‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

Teacher education programs were facing major problems even before the pandemic, but are they dying of natural causes or being killed off? Either way, what's lost when they go away for good?

October 28, 2020
 
University of South Florida
University of South Florida's College of Education

The University of South Florida shocked faculty members with its recent decision to close its College of Education, which has a large undergraduate population, and retain only a graduate program. The University of California, Davis’s teacher education program staved off a planned suspension due only to widespread outcry. Experts say that education programs -- long devalued on and off many campuses -- are under even greater threat in an era of COVID-19-related budget cuts.

“Education programs have been at risk for a while, and COVID exacerbates the risk … It's another cut in a death by a thousand cuts,” said Francyne Huckaby, professor of curriculum studies at Texas Christian University and president of the Society of Professors of Education.

Closing a College

At South Florida, education professors knew that cuts were coming, as the university previously announced that it needed to slash its budget by some $36.7 million this fiscal year: the State University System of Florida asked all universities to prepare plans for an 8.5 percent state funding cut, and a second round of cuts is expected next year. But these professors had no idea that the entire college would be scrapped until Judith A. Ponticell, interim dean of education, shared the news with them in an email this month.

“As part of our strategic budget renewal process, USF must reduce the College of Education’s annual budget allocation by $6.8 M (or 35 percent) over two years, a challenging task that demands a comprehensive assessment as we plan for the future of education at USF,” Ponticell wrote. The solution, she said, is “strategically reimagining and reconfiguring education at USF from a comprehensive College of Education to a more focused Graduate School of Education,” housed within another, yet-to-be-named college.

The elimination of the bachelor’s degree program in education and closure of the college “reflects the evolving demands of students, who are increasingly seeking alternative pathways to teacher certification outside of the traditional baccalaureate degree,” Ponticell said. Going forward, students may seek a master of arts degree in teaching as part of a five-year combined degree program.

Having a graduate school “enables us to leverage our strengths in our master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degree programs,” Ponticell wrote, “and to place a stronger emphasis on research opportunities and contributions to our important PreK-12 partners and beyond.”

According to information from the university, total enrollment within the college has dropped from 5,117 students to 2,384 students within the past decade. Undergraduate enrollment alone has dropped from 2,893 to 1,066.

Nationally, enrollment in bachelor's degree programs in education is declining, but not as precipitously. Some 82,621 students graduated with four-year degrees in education in 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to 102,849 in 2008.

‘Disrupting’ Education in Florida

At the same time, Florida’s K-12 population is growing, and local school districts -- some of the nation’s largest -- hire many of their teachers straight out of South Florida. In Pasco County, for instance, 1,887 teachers of about 5,000 total graduated from the institution. Florida's K-12 population is projected to grow by about 14 percent between 2011 and 2023, compared to a 5 percent national increase.

Local school leaders have already voiced opposition to South Florida’s plan, saying they weren’t consulted. Mike Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, told the Tampa Bay Times that “we depend on USF’s undergraduate program to fill our teaching needs.” Instead of closing the undergraduate program, he encouraged South Florida to “reinvent” it, in part to attract more students.

Florida already has a “serious and growing” teacher shortage, according to the Florida Education Association, which attributes this form of “silent strike” to Florida’s No. 46 ranking for teacher pay, overcrowded classrooms, an inflexible “teach-to-the-test” culture and a general lack of respect and support for teachers. The group reported in January that 2,440 teaching positions were open in Florida, up 10 percent from a year earlier.

In Florida and elsewhere, teacher advocates worry that new pressures facing teachers as a result of the coronavirus, such as online teaching and calls for a return to the physical classroom without funding for additional safety measures, will accelerate this flight from the profession.

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, a professor of literacy studies at South Florida, said that despite the challenges facing teachers, many students still want to become educators. A four-year degree helps boost their chances of success, as they enter the profession with a realistic sense of what it entails, a theoretical and practical grounding in pedagogy, and a set of mentors on whom to rely even after they graduate, she said.

Schneider warned that the college's elimination would lead to unintended consequences across the region, from even more serious teacher shortages to increased costs for districts forced to provide more professional development for underprepared teachers. Less qualified high school graduates might also end up on the local job market, she said.

