ALBANY -- Teaching programs throughout the State University of New York system have experienced roughly a 40 percent decline in enrollment over the past five years, records show.
Education officials attributed the decline to an increase in standardized testing and tougher evaluations, saying it has hurt the reputation of the profession.
The drop has raised concerns with leaders of SUNY and the state Education Department, who are trying to combat what they estimate will be a massive teaching shortage in the near future.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and the state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia launched TeachNY in May to bolster the teaching ranks, saying New York will need 1.6 million new teachers over the next decade to replace retiring ones.
“We are experiencing a lack of interest in teaching as a career,” Zimpher said. “Too many of our teacher graduates couldn’t find employment in the classroom -- and that is transitioning to a teacher shortage over the next decade.”
The problem is pronounced at SUNY, the largest public university system in the nation which was founded in 1948 in large part as a consolidation of the state’s teaching colleges.
But experts said the problem is also happening in private schools in New York and across the country.
‘War on teachers’
In 2011, SUNY had about 17,500 students enrolled in both their undergraduate and graduate teaching certification programs. By the fall of 2015, enrollment fell to 10,460 students.
Over the five-year stretch, the drop in teaching students ranged from the lowest of 20 percent at SUNY New Paltz in the Hudson Valley to the highest of 56 percent at Stony Brook University on Long Island, according to an analysis of SUNY data by the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau.
This decline should not come as a surprise, said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers union.
“The war on teachers and the teaching profession waged by so-called reformers made the profession less attractive and less desirable for bright young people seeking professional careers,” he said.
New York officials in recent years have debated the extent of standardized testing and teacher evaluations amid a backlash from students, teachers and parents.
The state Education Department agreed to make the tests shorter, changed testing vendors and postponed using the exams to determine the performance of students and teachers.
Earlier this month, the department said, it would continue standardized tests for six days a year in New York's elementary- and middle-school students over the next two years. The tests are administered each April.
High Achievement New York, a business-backed group, has warned against watering down the standards, saying it opposes any discussion about a long-term moratorium on state tests.
“A moratorium, as opponents have called for, is not only a prescription for chaos in classrooms – undermining years of hard work by teachers and students alike – but a sure fire way to return to an education system that left generations of students, especially in communities of color, behind with lower expectations,” the group said in a statement.
Why the decline
The flap, though, has led to fewer students enrolling in teaching programs in college.
Michael Rosenberg, the dean of New Paltz’s School of Education, said colleges have had to tout the benefits of a career in teaching.
“Our job now is how do we convince young people to decide to take a career in education? I think there’s been years and years of negative narrative about why not to be a teacher,” he said.
The decline was more pronounced in the public colleges’ undergraduate programs than the graduate ones, the records show.
Over the past five years, there was a 35 percent decline in graduate enrollment and a 43 percent drop in enrollment in undergraduate teaching-related programs throughout SUNY.
Some educators said the decline is also the function of the recession in 2008 and 2009. As schools cut staff, college students were scared off and picked other majors.
At SUNY Geneseo, its teaching program fell off 43 percent over the five-year period: from 1,284 to 733 students.
There was a similar percentage decline at SUNY Cortland: from 3,247 students to 1,863 students over the same period.
Private colleges in New York reported drop offs, too.
The state’s 72 private campuses award about 60 percent of bachelor's and graduate degrees in education, according to the state Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.
The group said there was a 27 percent decline in undergraduate students in the private-school programs in New York between 2012 and 2014 and a 17 percent drop in graduate students.
“Across the country, education programs have seen declining enrollments,” Laura Anglin, the group’s president, said in a statement.
“Higher education professionals attribute this downturn to a number of factors including lower wages for education careers compared to other opportunities, fewer openings as school districts reduce overall staffing levels, rapidly shifting professional standards that make educational planning difficult, and the increased emphasis on classroom testing.”
Numbers on the return
College officials were optimistic the decline won’t continue.
Anjoo Sikka, the dean of Geneseo’s Ella Cline Shear School of Education, seems optimistic for the field’s future.
“I think people are beginning to get that teaching is very critical profession in our society … [this will] bring back all the people who are deeply motivated to make a difference in children’s lives,” Sikka said.
Sue Robb, the associate dean for the School of Education and Human Services at SUNY Brockport said schools’ enrollment numbers are slowly rising after falling 35 percent over the five years – the most recent figures available.
The college, like others in the New York system, have expanded its programs to attract students, such as partnership with local school districts to get college students into the classroom more often as undergraduates.
“The more we can immerse students in teaching and on campus, we can unpack and reflect on those experiences,” Robb said. “Those kind of partnerships are incredibly rich.”
It also has a Teachers of Tomorrow Living and Learning Community – where students with the same major live in the same dorms and work on projects together.
At SUNY New Paltz, officials said they try to encourage students to enter the fields of math, science and special education in its teaching program because more jobs are available.
They also try to get students to consider teaching in urban areas, where jobs are also often more available.
Binghamton University has a small graduate program, but it also saw a decline – though less than the statewide average.
Its education enrollment fell 24 percent: from 202 in 2011 to 154 students in 2015.
Susan Strehle, the interim dean of the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton, blamed the emphasis on Common Core standards and starting salaries lower than some other professions as among the reasons for the decline.
The dean noted, however, that enrollment is once again beginning to increase: up to 250 students this fall.
Part of that increase, Strehle believes can be attributed to Binghamton’s development of an undergraduate minor in education, which currently has about 600 students.
“Despite the challenges I think there are so many students who go through really great schooling, get to college and know teaching can be really fun and rewarding,” Strehle said. “The innate optimism of students will never really make them give up on teaching as a profession.”
However, unlike many other SUNY schools, Binghamton only offers teaching certifications for graduate students through its Graduate School of Education.
In addition to Binghamton, the University at Albany, University of Buffalo and Empire State College only offer a graduate program in education.
One example of the effect of the drop in enrollment can be seen in Cornell University’s colleges within the SUNY.
In 2013, the college discontinued both their undergraduate and graduate teacher certification programs, where they had three and eight students respectively, compared to the 2011 enrollment of 17 and nine students.
The overall decline in enrollment patterns is not just specific to the SUNY system.
Although some areas throughout the country have experienced enrollment increases in recent years, others have witnessed declines like SUNY, according to Charis Anderson, a spokeswoman for Deans for Impact, an Austin, Texas, -based organization that aims to boost the teaching ranks.
Anderson offered recommendations similar to what SUNY is already doing to try to increase enrollment in teaching programs: Students must be better prepared and encouraged to enter the field.
“In so doing, we can elevate the perception of teacher preparation -- we can make it a more rigorous and prestigious major for students to pursue -- and thus inspire a new wave to enter the teaching profession,” she said.
--In 2011, SUNY had about 17,500 students enrolled in both their undergraduate and graduate teaching certification programs.
-- In 2015, the most recent figures available, that’s fallen 40 percent: Enrollment hit 10,460 students.
-- The drops ranged from 20 percent at SUNY New Paltz in the Hudson Valley to the highest of 56 percent at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
-- Colleges blamed the drop on the recession, tougher testing standards and flap from stronger teacher evaluations.