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Is the Teaching Profession Going Backwards?

In case you missed it, John Merrow and the Learning Matters team had an interesting segment on the PBS Newshour last night exploring the question of whether this is a good time to go into teaching.

The answer, the piece suggests, is mixed—or at least not highly affirmative. While we've been seeing numerous reports this summer of major teacher shortages (and even offers of hiring bonuses), for example, Merrow suggests the landscape is far more complicated nationally (and by subject area).

His report focuses on northeastern New Jersey, where school officials told him they have been receiving thousands of applications for just dozens of job openings. Of the 555 elementary education graduates from Montclair State University between 2010 and 2012, Merrow notes, only half have found teaching jobs in New Jersey. (Education schools often produce more general elementary education graduates than there are available jobs, in contrast to the situation in hard-to-staff fields like math, science, and special education.)

Meanwhile, many of the newly minted teachers who do land jobs may not be inclined to stay in them for very long. Merrow cites the familiar statistic that, on average, 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years—generally, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll, due to factors like lack of support, limited decisionmaking authority, and student behavioral problems.

Ingersoll, the segment's featured expert on the teaching profession, notes that working conditions are generally worse in low-income urban schools. And that, he says, has had an effect of disproportionately driving up the "quit rates" of minority teachers, who often work in such schools.

If school systems haven't done a great job of hanging on to minority teachers, meanwhile, they've also failed to attract more men to the profession. Despite widely publicized initiatives to recruit more men into teaching, Ingersoll says, the occupation is becoming "more female dominated," with three-fourths of classrooms now headed by women.

So what to make of these trends? Ingersoll makes the provocative point that, in terms of demographics and job stability, the teaching profession may be backtracking to an earlier status:

Maybe all these changes aren't so much new, as they're returning to the old patterns. So when the public school system was invented over a century ago, ... teaching was quite explicitly and intentionally made an occupation that was women, young women. Indeed, when you got married, you had to quit. So there was a lot of transiency. ... So, maybe the data are telling that these transformations are not something new; they're returning to the old.

For new teachers, there may still be good opportunities within this framework. But the¬†central question for education policymakers—and perhaps teacher leaders, too—may be how best to break the "old patterns" and move the profession back to the future.

Here's the PBS segment:


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