“When you disrupt education, you really disrupt a lot of other elements of society,” said Schneider, who is vice president of South Florida’s Faculty Senate but did not speak on behalf of that group. “We may not be producing as many teachers as we were 10 to 20 years ago, but we are contributing to the districts we serve.” She urged the university to look beyond the very real economic impact of COVID-19 and to “also think long term.”

“What are the values of USF? Do we understand that this means and its impact to our community? Where are we prioritizing our efforts? I think USF as a whole needs to take a step back and think about it.”

Even a one-year master’s degree isn’t necessarily enough to prepare someone for say, corralling 20 to 30 students, some of whom will be learning English, have learning differences or face problems at home, Schneider said.

“Not everybody’s going to want to believe this, but there is something we provide you can’t get anywhere else. You can’t just learn the content disciplines without understanding pedagogical practices and how to structure learning in the classroom.” One classic problem for new teachers is “managing students in a space, getting students to work together and create together,” Schneider added. “In old-fashioned terms, this is called classroom management and behavior management.”

Another focus of today’s education degree programs is antiracist pedagogies -- a professed value of many colleges and universities.

Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education at Boston University and section chair within the American Educational Research Association’s teaching and teacher education division, said the events at South Florida “surely put a lot of teacher education programs on edge,” as the campus is known for having “a large, prominent program” with “many strengths.”

Jones said he suspected that similar education programs, and those at large public institutions in particular, “face the dual threats of decreased revenue due to the loss of on-campus students but also due to decreases in state budgets” during COVID-19.

Even where programs don’t close, he said, “we are seeing a particular crunch for non-tenure-track faculty.”

South Florida’s plan is obviously designed to cut instructional costs, but it’s not yet clear exactly how many professors will be affected. Art Shapiro, professor of education and president of the campus faculty union, which is affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, estimated that 35 full-time jobs would be eliminated, with instructors who have served fewer than five years losing their jobs first.

Long-Term Trends

Huckaby said that overall investment in public education has been declining by many measures since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. The space race also changed conversations about education from what it could do for students and society to what it could deliver, she explained. And the rise of alternative teacher certification programs is a consequence of that disinvestment -- and a primary threat to education degree programs and their value to public education.

While alternative certification programs are shorter and cost less up front than university-based degree programs, Huckaby continued, “the bachelor’s degree is a more robust education that prepares one well for being a teacher.” Alternative certification programs are, in many cases, “insufficient preparation for educating K-12 students.”

As of 2016, some 18 percent of public school teachers entered the profession via alternative route to certification program, according to federal data. One benefit of these programs is that they increase teacher diversity in terms of race and gender. But their standards vary widely.

Alternative certification programs, first established in New Jersey over 30 years ago, are now offered in every state, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The first programs focused on getting "content-proficient" adults with backgrounds in science, math and other fields into secondary classrooms without making them earn another degree. But alternative paths to teaching have since proliferated. The national council, in its 2014 study of 85 alternative programs, gave the majority D or F grades. In general, they all ask the teacher candidate to serve simultaneously as the “teacher of record” and an “intern” prior to obtaining certification. Learning happens first and foremost on the job.

Failing grades mean the programs have no required grade point average for applicants, or a minimum GPA of 2.5. There is generally no standardized test or teaching audition required. Required fieldwork prior to teaching amounts to a week or less, and there is no clinical practice. Teachers within these program are observed infrequently.

A grades, meanwhile, mean programs require at a least a 3.0 GPA and an audition from applicants, that students have majored or passed a content test in their planned teaching area, clinical practice and observations prior to teaching and ongoing mentor support.

Confusion in California

Earlier this month, Davis announced that it was seeking to suspend admissions to its master's-level teacher credentialing program for at least a year as it redesigned the curriculum. That’s despite a documented teacher shortage in 80 percent of California’s school districts, and the fact that -- unlike South Florida -- Davis’s teacher education enrollment numbers have remained relatively constant over five years, from 124 in 2015 to 132 this year. There were surges in students in 2017 and 2019, however: 174 and 159, respectively.

