Friday I sat down for coffee with the president of a local university (in my other incarnation as a local newspaper columnist, I get the occasional request to chat). Among other things, she confirmed what I have been hearing for a while-- enrollment in state school teacher programs is plummeting, down in my region almost 50% from better times.
Part of the problem is that, at least in my part of Pennsylvania, the college-age demographic sector is shrinking, and so all college enrollment is shrinking. But as we look at the shrinking interest in joining our profession, I think we have a couple of factors to consider.
Teachers have been getting slammed for a couple of decades now. Today's eighteen-year-olds have heard a lifetime of noise about how teachers are screwing up education, standing in the way of progress, failing in all meaningful ways. They have heard the backhanded attack fallacy that a teacher is the most important factor in a school, and schools are failing, so what do you suppose that means about teachers? They have heard that teachers suck, school suck, that US education is just a giant suckfest.
They have even heard (and I feel sad to have to admit it, because I think it's wrong) veteran teachers tell them, "Don't do it. Don't pursue teaching."
They have also heard that you don't really need to study teaching to be a teacher. Pittsburgh beat back an attempted incursion by Teach for America, but while that looked like a done deal, what message did it send to students entering their final year of a teacher prep program? "Don't bother. We're going to hire some business majors with five weeks of training. Those credentials you just spent four years acquiring don't mean jack to us."
I should also acknowledge that in some areas, massive staff cuts and school closings have created a situation of local teacher surplus. In places like Chicago this only underlines my last point, because certified teachers have in effect been replaced with untrained TFA and TNTP bodies. This all adds further to the "why bother" view of applying to college teaching programs.
These factors would be enough to drive down interest in the profession, but I don't think they're the whole story.
The less obvious
Most of us developed our idea of what school is about during our own years in school. "School" almost always means, especially at the start of a career, "the kind of school I grew up in."
As many of us have said before, high stakes test-driven accountability is not "reform"-- it's the status quo. After over a decade of test prep and test taking and practice testing and test result obsession, we have now created a generation of students who don't know anything else. For today's high school senior, all this test obsession is not some new thing that is threatening education-- it's what education is. For this generation, school is the place you go to get ready for big important tests.
For many of this generation (depending on the lucky or unlucky draw of a local district), a teacher is someone who helps students get ready for big tests. A teacher is someone who delivers a prepared program-in-a-box; they don't develop units or create material or do anything except open the box and unpack what's inside.
This makes the teaching profession hugely less appealing. "If I can help just one kid figure out the right bubble to fill in on his test, I will feel like I've made the world a better place," said no young person ever. The inspiring, exciting image of teaching-- the independence, the intellectual searching, the firing of imaginations, the sparking of young minds, the nurturing of fragile young souls, the passing on of vibrant living knowledge, the participation in the miracle of growth, the guiding on a path to being fully human-- all those things that fired us up about teaching-- we got that bug from our own teachers and our own school experience. But far more of today's young people associate school with the drudgery of clerical work, the autonomy of assembly line workers.
The Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools have done their best to refashion teaching into work as uninspiring as minimum wage work in a fast food chain. (Ironically, the one place we still find teaching described in such inspirational terms is in TFA propaganda.) We dislike what the MoRONS are trying to do to teaching so much that we fight; what in that sad new world of teaching would attract somebody.
Which is perhaps the more sobering implication. Because some people do still enter teacher prep programs. Some of them have had the fortune to encounter inspirational old-school teaching, to become fired up like the rest of us did. But some have encountered the new fast-food clerical status quo, and they're okay with it. "Teaching's not hard. Do what I'm told, prep them for a test. Easy peasy!" And those future clerks will do just well in college programs that spend less time on "How To Inspire Your Students" and more on "How To Use Aligned Standards To Raise Test Scores."
See, the coming teacher shortage is not just about having fewer people who call themselves teachers. It's also about new young people who will claim the name of teacher and won't really have any idea what they're talking about.