Why do so many more young people want to become teachers?
We haven't seen growth rates like these in years
My title here is a little bit tongue in cheek. But it’s deliberate. I’m trying to push back against the narrative that no one wants to be a teacher these days.
For example, the NY Times published a piece this month by Jessica Grose with the provocative headline, “People Don’t Want to Be Teachers Anymore. Can You Blame Them?” In it, she cites academic work by Matt Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon, which concludes that, “The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years.”
Kraft and Lyon are doing serious and credible academic work, but it’s based on survey data rather than actual behavior. And people sure aren’t behaving like the teaching profession is at all-time lows.
For one thing, we have more teachers than ever before. That’s odd, right? It’s weird to talk about the death of a profession that’s growing in size.
But there are also more prospective teachers than there were a few years ago. Again, if the teaching profession is dying, why are more young people choosing to become teachers?
You might not believe me on this second point. After all, Grose writes that, “Fewer college and university students want to become teachers, and the new teacher pipeline is drying up.” The first part of that statement is only true if you look out over a long time horizon, and the second part is factually incorrect.
It is true that teacher preparation enrollments are down significantly from where they were 10-15 years ago. But, according to the latest data, the directionality is going up, and more people are training to become teachers than a few years ago.
There are two main data sources to track here. The first, and the oldest, looks at the number of people who complete a bachelor’s or Master’s degree in education. Those numbers declined rapidly after the Great Recession, but made smaller and smaller declines until finally starting to grow again. The most recent data run through 2020-21, and those are showing higher growth rates than anything we’ve seen since the late 1980s.
Now, the number of education degrees is not necessarily the same thing as the number of new teachers. Someone might earn a bachelor’s degree in education but decide not to teach. Or they might already be teaching but decide to add on a Master’s degree.
So another data source looks at people who actually complete a teacher preparation program and earn a new teaching license or certificate. The maps below show the latest trends in those data through 2020-21.
The number of people completing a teaching preparation program is up year-over-year in every single state:
And the number of newly certified teachers is going up in every state except Virginia and Pennsylvania:
Again, how you evaluate this data depends on your frame of reference. There are still far fewer teachers in the pipeline than there were in 2007, when we hit our most recent peak, but all the recent trends are pointing upwards.
We can and should talk about the morale issues that Kraft and Arnold Lyon document in their research, but we should juxtapose that against the real gains we’ve seen over the last few years. More people are teaching, and more people are training to become teachers. Those trends are improving, and we should be asking how to make them improve faster.