Masked teacher and students in class.jpeg

A masked teacher and masked students in a Jefferson County classroom. (WDRB file photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For Ella Gordon, teaching is a calling and a family tradition.

The University of Louisville senior’s parents, both teachers, were “shocked” that she wanted to pursue a career in education.

When your parents are teachers, she said, “you swear that you're not going to do it because you see how tedious and horrible it can be at times.”

“I think someone has to do it, and so it might as well be someone who's passionate for it and who is a lifelong learner and who wants to make a difference in the world,” said Gordon, who studies elementary education and soon will begin student teaching at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).

Gordon is part of a shrinking pipeline of prospective teachers hoping to lead classrooms in Kentucky and throughout the U.S.

The trend isn’t new. In Kentucky, the number of bachelor's degrees conferred has grown every year since the 2011-12 academic term before dropping 2.2% to 23,423 degrees last year, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. A similar drop in the number of master's degrees conferred by Kentucky colleges and universities happened last year, stopping an upward trajectory that began in the 2015-16 academic year, data show.

Students at Kentucky’s colleges and universities have not completed undergraduate and postgraduate education programs at the same pace, however.

More than 2,200 bachelor's degrees in education were conferred in the 2012-13 academic year, the most in the period covered by CPE data. That total dropped 20.6% to last year, when students earned 1,762 bachelor's degrees in education.

The 2012-13 term was also the high-water mark for master's degrees in education with 3,349 earned at Kentucky institutions that year, according to CPE data. That total dropped 28.3% to 2,401 master's degrees conferred in education last year.

Nationally, fewer bachelor's degrees in education have been conferred as overall numbers tick upward every year. While U.S. Department of Education data show a 12.3% growth in total bachelor's degrees conferred between the 2011-12 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of undergraduate education degrees in that time dropped by 20.5%

Some fear the decline in new educators may worsen teacher shortages school districts are dealing with now.

“My fear is, and it probably won't be me dealing with it, what's it going to be like 10 years from now?” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said. “Are we going to be in positions across this country where we have classroom sizes of 40 to 50 kids or virtual-type learning for kids, which is really going to negatively impact kids? It’s a real concern for the upcoming years.”

JCPS had 174 certified teaching vacancies as of Dec. 2, according to records provided by the district, and Pollio is not alone in worrying about the shrinking pipeline of new and future teachers.

Southern Regional Education Board President Stephen Pruitt, who formerly served as Kentucky’s education commissioner, said urban and rural school districts have dealt with shortages in science, math and special education programs and face new shortages in elementary and career and technical education.

“If you follow the trend data, it looks like it is still on a downward trajectory,” Pruitt said of enrollment in teacher preparation programs and degree attainment. “We don't know what the pandemic is going to do to that.”

Mixed experiences

Three Kentucky universities have seen different enrollment trends in their education programs.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, dean of University of Kentucky’s College of Education, said enrollment in UK’s undergraduate and graduate programs has declined by about 15% to 20% over the past several years.

UK has seen “a silver lining” over the last three years as enrollment numbers begin to stabilize to 2015 levels in areas like science, technology, engineering, math, social studies and early childhood teaching, Vasquez Heilig said. The university has also more than doubled the number of Black teachers in its incoming cohort of graduate-level students, he said.

“While overall, I think there's some real challenges for colleges of education, there are definitely some silver linings,” he said.

Enrollment at the University of Louisville’s undergraduate teaching program is down about 8% over the past three years, said Meg Hancock, associate dean for student success and academic affairs at UofL’s College of Education and Human Development.

But UofL’s graduate-level program, which covers initial teacher certifications and alternative certifications, has seen enrollment jump by about 41% during the same three-year period, she said.

Hancock says UofL has worked closely with area partners to identify those who may be interested in pursuing education as a second career, either through earning a master's degree in teaching or an alternative certification.

Declining enrollment in undergraduate programs, like UofL has experienced, leaves open the possibility of the ongoing teacher shortage to worsen, Hancock said.

