Education Week recently published an article about the overproduction of elementary school teachers in the nation. The article included data from a handful of states, showing the most recent annual production of elementary school teachers in each as compared to the demand, based on projected openings in school districts. Michigan was one of the states highlighted, with data showing that the state was producing 2.4 new elementary school teachers for each available slot. The article raised the question of whether entry into elementary education programs ought to be limited, to better match supply and demand. It also advocated for efforts to encourage some teacher candidates to switch instead to high-need areas, such as special education, foreign languages, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.
The issue of matching the supply of and demand for teachers is complicated. First of all, the market for teachers – at least those in public schools – is heavily influenced by the decisions of governments, so it is far from a free market. State governments control entry into the market by new teachers through certification and licensure rules, while school districts determine how many teachers will be hired and who among the pool of candidates will be offered a job.
In the United States, we have also had a long tradition of allowing students in universities to choose their own majors, as long as they meet the entry requirements. In comparison to other countries, there are few attempts in the U.S. to tightly link educational programs and training with labor market needs. Any linkages are much softer, through the use of relatively weak incentive systems, social marketing campaigns, and the like. As Bob Floden, Associate Dean for Research in our college, as well as co-director of our Education Policy Center, put it in the article, “There is not a tight link the way there is in other countries, where there is a management of access to particular majors in higher education, tied to perceived needs of teachers, and also a national system for getting teachers who have graduated to the hard-to-staff places.”
One argument made for restricting entry into elementary education programs (as well as other areas where there is an oversupply of candidates being trained) is that by doing so, teacher education institutions could recruit a small number of higher caliber students, and could put more resources into improving the quality of the education by offering “more intensive experiences, including the full year of student-teaching that national organizations for teacher-college accreditation have endorsed,” as the article explained. Michigan State is one of few teacher preparation programs that offers a full-year internship of this type.
These trends have been felt here in our college. I recently shared with our faculty data showing 10-year trends in enrollment in our undergraduate and graduate programs. Over the last decade, enrollment in our elementary education program has dropped by approximately one-quarter, reflecting both the job market as well as student preferences (this enrollment drop has been more than offset by increasing enrollments in other programs in the college). While we do have caps on how many students we will allow into our teacher education programs, we have not had to enforce those caps for a number of years because the number of qualified applicants has fallen below the limit. When prospective teacher education candidates visit our Student Affairs Office to inquire about careers, our advisors do try to share data with them about which teaching positions are in greater demand and which have fewer openings.
Another challenge in trying to match the supply of new teachers with demand is that our college is preparing teachers not just for Michigan, but for national and even international labor markets. Last year I wrote about the student recruitment fair held on our campus. Of the over 100 school districts recruiting there, only about 20 were from the state of Michigan. The rest were from around the country, as well as outside the U.S. As I wrote at the time, I heard a very similar story from the recruiters I spoke with there. Everyone said some variation on the line, “We would hire as many of your graduates as we could convince to move to our district.”
So it would be difficult for us to try to align entry into our elementary education program with what the perceived demand for new teachers will be down the road in Michigan (and the Education Week article noted that the data on projected demand should be “use[d] with caution”). Many of our teachers are in fact taking jobs outside of the state, in part because there are not as many jobs here in Michigan, and also because their skills are in such high demand elsewhere. We hope that many of them will return to teach in Michigan schools in the future, and we are in the process of looking at mechanisms for doing a better job of tracking where our graduates are working and how they are performing on the job.