Across all races, teacher education losing students

April 15, 2014

Quishun Elrod of Faraday Elementary helps 3rd-grader Mishay Buchanan with a reading lesson. Certified black teachers in Illinois, like Elrod, are the least likely group to take teaching jobs, according to a recent study.
Photo by Jason Reblando
Quishun Elrod of Faraday Elementary helps 3rd-grader Mishay Buchanan with a reading lesson. Certified black teachers in Illinois, like Elrod, are the least likely group to take teaching jobs, according to a recent study.

Fewer college students are enrolling in traditional undergraduate teaching programs in Illinois, with whites accounting for the biggest drop. After years of holding steady, enrollment fell significantly in 2011 and 2012—by 23 percent overall, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) for 2003 through 2012. White student enrollment fell at an even higher rate of 25 percent.

Black enrollment in teaching programs showed no clear trend between 2003 and 2010, but, as with white students, declined significantly in 2011 and 2012. Hispanic enrollment, however, grew steadily between 2003 and 2010, only to fall in the next two years. But that growth means that more Hispanics than African Americans are now entering teaching.

Still, enrollment trends are important because of the mismatch between students and teachers that can lead to a cultural divide in the classroom: About half of students in Illinois public schools are minorities, but close to 84 percent of teachers are white, according to state records. In Chicago, the need for a diverse teacher workforce is especially evident: 86 percent of students are children of color but less than half of teachers are minorities.

Despite the mismatch, it’s not likely that the state will experience a massive overall shortage of public school teachers anytime soon. Illinois has long produced an overabundance of teachers in all but a few instructional categories, and the state’s population of elementary and high school aged students is expected to continue on a slight decline through at least 2019, according to national projections.

At Illinois State University, the state’s biggest producer of teachers, enrollment has gone through ups and downs during the past decade. But it hit a new low in 2012, when the numbers were 16 percent lower than a decade earlier.

“We have a very strong history of educating teachers and seeing those numbers decline has been a concern,” says Stacy Ramsey, ISU interim director of admissions. "It’s just getting harder and harder to become a teacher, with all the testing standards and continuing education […]. I don’t think it’s a career choice that is as attractive as it used to be.”

Illinois teaching institutions aren’t the only ones losing students. According to a national survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the number of full-time undergraduates enrolled in education degree programs fell by 6 percent between 2006 and 2011 – even though overall enrollment at the 581 institutions surveyed grew by more than 7 percent during that time period.

“With everything that’s going on right now, the profession is just not well received because of the [2012 Chicago teachers] strike and the closing of schools,” says Chamiyah Pugh, a first-year teacher at Mays Elementary School in Englewood. “The teacher turnover rate is so high you will meet teachers who tell you to get out of this field and to save yourself.”

Harder exams, less prestige

University leaders and others in the field say the toughened entrance exam for education colleges that was put into place in 2010 is responsible for much of the decline. That year, the Illinois State Board of Education restructured and raised the cut scores for the required entrance exam for education colleges, now known as the Test for Academic Proficiency (TAP), and also imposed a limit on the number of times students could take the test. Overall, fewer than a third of students who now take the TAP pass it – a far cry from the previous pass rate of more than 80 percent overall.

Yet leaders also point to other circumstances that may have made teaching less attractive, such as school closures and layoffs in Chicago as well as the fight over pension reform and the growth of alternative teaching programs.

“Teaching just doesn’t seem to be appealing to certain students anymore,” says Sterling Sadler, dean of the College of Education at Western Illinois University. “What we are seeing is that the quality of those students who do enroll is improving, which is a good thing.”

Much of the public dialogue about the sharp drop in pass rates on the TAP has focused on black and Hispanic students, whose scores are significantly lower than for white students. But the numbers are bad across the board: Only 34 percent of white students passed the exam in the final quarter of 2013.

“When you change the cut score, it’s going to affect all students,” says Brian Schultz, a professor and chair of the Educational Inquiry & Curriculum Studies Department at Northeastern Illinois University. “The cut score needs to be changed, or let’s eliminate that as a requirement because it doesn’t predict performance in the classroom.”

Schultz and other critics of the test, including the organization Grow Your Own Teachers—which partners with community organizations in low-income neighborhoods to recruit community members into teaching—want the state to find alternative methods of assessing the quality of prospective teachers.

“ISBE is in a tough situation in terms of how they have decided to go down this path in terms of using rhetoric such as ‘raising the bar’ on teachers, because to change that now would suggest that they’re now ‘lowering’ the bar,” he said. “But that would be the moral thing to do. They’ve made a mistake and it’s having a disparate impact [on students of color]”.

“We know that those individuals that have the cultural competencies and are able to connect in culturally respectful ways to their students are the most successful in the classroom,” Schulz adds.

Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for ISBE, says the agency hasn’t conducted a formal analysis of the downward trend.

