Want Better, More Equitable Schools? Address the Economic Realities (and Myths) of Becoming a Teacher

Author: Dr. Ken Futernick
Affiliation: CSU Chancellor's Office
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Teacher shortages in California and across the nation continue to deny many PK-12 students adequate opportunities to learn. When schools cannot hire enough qualified teachers, they are forced to employ substitutes and people without ample knowledge about teaching or their subjects. In a 2017 survey, 80% of California school districts representing one-fourth of the state's enrollment reported shortages—shortages that were far more severe in schools serving students of color and students from low-income families. Increased demand for teachers and high attrition rates are partly to blame, but a sharp decline in the number of people entering the profession is also a key contributor. In California, enrollments in teacher education programs fell by 70% over a recent 10-year period. This distressing downward trend finally began to reverse itself in 2014, but it will take many years and considerable effort to rebuild the robust teacher pipeline that California needs if we do not address this fundamental question:

Why are so few people becoming teachers?

These are the likely culprits: declining public support for teachers, concerns about beginning teacher layoffs (concerns that were valid during the 2008 recession), and, most significantly, the relatively low pay teachers earn compared with other college graduates. But even those individuals who are willing to accept these realities face another obstacle: the costs of obtaining a teaching credential, which is especially formidable for students from low-income families (and nearly half of CSU’s credential students fall into this category).

In a 2017 survey of the state’s teacher education programs conducted by the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), teacher education faculty identified the lack of financial aid as the single greatest factor contributing to low enrollment in their credential programs.

The cost for CSU credential students living off campus for one academic year can be as much as $30,000 for tuition, fees, books, room and board and other personal expenses. (See this budget for prospective teachers published by CSU Long Beach.) Many students require over a year to complete a credential program, and these expenses do not include the opportunity costs incurred by those foregoing other employment opportunities while taking classes and student teaching. And these expenses come at a time when most students have just graduated from college and are eager to find jobs and begin paying back their college loans.

Clearly, financial aid and teacher compensation must be increased substantially to fully re-build California’s teacher pipeline. Meanwhile, however, teacher educators must convey information about existing financial supports, compensation, and the job market. And they must do so early and often so that students don’t select alternate career paths simply for lack of accurate information.

Many such options are currently available, including the following state and federal aid programs as well as a wide range of campus-based financial supports.

State and Federal Aid

Teacher residency programs offer substantial financial support for credential students as a result of $75 million in funding recently approved by California lawmakers. Modeled after clinically-based residency programs for medical students, teacher residents work alongside accomplished elementary, secondary, or special education teachers in high-need schools for a full year. The CCTC recently awarded grants to several local education agencies and their higher education partners, which will provide scholarships of up to $10,000 to participating teaching candidates for tuition, books, and living expenses.

Campus-based Financial Supports

Several CSU campuses also offer their own financial aid programs to help prospective teachers manage the costs of becoming a teacher, tapping funds they’ve received from state and federal grants or from partnerships they have formed with local organizations. Many CSU campuses conduct free test preparation workshops to defray the costs of the exams that credential students must take. Some provide scholarships for tuition to students in high-need areas such as special education and STEM. Some offer paid internships to undergraduates who want to gain experience working with students in local schools. Some provide stipends for students to attend professional conferences. These and many other campus-based programs are documented in the recruitment resources page of this online toolkit for teacher educators.

Myths about Compensation and Layoffs

There is no avoiding the fact that classroom teachers make less than other college graduates, about 30% less according to a 2017 report by OECD. But there’s also evidence that many would-be teachers underestimate what teachers actually earn. A 2017 study of University of Texas undergraduates found that the salaries that would attract STEM majors to teaching are close to the salaries that teachers actually make.

In California, the news media frequently run alarming stories every spring about the number of “pink slips” that are sent to beginning teachers, informing them that they may laid off the following fall. What the media does not convey is that districts are required to send these notices by state law, even if there is only a slim chance teachers with the least seniority won’t be re-hired. In fact, layoffs of beginning teachers have been rare since the 2008 recession, but since the media seldom reports this side of the story, would-be teachers (and parents, friends, and university faculty who can influence their decisions) are left thinking they have little job security.

Communication is Key

The availability of financial aid, accurate information about compensation, and the stability of jobs in today’s economic environment matter little if future teachers don’t know these things. Students as early as high school and community college, but especially as undergraduates when many are formulating their career plans, will be far less interested in teaching if they are operating with false and negative perceptions about earning a credential and being a teacher.

Along with the equally vital, positive messages about why one should consider teaching in the first place, many campuses include information about financial aid, compensation and benefits, and job opportunities in their recruitment campaigns.

At CSU campuses that participate in EduCorps, for instance, undergraduate faculty nominate students they believe are strong candidates for teaching. Honored to have been nominated by their professors, these students (many from diverse backgrounds) turn out in large numbers at celebration of teaching events, where they interact with local PK-12 teachers, learn about the rewards of teaching, and become familiar with the full range of financial aid opportunities available on their campuses. In some instances, human resource staff from local districts are invited to speak about job opportunities and compensation packages, as shown in this video of a celebration of teaching event at CSU Sacramento. Many nominees, some of whom had never considered teaching, end up enrolling in teacher credential programs.

Nominating students for teaching is a powerful gesture, but as the University of Texas study of STEM undergraduates found, the students most likely to consider teaching majored in departments where the faculty merely discussed teaching as a career option. The lesson for teacher educators seeking to boost enrollments would be to urge colleagues in academic departments across campus to talk with their students not only of the virtues of teaching, but also about the availability of financial aid, as well as stable, decent paying jobs.

Many campuses use a multi-pronged approach to recruitment that includes periodic workshops, classroom presentations, and one-on-one program and financial aid advising. Campuses are increasingly using social media strategies, like targeted email blasts to student listserves; posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about events and careers in teaching; and inspiring videos and answers to FAQs on campus webpages.

Teacher education programs will surely benefit by taking stock of their own recruitment strategies and exploring those implemented at other institutions, including the nearly 200 in this Toolkit, to see which ones might fill gaps, especially those related to economic obstacles.

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