Somewhere midway through his sophomore year of college at Florida Atlantic University, Christopher Clevenger started to question his aeronautical engineering major. He liked the coursework, and was doing well at it, but when he thought about his job prospects, the future seemed bleak.
“It would be me, a computer screen and a phone,” he said. “I didn’t get that human interaction that I craved.”
So Clevenger changed track. He was accepted in Nova Southeastern University’s undergraduate teacher training program. On a campus tour, talking with professors and seeing the level of interest they seemed to have in the teacher candidates, Clevenger was sold. He graduated from Nova in November with a degree in secondary social science and is now teaching world history at a high school near Nova’s Fort Lauderdale campus.
Although he switched from a tough major to one that has a reputation of being easy, he stressed that – despite what some people assume―the decision was not because he wanted to earn easy As.
“A lot of students see going into the education world as a fallback…That’s where you get the bad teachers,” he said. “It’s definitely not easy. It’s not something you wake up and do if you’re not passionate about it.”
A national push to improve the quality of teachers has focused largely on those already in the classroom, with the adoption new teacher evaluation systems and efforts to help struggling teachers and push out those who don’t improve. But increasingly, reformers who believe better teachers will lead to greater student achievement are eyeing how teachers are trained in the first place—and finding training programs lacking.
For many of these critics, the problem with teacher education starts even before the first class begins. These critics argue that low-quality students are recruited to education schools, drawn by low admissions standards and perceptions of education schools as a fallback option. And high-quality candidates are being driven away from the field by school budget cuts imposed during the recession and the vitriol that often surrounds the education reform debate, educators say. Aware of their reputations, education schools find themselves doing a balancing act between boosting admissions standards and being able to fill seats.
“If they want to make [admissions] harder, I’m all for it,” said Les Potter, chair of the School of Education at Daytona State College. The college has open enrollment, but students must earn a 2.5 GPA to be admitted into the teacher training program. “But where are we going to get the students?”
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a research and advocacy group, has led the charge against low admission standards, frequently citing a 2007 McKinsey report that claims the majority of U.S. teachers are recruited from the bottom two-thirds of their class. By contrast, in countries such as Finland and Singapore that perform well on international measures of academic achievement teacher candidates are drawn from the top quartile.
NCTQ has been a constant critic of teacher training programs, producing annual reports to highlight what the organization deems as shortcomings in teacher training. In Florida, NCTQ found that only 23 percent of programs either require a 3.0 GPA before entry or are housed at a selective institution, roughly the same as the national average. (The study excluded the smallest programs.) Just five of Florida’s 42 education schools required a minimum ACT or SAT score for admission into an undergraduate program in 2012.
Nova, after nearly a decade of building up its undergraduate education program, saw its enrollment slipped from 692 in 2011-2012 to about 500 in the 2012-2013 school year. Despite that, Nova’s Fischler School of Education, into which students matriculate as juniors, is raising its entry requirements from a 2.4 in freshman and sophomore classes to a 3.0 for those matriculating in the fall of 2014. Incoming students will also need a 1,000 on their SAT.
“We’re very conscious that the people we’re awarding with our degrees are responsible for others’ children,” said Terry Davis, NSU’s director of undergraduate enrollment and recruitment. “The bottom line is important … [but] it’s not just, ‘let’s get everybody in.’”
Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program, which provides an alternative pathway to teaching for career switchers, said Nova is taking a positive first step. He noted, however, that his research has found 41 percent of all college students have a 3.0 GPA or higher. “You have to ask, what is it based on? Is that enough?” he said.
In 2006, Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, published a 140-page report on the state of teacher education with chapter headings like “The Pursuit of Irrelevance.” The study lambasted the state of education schools, including their admission standards.
Traditionally, education schools have been considered the “cash cows” of universities – low-cost, easy-to-fill programs that earn the institutions money. Levine’s work found that more than 40 percent of principals and education school faculty members thought the schools had low admission standards. Other research has shown that low-skill students in business and math majors are likely to switch to education, while high-skill education majors tend to leave those programs.
But there is conflicting information about who actually enrolls in education schools. While SAT takers who plan to major in education score well below would-be majors in many other disciplines, including engineering and psychology, many of these students never matriculate into education programs. Of those who pass the Praxis I, a basic skills test required for entry into teacher training programs in 30 states, the SAT scores of would-be elementary school teachers are below the national average, but those of secondary school teachers are at the average, according to Levine’s report.
Founded in 1964 as a graduate school, Nova was soon focusing on distance education and, later, it expanded those offerings to online courses. Now, universities across the country are trying to increase the number of online courses they offer, and online teacher training programs are part of the explosion. Walden University and the University of Phoenix, both for-profit institutions that offer extensive online coursework, are now the top producers of teaching degrees in the country, according to federal data.
Although still maintaining its online and graduate programs, Nova’s primary push is to build a robust set of brick-and-mortar undergraduate programs and provide a traditional campus experience for its students. The ultimate goal is to become a selective research university, competing for the best students in Florida and across the country.
Nova’s main undergraduate campus in Fort Lauderdale is full of brand new buildings. The $92 million campus center, opened in 2006, features a food court, student lounge and a rock climbing wall. Next door, construction is underway for a new collaborative research center.
Even so, after years of growth, the number of in-person undergraduates is faltering, including those who want to be teachers.
“There’s a lot of issues, a lot of challenges,” said Jamie Manburg, Nova’s executive director of teacher education and undergraduate programs. “I’m just not seeing, in my opinion, the demand that we used to see.”
Manburg attributed the drop in enrollment to worsened job prospects for teachers compared to other majors. The upside, he said, is that a lack of job guarantees means that those who chose to enroll in teacher training programs now are more likely to do so because they want to make a difference in children’s lives.
The shrinking number of teacher candidates comes at a difficult time. With subjects like math, science and special education facing perpetual teacher shortages and a wave of baby boom teachers poised to retire, student enrollment in Florida continues to increase, to more than 2.69 million students this school year, from less than 2.63 million in 2008-09.
There has been an increase in the number of Florida programs training teachers but that means the competition to recruit education students across the state has become stiffer. In the 2000s, the state supported districts developing alternative certification programs to target shortage areas, like special education, math and science. In 2008, the legislature passed a law allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees – including in education – to address degree areas where four-year schools could not meet the demand.
Daytona State Community College already had an education department that offered several pre-education major courses. It jumped at the chance to hold on to its students for the full four years, rather than losing them to another institution. In 2009, the school dropped community from its name and opened several bachelor’s programs, including one in education. It graduated its first class of teachers in December 2010.
Each spring, Potter, Daytona’s education program chair, visits the school’s freshman and sophomore pre-education classes, making a pitch for staying in his program rather than transferring to a larger school like the University of Central Florida. “We take a real personal touch with everyone,” he said. In particular, Potter tries to persuade undecided students and potential math and science majors to consider majoring in math or science education, or in another shortage area, like special education.
As Daytona works to grow its program, Nova is focused on retooling its offerings. While admission standards are going up, Nova administrators are streamlining graduation requirements, eliminating some and embedding others in the classroom. For instance, Nova is considering removing an assignment requiring each student to develop a portfolio of their college work, including lesson plans. Administrators are also discussing how to make the school more flexible.
“We have a generation of students who want things very quickly [and] want to customize their programs to a certain extent,” Manburg said. “We’ve got to respond to their needs and we’ve got to change our programs.”