“Among our priorities will be better integrating our innovative research into our curriculum, expanding and deepening the ways we prepare our graduates to address institutional racism, and increasing the use of digital tools for teaching and learning,” Davis’s School of Education said in an announcement of the plan and intent to put it to a faculty vote.

Students, alumni and many faculty members immediately began to protest the plan, asking why a curricular redesign centered on equity and justice couldn’t happen concurrently with instruction -- especially in this moment of racial reckoning. These critics also pointed out that curriculum changes rarely take just a year, meaning that admissions could be suspended for much longer than that.

Meanwhile, instructors in the program say they were told to prepare for furloughs, with the chance of reapplying for their jobs sometime in the future.

“At the heart of the program's success are the clinical faculty who are best suited to bridge university research with classroom practice,” reads a alumni-led petition demanding that any revamping of the curriculum happen concurrently with instruction. “The school's [proposed] suspension of the teacher credentialing program is distressing for alumni and for the communities in which the school partners and serves. Any suspension will destroy a vital lifeline of preservice teacher preparation that supports the wellbeing of California's schools.”

Rebecca Rosa, lecturer in education at Davis, said it was unlikely that furloughed instructors within the program would wait around for their jobs to return in the middle of the pandemic and attendant faltering economy. Beyond Davis, one of the biggest problems with the plan was that “there were no discussions with key stakeholders,” including the feeder schools that draw teachers from the program.

“Whatever the real rationale is behind this, what they’re saying makes no sense,” Rosa said of the university’s communication about the plan.

Within a few days of the plan being announced, Lauren E. Lindstrom, dean of education, wrote to the School of Education saying that while she was “still convinced that a major redesign is necessary, we have listened to faculty, staff, and community input and have decided to slow down our process.”

Admissions will stay open for 2021, she said, as the school engages in a more “deliberative” process about what should happen with respect to instruction during the redesign.

“A teacher preparation program must be responsive to constantly evolving educational priorities and must model the continuous improvement process that we instill in our own students,” Lindstrom said. “We have received input through course evaluations, end-of-year surveys, student town halls, and focus group interviews telling us that we need to update both our coursework and program design to reflect significant changes in public school systems. Our program must create opportunities for prospective teachers to effectively engage with the current climate, including by addressing systemic racism; meeting the needs of LGBTQ students, bilingual students, and students with disabilities; and using digital tools to promote learning.”

In her memo, Lindstrom insisted that shutting the program down was “never under consideration.”

‘Alarm Bells’

Alyson Adams, director for teaching and teaching education at the University of Florida’s School of Teaching and Learning, said she imagined enrollment declines were happening at colleges of education across the U.S., and that the biggest reason -- at least in Florida -- is probably alternative certification programs.

At the University of Florida, students are currently required to complete a master's degree for full elementary education certification, but Adams said that school principals try to hire students as teachers even before they complete their studies. So Adams’s campus is developing a four-year degree with certification at the bachelor’s level, to respond to local school needs.

Adams’s campus also offers alternative pathways to teaching, such as Educator Preparation Institutes and minors in teaching for undergraduates. Yet Adams said she and her colleagues were “sad” about the developments at South Florida because “we believe in the power of a formal teacher preparation program with coursework and rich clinical experiences.”

South Florida has a reputation for strong professional development with local school networks, which could “be impacted by the loss of undergraduate teacher education,” she said. “Another less visible impact will be on Ph.D. student preparation, as those learning to become teacher educators may not have courses to teach or interns to supervise, and therefore be less marketable for teacher ed jobs.”

What’s to become of other teacher education programs in the COVID-19 economy? Jones, of Boston University, said that on one hand, a case "could be made that education as a field of study will grow more attractive," especially to "highly qualified candidates who may not have historically considered teaching."

On the other hand, Jones said, there has been an “existential threat facing colleges of education for several years.” It’s therefore “easy to foresee that a crisis like the current one might accelerate declines in enrollment.” Shrinking cohorts of teacher education candidates may also “provide a rationale for universities to reduce faculty or close altogether” when forced with making “hard decisions.”

Adams said she hoped news of South Florida’s College of Education closing “sounds alarm bells.”

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