Today's teacher layoffs threaten tomorrow's college classrooms

Teacher layoffs and other education spending cuts are thinning more than the current ranks of California's classroom instructors. The number of people training to be teachers also is plummeting, and that trend is likely to continue.

Education experts are warning of a shortage of new teachers in a few years as large numbers of baby boomers start to retire from teaching jobs and larger numbers of youngsters enter elementary school.

"It's a very dramatic decline," noted Dale Janssen, executive director of the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. "It's kind of difficult to encourage people to become teachers when every time this time of year they hear about 20,000 pink slips going out."

In California, the number of teaching credentials issued annually fell 29% during the last five years, from 28,039 in 2004-05 to 20,032 in 2009-10, according to a new report by the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The biggest decline, nearly a 50% drop during that period, was in the multiple subject credential usually required to teach elementary school youngsters, while some demand for high school math and science teachers remains.

Enrollments in the post-bachelor's degree programs that train new teachers are also continuing to decline.

At the Cal State University system, among the nation's biggest providers of new teachers, the number of students in credential classes is less than half of the total eight years ago. An estimated 12,000 students seeking teaching credentials are enrolled at Cal State campuses, officials said.

Beverly Young, the Cal State system's assistant vice chancellor for teacher education, said economic uncertainties are not the only factor. Potential teachers are discouraged by increasingly crowded classrooms and more emphasis than before on testing and scripted lessons.

"I think people are seeing it as a less attractive career and a more stressful one," Young said. But, she said, those who still pursue teaching careers decide the negatives are outweighed by the chance to help youngsters.

Among them is Brianne Ward of Thousand Oaks. She caught the teaching fever while volunteering in the Chatsworth kindergarten class her sister led. Ward decided to enroll last fall in a teacher training program at Cal State Northridge, where she had earned her bachelor's degree in history.

But now, midway through Ward's accelerated one-year curriculum to earn a state teaching credential, her sister has received one of thousands of pink slips sent by the Los Angeles Unified School District, warning of a possible layoff this summer. That could happen just as Ward is looking for her own first teaching job.

The possible family setback is unsettling but has not deterred her, said Ward, 24, who is student-teaching in a Simi Valley third-grade classroom. As she earns her elementary school credential, she is also trying to boost her job chances by working toward another certificate to teach social sciences in middle and high schools.

"If I don't find something immediately, I'm not going to stop trying. Teaching is what I want to do," she said.

The drop-off is evident not just at Cal State. Private colleges report decreases too.

For example, National University, a nonprofit, multi-campus school that offers mainly online credential classes, reports that enrollment in its teacher training courses has dropped about 30% since 2006. The school's monthlong class terms make it vulnerable to headlines; education dean Carl Beyer said he noticed a small uptick in enrollment in the fall, followed by a decline as word spread of state budget cutbacks.

On the other hand, USC started an online master's degree program in teaching two years ago; it has grown to enroll about 1,400 nationwide, but about half are from outside California.

Younger teachers, whose annual starting salaries are about $35,000, bear the brunt of the "last hired-first fired" response to budget problems and student enrollment decline. The number of first- and second-year teachers in California dropped by half, to slightly more than 18,000, between the 2007-08 and 2009-10 academic years, according to a report by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit.

But the report says more teachers will be needed in the future, and not just to fill the jobs of retiring baby boomers. Elementary school enrollment statewide is expected to increase 7% by 2018 and high school enrollment, declining now, will start to grow again by 2016, according to the study. Meeting the demand for teachers will require more recruiting by university credentialing programs "as well as a redoubling of efforts to make the teaching profession attractive to new and experienced teachers alike," the report said.

Twenty years ago, California districts had to recruit new teachers out of state and abroad and allowed college graduates to teach with so-called emergency credentials, learning on the job. Experts warn that it could happen again.

For now, though, about 30% fewer credentials are being earned at Cal State Northridge, for example, than five years ago. "It's been a pretty precipitous drop," said education school dean Michael Spagna.

On a recent evening, 21 students in Cal State Northridge's accelerated one-year credential program were in professor Greg Knotts' class about teaching social studies and arts in elementary schools. Knotts led exercises using music, cultural artifacts and photography to help bring lesson plans alive.

Knotts said the fast-paced program, which involves student-teaching during the day and university classes at night, devotes more time to career counseling than in the past. He urges students to look beyond public schools to explore private schools, charters and even substitute teacher positions.

"These people want to be elementary school educators, and they will.... But they may have to ride it out the next two to five years," he said.

Student Emmanuel Flores, 29, of Burbank is willing to take that chance. Flores, who is student teaching at a combined second- and third-grade class in North Hollywood, said he was drawn to teaching after helping to raise his two younger siblings in a single-parent household.

"You have to be optimistic," Flores said of the job market. "As a teacher, I think the one thing we all share is a sense of optimism. We don't give up. You're always trying to help kids."

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