Who will be teaching your child tomorrow? Will they be the best and brightest in their field? Will they be so passionate about their subject matter —whether it be math, science or language arts—that they inspire a lifelong love of learning in your child?
As dean of Cal State Northridge’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education, one of the nation’s leading teacher-producing institutions, Michael Spagna wishes he had definitive answers.
He’s got one more question he’s worried about: Will there be a teacher for your child’s classroom in the future.
“That’s a very good question and it’s one that we all should be worried about,” Spagna said. “With all this talk about teacher accountability and education reform, no one has taken a serious look at the pipeline—where are our teachers coming from and if those people who are entering the profession are the ones we want in it. They may be, but are we sure?”
Spagna pointed to a recent study by The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning that shows that the number of people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in California dropped by more than 45 percent between the academic year 2001-02 and 2007-08, from more than 75,000 to fewer than 45,000. That same study noted that the number of teachers expected to retire over the next few years is increasing. At the same time, the projected K-12 enrollment is steadily increasing.
“If we don’t do something about the teacher pipeline, we’re going to have a bigger crisis on our hands regarding education than the one we have right now,” he said. “We need to have a real conversation as a nation about what we expect from our public educational system and, in particular, what we expect from our teachers. And then what are we going to do to increase the quality of our teachers.”
Spagna said it is little wonder that fewer and fewer people find a career in teaching attractive.
Elected officials across the nation have targeted teacher salaries and benefits for the budget ax as they struggle with multi-million- and billion-dollar deficits. At the same time, school districts, faced with ever decreasing financial support, are cutting teacher positions, increasing class sizes, reducing professional and classroom support and demanding more of their remaining teachers.
All this is occurring while state and national officials are clamoring for more accountability from school systems as test scores of American school children continue to lag behind those of other developed nations.
“We also have a culture that doesn’t value teaching,” Spagna said, noting that people look askance when graduates from top-tier universities announce that they intend to go into teaching.
“The assumption is that they are ‘wasting’ their education and their talent,” he said. “I’ve had fellow university faculty tell me that they steer their top students away from teaching because it doesn’t pay.”
A recent study by McKinsey & Company showed that the average U.S. teacher salary as percent of GDP per capita has gone down 2 percent per year since 1970. An international comparison of the starting salaries for primary school teachers as percent of the GDP per capita ranks the United States 12th. Korea was first, followed by Germany and Turkey. An international comparison of the starting salaries for primary school teachers after 15 years of teaching as percent of the GDP per capita ranked the United States 14th. Korea was first, followed Singapore and Germany.
“Those numbers speak volumes about how America sees its teachers,” Spagna said. “What can be a more important job than being responsible for young minds? Our greatest resource is the human mind. Yet we devalue the people who have the greatest responsibility for shaping our most important resource.”
Spagna said what’s telling is how some of the world’s top performing school systems—Korea, Singapore and Finland—recruit and treat their teachers. All three countries recruit 100 percent of their teaching force from the top third of their college graduates, “their best and their brightest.”
“But they don’t stop there,” he said. “They screen their candidates to make sure they have the right attributes to be good teachers, and they give them the tools so that they can succeed in the classroom.
“And there is one more thing—they value and respect those who become teachers,” Spagna said. “Can we say the same?”
Spagna and the faculty in the Eisner College of Education are grappling with these issues, calling on their peers at institutions of higher education and at elementary, middle and high schools across the state.
But they can’t do it alone, he said. “This is one conversation that everyone should be a part of.”