After years of steady decline, the University of North Carolina system teaching programs saw a rise in enrollment this year.
Enrollment in UNC undergraduate and graduate teaching programs increased by 6 percent in 2017, although enrollment numbers are still below what they were in 2010.
Kristin Papoi, professor in the School of Education, said recent student interest in a career in education has been closely tied to the economy.
“The recession that started in 2008 gave people pause about entering education as a profession because, historically, teaching has been seen as underpaid,” she said.
Diana Lys, assistant dean of educator preparation and accreditation at UNC, said another key factor in the enrollment decrease was elimination of teacher benefits.
“Enrollments in teacher preparation programs began to decline in N.C. as several changes were enacted at the state level,” she said in an email. “Teacher salaries stagnated, including the loss of Master’s pay, teacher tenure ended and the NC Teaching Fellows program ended.”
Papoi said as the economy picks up, students feel more financially secure when pursuing a career in education.
"I think education by nature attracts students who are very interested in education equity,” she said. “Now, (many students) feel like this might be a career that can sustain (them) and fulfill (their) passion for social justice."
But Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, the dean of the School of Education at UNC, said student hesitation to pursue a teaching degree comes down to more than just the economy.
“Certainly pay is a part of that whole package, but the dominance of standardized testing is ultimately what drove young people away from wanting to become teachers," he said.
Abd-El-Khalick said that as the U.S. continues to standardize education, teaching is continually undervalued as a profession.
“We set standards and specific outcomes and then slap on standardized testing,” he said. “It’s the phenomena of teaching to the test that is evading the professionalism of education.”
Abd-El-Khalick said North Carolina is part of a larger national trend of standardizing curricula and is ultimately driving young teachers away.
“When you juxtapose that with the generational gap of millennials who care about making a difference and doing good, this is just not the job for them anymore,” he said. “That has become normalized across the nation.”
For UNC, Lys said targeted recruitment of teacher candidates has been key in beginning to reverse enrollment trends.
“This includes new pathways to teaching like UNC’s new BA to MAT program, which attracts UNC undergraduates and candidates with BA (degrees) from other institutions,” she said.
The N.C. General Assembly passed a new NC Teaching Fellows program in March. It will offer loan forgiveness for teachers trained in STEM courses. Lys said its revival has been instrumental in increasing enrollment numbers.
Abd-El-Khalick said in order for enrollment increases to continue, the nation needs to return to an education system that respects and supports the professionalism of teaching.
“If we want to improve the state of K-12 education and catch up with other industrialized nations, the answer is to find ways to recruit talent … and reward that talent with command over their curriculum and classroom.”
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