College students hitting the books these days are far less likely to be learning about teaching — and that could be putting future generations’ educational attainment at risk.
Back in 1975, more than one-fifth (22%) of college students majored in education — a higher share than any other major. By 2015 though, fewer than one in 10 Americans pursuing higher education devote their studies to education, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau compiled by career website Zippia.
The shift away from an education major was especially notable among women. Over the past 40 years, the share of female college students majoring in education has shrunk from 32% to 11%. And as interest in a degree in education dwindled, more students pursued course work in sciences, fine arts, communications and computer science.
Looking ahead, even fewer college students may pursue education majors. Only 4.6% of college freshmen planned to major in education, down from 10% in the 1970s, according to a May 2017 study from researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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There’s a teacher shortage — but it’s not necessarily because fewer people are qualified
That could be a problem. Public schools nationwide don’t have enough teachers, according to data from the Department of Education. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia lacked math teachers, alone. Similar shortages were reported for special education, science and foreign languages.
Some states have addressed these shortages by seeking to reduce the qualifications needed to become a teacher as a result. But overly stringent requirements haven’t led to this current shortage, researchers say.
For starters, shortages are occurring because of increased demand on public schools. As of fall 2017, 50.7 million students were attending public elementary and secondary schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2025, that number is expected to expand to 51.4 million.
Maintaining current class size ratios would mean hiring thousands more teachers, according to the Learning Policy Institute — and that doesn’t even account for efforts being made across many school districts nationwide to reduce class sizes.
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While reduced numbers of qualified teachers will certainly exacerbate that problem, a potentially bigger issue is attrition among teachers. Over the past decade, roughly 8% of American teachers left the profession. That’s early double the rates seen in countries like Finland and Singapore, where teacher shortages are less acute and students are higher achieving.
“This is pre-retirement turnover, mostly driven by dissatisfaction,” Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told education publication NEA Today.
While low salaries do play a role, Ingersoll said teachers are generally more frustrated with the lack of say they have in schools’ decisions and curriculum. Attrition is particularly bad in urban districts where Ingersoll said teachers are “the most micromanaged in this era of accountability.”
Some states want more people to become teachers — and that’s a good thing
In August, California Gov. Jerry Brown reversed a law that banned education as a major at colleges and universities in the state. Months later, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe took similar action, directing the Virginia Board of Education to put into effect emergency regulations that would allow public colleges and universities to offer an education major.
Those programs could be successful in producing teachers with longer careers in the field. A 2014 report from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education found that educators with training in teaching methods or pedagogy were less likely to quit teaching after a year on the job.
And staying in a classroom longer has its benefits: Research has shown that a teacher’s degree alone isn’t necessarily correlated with improved student performance, but having more teaching experience generally is.