A Shockingly Low Number of High School Students Want to Be Teachers

A survey of ACT test takers reveals that young people are steering clear of the education profession.

(Photo: College of DuPage/Flickr)

Apr 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Ask a teacher why he or she decided to enter the profession, and the answer tends to be some variation of the opportunity to mold young minds, see the light bulb go on, and help shape the future. But a new survey shows those rewards apparently aren’t enough motivation for young people to become educators, a problem that’s likely to make the current shortage of classroom teachers even worse.

According to the ACT survey, The Condition of Future Educators, just 5 percent of the roughly 1.85 million 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT test said they intended to pursue a career in the classroom, or become an education administrator or school counselor. It’s the lowest percentage since 2010, when 7 percent of college-bound seniors said they intended to major in education.

Other ACT data suggests more than half of 2013 high-school grads who planned to study education switched to another major by sophomore year. At the same time, diversity continues to be an issue: 72 percent of the future education majors are white, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, the future educators survey indicates that the students who do choose education have below-average scores on achievement tests, particularly in math and science—more bad news at a time when economists and educators alike predict the well-paying jobs of the future will require applicants to have some STEM proficiency.

“The numbers we’re seeing are not likely to meet the expected demand for future STEM teachers,” ACT president Jon Erickson said in a statement. “Highly qualified teachers play an essential role not only in preparing students to succeed but also in raising awareness of and interest in STEM careers, which are vital to our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy.”

Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of education economics at New York University, isn’t surprised by the findings. In an email interview, he wrote that he’s seen “evidence of a long-run decline in the academic ability of college graduates entering the teaching profession.” Although there are some signs of a reversal, according to Corcoran, the most common complaints about the profession are likely keeping young people out of the classroom: the sense that teaching is a tough, low-prestige, dead-end job.

“The most common explanations for that are (1) pay—annual pay in teaching is still far behind that of alternative professions; (2) lack of upward mobility—there is less of an ability to advance in classroom teaching, compared to other professional occupations; (3) teaching is simply a grueling job, with little professional autonomy,” he wrote.

Ellen Moir, founder and CEO of New Teacher Center, agrees that teaching has become a low-prestige, stressful job, but most new teachers are excited and passionate when they sign up. The problem, she says, comes when high-level administrators and policy makers, far removed from the classroom, pile on more responsibilities and demand more accountability without giving teachers more resources or support.

At the New Teacher Center, Moir says, the goal is to give teachers what they need to succeed and stay on the job, including mentoring and support. In order to make the profession more attractive to young people, she said, there have to be pathways to advancement, and teachers and administrators have to “engage teachers in problem solving.”

“We can’t just give our teachers the ‘what’ to do,” Moir said. “We have to give them the ‘how.’”

The ACT future-teachers report concurs, and outlines possible solutions. They include recruiting high-achieving students who haven’t pinpointed a career goal, promoting “alternative pathways” to teaching through other professions, and overhauling teacher pay and evaluation systems.

There are signs that teaching may be on the rebound: Corcoran says some studies show programs such as Teach for America are drawing high-achieving students back to the profession, and a student studying education at Rutgers University has stirred interest with a blog pushing back against cynical teachers who have warned her to avoid the profession.

Moir, however, said the thing that draws, and keeps, teachers in the classroom is passion, fueled by seeing the “aha” moment of understanding in a student.

“There’s nothing like seeing the light go on,” she said. “Our job is to create those conditions.”