the gap: While students expressed a relatively strong interest in teaching, few aspiring teachers want to teach the subjects where the biggest shortages exist.

Overall, 24 percent of the survey group said they plan a career in education. That’s about double the percentage nationally, but likely reflects the fact that about a quarter of the survey group belonged to FTCI clubs.

However, only 8 percent said special education is their main area of interest, and only 5 percent said science. Math fared better, with 24 percent saying it is their main area of interest. Bilingual education also got a relatively large vote, 32 percent, but that may reflect the relatively large percentage of Latinos in the survey group.

Aspiring teachers were more likely than the rest of the group to score below the state average on the ACT, but were just as likely to have substantially completed the core math and science curriculum recommended for students heading to college. A smaller percentage said they were the first in their family to attend college: only 17 percent, compared to 24 percent of the group overall.

Prospective teachers also gave their high schools slightly higher ratings, especially for helping them find financial aid and providing career counseling. That may well be due to the influence of FTCI, which provides support and counseling to students in school-based FTCI clubs. In fact, 75 percent of the students in FTCI said that participating in the clubs made them more likely to pursue a teaching career.

Once in college, however, this group reported a somewhat greater struggle than the survey group as a whole. A higher percentage said academic difficulties and personal or family problems had at least some impact on their ability to succeed in school.

To help attract more minorities into teaching, legislators enacted changes this past August to the Minority Teacher Incentive scholarship program. Now students who are enrolled half-time and those seeking graduate degrees in education will be eligible for scholarships. In addition, women will be eligible to apply for that portion of scholarship funds previously set aside for men; too few males have applied in recent years, leaving money unspent.