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Poll: Top College Students See Teaching as 'Average' Profession With Low Pay

Today's top college students tend to see teaching as a profession for "average" individuals that simply doesn't pay enough, and one that has seen its prestige decline over the last few years, according to a poll and related policy analysis released today by Third Way, a centrist think tank.

"The teaching profession has a major image problem," Third Way analysts Tamara Hiler and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky write in the analysis. "Unfortunately, this perception of mediocrity has negatively affected the national reputation of teaching, initiating a cycle of undesirable outcomes that can be felt throughout the profession."

The poll data represent 400 online interviews with college students who are not majoring in education. The sample was drawn to reflect the national college student population and screened to exclude those with a GPA below 3.3. The margin of error is +/- 4.9 percentage points.

Given a list of characteristics of individuals in different majors, the respondents were much more likely to say that education majors were likely to be "nice" (44 percent) and "socially conscious" (43 percent) and "patient" (46 percent). Education majors were associated to some degree with characteristics like "smart" (37 percent), but not as much as those majoring in other fields like engineering (66 percent), business (47 percent), and physics (63 percent).

Majoring in education was generally not considered all that difficult by those surveyed, compared with nursing, math, engineering, and business, with only 9 percent of respondents labeling it "very difficult." And perhaps most troubling, teaching was the top profession respondents said that "average" people go into (32 percent.)

It's a little difficult to figure out how much of this is based on longstanding cultural perceptions about the prestige of different majors and professions vs. these students' own  experiences in their respective college departments, but it's good food for thought, and worth considering in light of the higher prestige educators in other countries enjoy

Almost half of those polled, meanwhile, said they felt that teaching has gotten less prestigious over the last few years.

The most consistent finding of all was related to pay. Thirty-nine percent of respondents named good pay or salary as something that makes a job high-status. Asked about education reforms that would make them more likely to enter the profession, the most common response was paying all teachers more, followed by paying high-performing teachers more, encouraging better school leadership, and offering student loan repayment. And finally, a quarter of those who said they decided against entering teaching said that the pay was too low and 39 percent of that same group said salaries would have to be better to become more attractive.

Would changing those things alter millennial teachers' career paths? Maybe. Nearly a third of the 400 polled students said they had "absolutely no interest" in being a K-12 teacher, by far the most common response. But, to put that in context, 29 percent said they had no interest in being a doctor, 31 percent had no interest in being a web developer, 31 percent had no interest in being a lawyer, and 41 percent said they had no interest in being a stockbroker. Across the board, it seems to be easier for college students to identify what they're not interested in doing than what captures their fancy!

In their analysis, Third Way analysts lay out a series of recommendations, beginning with creating a unified standard for teaching practice, providing teachers with loan forgiveness, and affording opportunities for teachers to advance and be paid more. They're all ideas that are definitely circulating among the chattering policy classes these days. And as with all such ideas, the hitch will be in the how's: how to navigate the difficult political currents shaping K-12 education, how to advance them into concrete policy, and how to pay for them.

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