Behind Teacher Shortage: Fewer New Educators Graduating From Alabama Schools

The number of new teachers coming out of education colleges and programs in Alabama fell by about 40 percent comparing 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, according to the latest available federal data.

The decrease could be worse nearly three years later.

“What bothers me most is that I don’t think this has bottomed out yet,” said Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of the University of Alabama’s College of Education.

“It’s basically a decline everywhere with the possible exception of elementary education,” he said.

As education leaders and elected officials look at the state’s teacher shortages, its pipeline of new teachers is a major concern.

“I have 100 certified teachers,” Roanoke City Schools Superintendent Chuck Marcum told BirminghamWatch. “Fifteen have 25 or more years’ experience, meaning they could retire now. I hope they don’t. I don’t know what we’d do.”

‘Something Has to Change’

Marcum is leading a task force of educators and education groups studying the shortage’s causes and potential solutions. He said a shotgun approach will be needed, including getting more students into colleges of education.

“Even if we increase enrollment, it’s three, four years down the road (that we see results), but it needs to be done. Something has to change.”

A 2015 federal report said 17 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Hlebowitsh said strongly prepared teachers who attended education colleges are more likely to stay than those who became educators through alternative paths or “a boot camp version of teacher education.”

But the state needs to identify more ways to get more certified teachers in classrooms, even if they don’t take a traditional path to get there, Marcum said.

There were recently more than 1,700 educators in Alabama middle and high school classrooms who were not certified in the core subjects they were teaching, according to data compiled by task force members.

“You can never take for granted the value of a good teacher,” Hlebowitsh said. “A bad one could be mis-educative, which is worse than non-educative.”

Certification matters, Marcum said. It means content expertise and knowledge of best practices.

“It hurts the kids — there is no way to get around them,” he said about having uncertified teachers. “If there’s not a negative impact, why even have education colleges?”

What Other States Do 

He wants to look at what other states are doing to certify more teachers.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle reported that anyone who wants to teach in Texas has more than 200 choices of programs to become a certified teacher. More than 27,000 new teachers enter Texas classrooms each year from these different teacher-preparation programs — 46 percent prepared by universities in colleges of education or post-baccalaureate programs and the other 54 percent by one of many alternative-certification programs, the newspaper said.

The downside, the Chronicle said, is that some of the alternative-path teachers aren’t as prepared as traditional education majors and haven’t had any in-classroom training.

“What we’ve got to do as a state is look at ways of preserving the quality part but ease any barriers to help new teachers become certified,” Marcum said.

The task force was meeting this week to talk teacher recruitment and retention.

‘Other Opportunities’

Roanoke recently had an opening for a high school advanced math teacher.

“We had one applicant,” Marcum said. We’re blessed that she was a tremendous applicant.” She was also a graduate of the system. “She was one of ours and we were able to get her to come home,” Marcum said.

Schools are competing with the private sector for some would-be-teachers.

“There is not a math or science major out there who is not going to have other opportunities,” said Rosemary Hodges, interim dean of Athens State University’s College of Education.

Potential advanced-course teachers are recruited by private industry and government agencies around Huntsville, she said.

“You could take a math major and put them on the (Redstone) Arsenal,” Hodges said. “Our students see that pay disparity.”

Hlebowitsh said his college and others around the state are recruiting new students, promoting what is still a noble profession and making teaching degrees more accessible with expanded online classes.

“If you’re going to study to become a teacher, you’re going to get a job,” Hlebowitsh said. “I like to remind parents of that when they drop their students off.”

Why Teachers Leave the Classroom

Hlebowitsh would like state leaders to look also at why teachers leave the classroom: dissatisfaction with compensation and work conditions, lack of support and not being rewarded for excelling. Among the issues are:

  • “Good teachers and bad teachers get the same pay,” he said.
  • Some education majors have to take up to four national exams, depending on their area of expertise, Hodges at Athens State said. The tests are high-stress and costly. “I think we need to make sure you’re not testing our students out,” she said. “If we’re asking students to do more than other majors do, they struggle with that sometimes.”
  • More equitable pay across school systems would also help with the shortage, she said. Systems with more local tax revenue can pay more. Potential educators know that all children deserve a good education, regardless of their address, Hodges said. But they also have to think about making ends meet. Loan forgiveness programs and housing allowances could help, she said.
  • Potential educators see current teachers nationwide striking over pay and classroom sizes, among other issues. So far this year, there have been strikes in California, Colorado and West Virginia.

“We have to make sure we’re respecting the profession,” Hodges said.

Educators in the classroom are key to improving the state’s education assessments, Marcum said. “You can come up with the best plans, but without teachers, what do you do?” he said.

The good news, Hlebowitsh said, is that the teachers coming out of college are good and really want to be teachers. “Hopefully we’ll have more of them in the future,” he said.