Mark R. Howard
A Good Decision, Poorly Executed
A decade ago, more than 5,000 graduate and undergraduate students were enrolled at the University of South Florida’s College of Education. Since then, enrollment at the ed school has fallen to around 2,400 a year. Half of the current students are grad students — either K-12 teachers getting advanced degrees so they can become administrators or undergrads looking to go into research and/or teaching at the college level. In other words, only 1,200 or so are college students looking to get the certifications that enable them to go into K-12 teaching.
The story is the same at some other ed schools in the state: At UCF, the number of undergraduate education school students has dropped from 3,300 in 2010 to 2,164 in 2020, a 34% decline.
The reasons for falling undergraduate enrollment are not exactly a mystery — teaching is less attractive because of low pay, poor working conditions, district-level bureaucracy and better vocational alternatives for good students.
In addition, those who want to teach no longer need to jump through the ed school hoop to get a job. The state — needing to get warm bodies in front of classrooms — has established alternate paths to getting a teaching certificate that don’t require an education degree. If you have a bachelor’s degree in another area, you can get a teaching certificate by taking a test of basic knowledge — it’s not tough, on about an eighth- or ninth-grade level — and completing a one-year, state-approved teacher prep program at one of the 22 colleges or universities that offer them.
In any event, USF — facing cuts of millions of dollars in operating funds from the state amid the pandemic — took a look at its education school and decided, quite rationally, that dropping the undergraduate program made sense both short and long term. Restructuring the school as a graduate school will save USF about $7 million of the $36.7 million it may need to cut. Going forward, graduates with other majors who want to teach will be able to get a one-year master’s degree and a teaching certificate through the ed school (which they can do while employed on provisional teaching certificates).
USF’s decision is the kind of move that would be a nobrainer for a business or non-profit organization that saw demand for what it does drop by more than 60%.
In making the decision, however, USF broke the cardinal rule of making change at hidebound institutions like universities: It communicated poorly with important stakeholders. Some of the school’s trustees apparently were surprised by the announcement of the restructuring, as were the school districts in the area that hire a lot of USF grads. The teachers union, of course, didn’t like it as well — either out of solidarity with unionized ed school professors or some sense that ed school degrees, a barrier to entry that the unions have traditionally supported, were being diminished.
Facing the pushback, USF got weak-kneed, and so, after a disappointing rollout of a good decision, USF disappointed again with a lack of resolve. The school now says it will retain some of the nine baccalaureate degrees, 15 majors, five minors and 18 concentrations currently available to undergrads.
The whole episode is yet another reminder of how difficult it is to change anything related to public education, and how important it is for it to change.
The handwriting has been on the wall for ed schools since a 2013 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The report labeled ed schools an “industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.” The report found only four ed school programs in the country that deserved four stars, the report’s top ranking. None were in Florida, and the only ed school program that got even three stars was UCF’s. USF’s program got two.
The report criticized approaches that focused on methods courses rather than subject-area competence. (It’s long been the case that ed school students could get certified as, for example, chemistry teachers by taking “how to teach chemistry” courses — without necessarily knowing chemistry.)
The report found admissions standards at ed schools were too lax. Most programs didn’t try to teach well-established “best practices” approaches to classroom teaching, instead focusing on developing the teacher’s “professional identity” and “unique approach” in areas like reading instruction. Only 7% of programs ensured that student teachers interned only in classrooms taught by effective teachers, the report found.
“States have made unprecedented changes in their teacher policies but almost none in teacher preparation. However, as illustrated by trailblazing nations such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore, breathing new life into teaching requires that we begin at the beginning: Who gets in and what kind of training is provided,” the report concluded.
However ineptly managed, USF’s restructuring of its ed school ought to occasion real consideration, throughout the state’s higher ed system, of how the system can better contribute to the education of Florida’s K-12 students.
Meanwhile, school district leadership, rather than whining about the loss of a few undergraduate majors, ought to be looking for ways to improve support for teachers — and marketing teaching to undergrads who can enter classrooms with some subject-area competence rather than a gaggle of methods courses. You have to know something in order to teach something. Districts should also be looking for new Floridians who’ve moved here and have teaching certificates but may be disinclined to enter local school systems in Florida.
Sometimes, if you see the writing on the wall, it’s a good idea to read it.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's February issue.
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