Education colleges teach students the reality of today's economy

Kari Andren
| Monday, Aug. 22, 2011

Alexis Gentile's dream of being a special-education teacher isn't something a stumbling economy or thousands of teacher layoffs statewide can stifle.

The California University of Pennsylvania senior hopes to land a job teaching life skills to elementary school children near her hometown of Newtown in Bucks County. She's undeterred by the more than 1,200 teacher layoffs in neighboring Philadelphia or the blows dealt to public education in every corner of the state.

Statewide, nearly 4,000 teachers have been furloughed this year in the wake of a $900 million cut in state funding for education. With about 130,000 teachers employed in classrooms, the furloughs amount to about 3 percent of the state's teachers.

"I think every one of us is a little scared of (the job outlook)," said Gentile, 22. "I am very much aware of what's going on. That has opened my eyes that after I graduate, it will probably be more difficult."

A dose of reality, along with a teaching certificate, is what colleges and universities are hoping to deliver to their students in today's economy.

Since the 2005-06 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has awarded 101,200 certificates to new teachers.

Deans of education colleges at Western Pennsylvania universities say they are not discouraging students from becoming teachers or responding with program changes in light of the tight job market. Instead, they're counseling students about where teachers are still in demand -- fields such as math, technology and the sciences, and in geographic areas that have trouble retaining teachers, such as inner cities and rural areas.

Officials also say they are encouraging students to get dual certifications and stressing the need to cast a wide job-search net.

"When we're out recruiting, what we're trying to do is let people know where the opportunities are," said Alan Lesgold, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. "In the long run, universities do really well when their graduates do really well, and that's what we want."

He said universities cannot make instant U-turns. Programs take years to develop, and students are always in the pipeline, Lesgold said.

"Even if you tried to respond on the spur-of-the-moment, you can't. We respond to changes in society and changes in need, but part of our job is to not respond too quickly," Lesgold said.

"Once people are in the pipeline ... it's hard to go to them and say, 'You shouldn't be a teacher; you should be something else,'" said Doug Peden, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, which connects universities with school districts in search of teachers.

Prospective teachers should realize the employment landscape can swing from one extreme to another over a five-year span, he said.

Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, said if he were an education college dean, he might intensify recruiting efforts.

"In this current environment, where it's well-known there are a lot of teacher furloughs and ... there's been a lot of educator bashing, a greater concern is that we may be creating a disincentive for some of our brightest students to consider teaching as a career," he said.

Duquesne University officials will offer half-off tuition and fees for the fall 2012 freshman class in its school of education. The discount, good for all four years that students are at the university, amounts to about $14,000 off their bills next year, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management.

"All schools and colleges of education are going to be affected in some way in marketability. To ignore that is to be nonpragmatic," said Olga Welch, dean of Duquesne's school of education. "We're not sitting back and being Pollyanna about the existing market forces. ... What we choose to do is take a much more pro-active stance and look at it as something we have to deal with and factor in, but not something that has to dictate who we are or the kind of individuals we choose to prepare to teach."

Kevin Koury, dean of the college of education and human services at Cal U, said he believes the outlook for teachers in the state is better than average. Between now and 2018, thousands of baby boomers are expected to retire from teaching, opening jobs in all subjects, he said.

Officials say teaching jobs are plentiful in urban and rural areas throughout the country. Urban districts tend to have trouble retaining teachers in poor or under-performing schools, while rural areas cannot offer big salaries or much in the way of entertainment to attract teachers.

Pennsylvania ranks in the top 15 states nationally for average starting teacher salary ($34,976) and average salary overall ($54,027).

College deans said that although students might have a hard time landing a teaching job in Pennsylvania, they often find jobs in neighboring states. Maryland, for example, has continued its level of state school funding and has a lower-than-average unemployment rate.

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