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Causes, Consequences of Elementary-Teacher Oversupply Examined

Karen Fields had set out to be an elementary teacher, but when she got out of her post-baccalaureate credentialing program at Temple University, in 2012, and started attending teacher-recruiting fairs, she saw a lot of signs reading "No Elementary."

As I write in a story in this week's edition of Education Week, her experience is probably not all that unusual. State data suggest that the nation may face an oversaturation of elementary-level teachers. Pennsylvania, for instance, recently produced in just one year about four times as many elementary teachers as the state estimated it would hire.

Fortunately, Fields had been warned about a potential job crunch in the elementary field, and had also fulfilled the requirements to add on a special education endorsement. Ultimately, she was able to land a job as a middle school special education teacher at a city charter school instead. And she likes the new job, despite some aspects that are more challenging in middle school than at the elementary level—classroom management, for one.

"You can connect with the students on a different level than with the little ones," she said. "I'm sort of glad it happened because it ended up being positive."

Clearly, that happy ending isn't the case for all such teachers. And the implications of an elementary oversupply are many and varied. What does it mean for a profession in which many are asking questions about the relationship between the quality of teacher training, the prestige of the field, and salaries? What does it mean financially for states whose graduates have to find other jobs or go out of state to be hired?

Lest you think I'm picking on colleges' education departments, consider the number of stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere examining the oversupply of law students. Higher education is being pressed more and more to address job placement and publish employment rates, and that could be brought to bear on their teaching programs, too.

Also, I took pains to point out that these data we have now are relatively crude. Every state has its own way of defining "program completers," not all of whom necessarily obtain state certification or want to teach. The labor market is fluid, too, and states are not good about tracking those who go to other states to teach.

For those of you who want even more food for thought, consider this data point, which didn't make it into my story: A large number of people who train to be teachers never actually enter the profession. It's from the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, a U.S. Department of Education data collection that ran from 1992-93 to 2002-03. BBS is a longitudinal study looking at the career choices of bachelor's degree recipients. (There's much more about it on the National Center for Education Statistics' website.)

According to the data, 40 percent of education majors who received B.A.s were not teaching at the elementary or secondary levels in 1994, 1997, or 2003, the three years in which NCES surveyed the folks in the sample.

Not all ED majors, of course, have plans to go on and teach; some might just be interested in the subject matter but not wish to teach. And we also don't know what kind of certification area these folks were in; it seems reasonable to believe that those who got a B.A. in education and specialized in elementary might differ from those who specialized in secondary science in some significant way.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this complicated topic.

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