“But I also think it presents a wonderful opportunity for us to really share the positive narrative about the impact of education in our communities and the important role that educators play in helping communities grow and thrive,” she said. “… It's vitally important for us to rewrite the narrative on the importance of education, how teachers are trained so that when they enter the classroom, they feel equipped to deal with the situations and issues that might arise.”

Kurt Jefferson, dean of graduate education at Spalding University, says interest in undergraduate- and graduate-level teaching programs at Spalding have continued to grow in recent years.

Jefferson attributes the growth of Spalding’s education program to factors like its history as a postsecondary institution for prospective teachers, its continual development of teacher preparation programming, its partnerships with JCPS and the Archdiocese of Louisville, and its efforts to improve diversity among Spalding’s student body.

“We’re now 25 to 33% students of color on our campus, so we’re really meeting the needs of the times in the local area,” he said.

Not all postsecondary institutions have seen Spalding’s enrollment successes in their teacher preparation programs. Pruitt said colleges and universities have recorded declining enrollments in their teaching programs “pretty much across the board.”

“There are highlights of institutions that have stayed steady, but in general, I think that's been a pretty decent trend across our region for a while now,” he said.

Changing trajectory

While Gordon is sure of her choice to enter the teaching field, she knows several UofL students who ultimately decided that they did not belong in classrooms.

Quite a few left UofL’s undergraduate teaching program just before their student teaching assignments began, she said.

“I think people realize how big of a job it is, and I think that's one of the biggest reasons that there's a decline,” Gordon said. “It’s, in my opinion, underpaid, and it’s a huge task, and it’s not easy. …You’re 22 and you’re now in charge of 22 children, so I think people realize how big of a task it is, and if you can do a desk job or work for your dad’s business, why would you not take that and maybe get paid a little bit more?”

Others highlighted similar factors for the declining interest among youth to pursue careers in teaching.

Pollio believes salaries for Kentucky’s public school teachers should be higher. Teachers are working in a time when education is becoming more politicized and students are coming to them with more issues, largely driven by poverty, he said.

“We are approaching 70% of our student population being free or reduced lunch in this community right now. Seventy percent,” Pollio said. “We’re having over 6,000 kids come to school every day that are homeless, with mental health issues, with problems, and teachers are the ones being asked to address that, be held accountable for results when they’re facing much tougher needs and in many times being attacked.

“So I think that has driven a lot of young people away from exploring the teaching option.”

Pruitt suggested that a comprehensive evaluation of teaching as a profession in the U.S. needs to happen as a precursor to making careers in education more appealing.

Salaries, school environments, expectations and workloads for teachers, class scheduling, and coaching and mentorship opportunities for young educators should be considered by policymakers if they want to change the trajectory of teaching as a career, he said.

People should also think of the ongoing teacher shortage as part of the broader workforce challenges rather than simply an issue for school districts to handle on their own, he said.

“If we don’t simultaneously work on that shrinking workforce with a shrinking teaching force, we’re going to be in a real world of hurt over the next five to 10 years because part of what happens is if we lose teachers, that means we're losing people who are helping our students learn the key skills they need to do to go into those career fields,” Pruitt said. “There’s kind of a circular issue that we have to address, and it is going to take time, it’s going to take a lot of thought, it’s going to take a lot of strategy and partnership.”

Hancock, the associate dean at UofL, said rewriting the narrative on the importance of teaching and education is “vitally important” in the years ahead.

“We need to be having conversations about the transformational power of education because I really think when individuals see that they can have an impact not just on a single student life but that impact on a broader community,” Hancock said. “That's really where we're going to start to attract more individuals to the profession.”

“We can’t wait to the last minute to solve this problem. We just can’t,” said Vasquez Heilig with UK. “… We have got to address this problem now, and we have to be very careful about how we address the teacher shortage problem because some of the solutions that are out there will actually exacerbate the issues that you see in the teacher shortages statewide.”

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