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What Teacher-Preparation Enrollment Looks Like, in Charts

by Staff

How many people are pursuing careers as teachers? A new analysis looks at nearly 15 years of teacher-preparation program enrollment data to find out.

The data reveals a significant national decline in enrollment that now seems to be leveling out. Still, the number of education students in the United States declined by about a quarter of a million between 2008 and 2020.

Teacher-preparation program enrollment is one indicator of the health of the teacher pipeline and can be a predictor of the likelihood of future teacher shortages. Enrollment numbers can also serve as a proxy for whether teaching is viewed as an attractive career by young people.

The analysis was conducted by Ed Fuller, a professor in the College of Education at Penn State University and the director of the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis. He used data from all 50 states to track enrollment over time at both traditional schools of education and alternative routes.

To fulfill Title II of the Higher Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education requires each state to report the number of individuals enrolled in teacher-preparation programs and the number of people who complete the programs. There is a two-year lag between the collection of the data and its release, so the most recent numbers are from the 2020-21 school year.

Teacher-prep enrollment over the past decade

The analysis found that there was a steep decline in enrollment in the first half of the decade. From 2009-10 through 2014-15, the number of people enrolled in a teacher-preparation program declined by 41 percent.

Then, there was a slight increase in total enrollment from 2018-19 to 2019-10, and then another decline—likely because of the pandemic, Fuller said.

Fuller broke out Texas from the national analysis because the Lone Star State reports such a high number of enrolled students—many of whom are enrolled in Texas Teachers of Tomorrow, a privately managed alternative certification program. (The Texas Education Agency has recommended revoking the company’s accreditation, arguing that it has fallen short of standards. A judge has granted the company a request for a temporary injunction, for now preventing state education officials from moving forward.)

Fuller attributed the significant decline in the first half of the decade to several factors. During the Great Recession, there was a significant number of teacher layoffs, which might have deterred young people from pursuing the profession.

States slowed their investment in teacher pay over that time period, even though the cost of higher education continued to rise—meaning many young people might not have considered graduating from a teacher-preparation program to yield a strong return on their investment, Fuller said.

Also, Fuller said, there was a large national focus on accountability and weeding out ineffective teachers in the early 2010s, which may have played into attitudes about whether to teach.

“When you hear the teaching profession’s bad, and we need to improve it—that’s not the kind of discussion that increases enrollment in teacher preparation,” he said.

Differences by states

Fuller also broke out the differences in teacher-preparation program enrollment by state.

“We’re starting to see some improvements in terms of the number of people enrolled in teacher-prep programs, but the trends vary so much by state,” he said. “Some have shown some substantial improvement over the last couple years, some have continued to decline, some are treading water.”

From 2008-09 to 2020-21, five states or jurisdictions—Texas, Washington state, Alabama, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia—saw increases in enrollment. Most of the other states saw declines in the number of enrollees.

The five states with the greatest declines in enrollment were Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Idaho, and New Mexico. Oklahoma had a more than 86 percent decline in enrollment.

Fuller said he’d like to see future analyses of each state’s enrollment data and possible contributing factors—such as teacher salaries, the cost of higher education, and politicians’ rhetoric about the teaching profession. In Oklahoma, for example, teachers were among the lowest paid in the nation for years and eventually walked out of their classrooms en masse for nine days in 2018.

They got a raise, and the Sooner State recorded a 10 percent increase in teacher-preparation enrollment between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Indeed, in that most recent year of data, most states saw increases in enrollment. Kentucky, New Mexico, and Mississippi had the largest increases. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana had the biggest declines.

The recent gains are encouraging, Fuller said, especially since overall K-12 enrollment has declined in the past decade, too.

“We don’t have to increase [teacher-prep] enrollment all the way back to [the levels of] 2009, because we don’t have as many students as we do in 2009,” he said. “If we just come partially back, it will help reduce the [teacher] shortage.”

Completion rates have declined, too

Fuller’s analysis didn’t examine the rates of completion—an important indicator, as some people enroll in teacher-preparation programs but drop out before earning their teaching license.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group, conducted a separate analysis using Title II data that found that the total number of teacher preparation completers has declined steadily over the past decade—a nearly 25 percent drop. But the analysis also found that completion rates have improved in the 2020-21 school year.

Much of that recovery is due to alternative-preparation programs, which are typically cheaper and faster than traditional programs based at colleges and universities.

NCTQ found that enrollment and completion in alternative programs increased by 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively, between 2018-19 and 2020-21. During that same time period, enrollment and completion in traditional programs increased by only 4 percent and 5 percent.

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