“While it may be the case that TAP has momentarily stopped individuals from pursuing a teaching license, it is also the case that the higher expectations serve as a gate, keeping individuals who cannot perform those foundational functions from moving forward until they can reach that point,” she added.

Last month ISBE voted to eliminate the limit on the number of times students could take the TAP, explaining that the measure sought to diversify the teaching workforce. The state board also formed a working committee that includes educators and young teachers of color to study the issue and has given colleges discretion to allow students to enroll into education programs prior to passing the TAP.

However, during ISBE’s meeting in April, state officials said many universities have chosen not to use that discretion. Staff at NEIU, for example, decided after much discussion not to allow students into the program before passing the TAP to avoid potentially burdening them with debt if they ultimately fail the exam.

Opting for other careers

Of course, not everyone who earns a bachelor’s degree in education goes on to earn a teaching certificate, and even fewer wind up teaching in public schools. A longitudinal study published last year by the Illinois Education Research Council, at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, showed that less than half of those who get certified wind up teaching in an Illinois public school, with some entering private schools and other educational jobs in the private sector.

The study sought to inform the design of policies meant to improve the supply of academically skilled and racially diverse teachers in Illinois by tracking students who graduated from high school in 2002 and 2003, through college and into the workforce. Among its findings: Minorities are far less interested in becoming teachers starting in high school, when they indicate their desired career on their ACTs. The trend continued all along the teacher pipeline.

“Regardless of academic preparation, minority high school students still aspired to teach at lower rates, minority bachelor’s degree recipients were less likely to have earned teaching certificates, and minorities with teaching certificates were less likely to become teachers in Illinois public schools, compared to whites,” according to the study. “These all indicate that other factors besides academic preparation also have a large impact on the relatively low minority representation of new public school teachers in Illinois.”

Certified black teachers, according to the study, are the least likely ethnic group to become a public school teacher in Illinois.

 “Amongst people of color, becoming a teacher has zoomed down to [no] more than 8th place in their interest level,” says Dominic Belmonte, president and CEO of Golden Apple, a non-profit organization dedicated to recruiting and developing good teachers in Illinois. “There is a sense out there that teaching is a difficult task that has a limited payoff as far as salary, as far as prestige, as far as challenge. Trying to make teaching cool again with all of these obstacles is a tad difficult.”

That’s part of the reason why educators at ISU launched the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline more than a decade ago. The program seeks to prepare students from high schools in Little Village, Auburn Gresham and Albany Park for college – and careers as Chicago teachers.

“The end goal for students that we’re recruiting from CPS is that they’ll return home to teach,” explains Robert Lee, the program’s executive director. “And many of our alums will continue living in these communities we serve.”

About 800 students have successfully gone through the pipeline and are now teaching in Chicago Public Schools, Lee said.

 Another facet of the program brings ISU students into Chicago neighborhoods, where they live for a month while taking teaching classes and interning at a local community organization. Pugh, the first- year teacher at Mays Elementary School in Englewood, spent the summer of 2012 in the program, which she said prepared her to teach in the city. 

Pugh was impressed with the program’s community and cultural emphasis.

“As an African-American girl growing up in Chicago, most of my teachers didn’t understand what it was like for us,” she says. “I wanted to be the person who ‘got’ the kids because I rarely had anybody I could relate to.”

Alternative routes to the classroom

The growth of alternative teaching programs, such as Teach for America and the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), may also be influencing some students to pursue a teaching certificate post- college instead of earning a bachelor’s degree in education.

Mike Konkoleski, a math teacher at Solorio High School, knew since his senior year in high school that he probably wanted to become a teacher. But he chose to study math at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and later added a double major in Spanish. Fulfilling the requirements for both majors made it difficult to also schedule the education courses he’d need to earn a teaching certificate.

He considered staying at U of I for a fifth year in order to get his teaching certificate, but instead applied to several post-college alternative teaching programs in Chicago. He entered the AUSL program in 2008, where he earned his teaching certificate along with a master’s degree in education while spending a year in the classroom under the watchful eye of a mentor. Konkoleski says he has no regrets.

“No matter what education program you look at, you only learn so much in the courses. The only way you learn is by teaching,” he points out.

Konkoleski and others in his cohort earned traditional teaching certificates through the AUSL master’s degree program at National-Louis University. Those who enter Teach for America, meanwhile, earn provisional teaching certificates during their first year on the job, and an initial certificate after their second year, provided they have fulfilled the necessary coursework and other requirements through Dominican University, National-Louis University or the University of Phoenix.

In 2005, ISBE granted 337 alternative teaching certificates to new educators that received their training through alternative programs. The number peaked in 2010, when 1,302 alternative teaching certificates were granted in Illinois, and has since dropped to 514 in 2012, the most recent year for which ISBE had data.

Despite the growth, however, it’s important to note that the vast majority of teachers still earn traditional certificates. In 2012, for example, 14 times as many traditional teaching certificates were granted when compared to alternative teaching certificates.