Emily Kirsch says teaching is in her blood. Her father taught for 36 years, her grandfather was a school superintendent, and her sister is a teacher.
But Kirsch, a graduate student at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education, says she has serious concerns about whether her passion for working with children will lead to the career satisfaction she saw in her father and grandfather.
"No one really knows what the role of teachers is anymore," she says. "It's kind of discouraging to a new teacher. It keeps new teachers in this constant worry about their job, and they become unwilling to take risks in the classroom. I guess it's very overwhelming to me."
The public seems to have forgotten the amount of training it takes before a teacher can step into a classroom, Kirsch says. A minimum of a master's degree is needed within five years of completing the undergraduate degree in order to receive permanent certification. And starting salaries for new teachers are about $35,000 to $42,000 a year, depending on the type of certification.
Kirsch isn't alone in her apprehension about where her chosen field is headed. To say the US public education system is undergoing a major transformation would probably make some educators laugh. Teachers, particularly in urban and rural districts, are coping with an onslaught of criticism and intense scrutiny.
And the attacks are coming from almost every direction: superintendents and principals are under pressure to raise graduation rates and close the achievement gap between black and white students, for example, and government think tanks predict the US economy will continue to falter unless students do better in math and science.
The once all-powerful teachers unions have for the first time conceded to a job performance evaluation system tying teachers' paychecks to students' test scores in New York State. And after education reformers convinced both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to lift the limit on the number of charter schools, many more charters are opening in urban districts.
It's not surprising that many veteran teachers are anxious, frustrated, and confused by the changes they're seeing in education. But the turmoil that has hovered over the field for the last 10 years may be having an unintended consequence: fewer college students are entering the field, and some say that uproar is to blame.
Enrollment in education and teacher preparation programs in many Rochester-area colleges and universities has dipped, mirroring a trend being reported in higher ed institutions across the country.
The number of teaching credentials issued annually fell 29 percent in California over the last five years, according to the Los Angeles Times. And enrollments in post-bachelor's degree programs for teachers are also declining.
Applications to teacher colleges in Indiana have hit their lowest levels in years, according to the Associated Press. Purdue has seen its enrollment fall 23 percent since 2008, and Indiana University's has dropped by 20 percent since 2009, the AP reported.
Some local professors say the reluctance to choose teaching as a career is going to have serious consequences that may not be felt for five to 10 years. But worse, they say, is that many of the reform initiatives required of teachers — like increased time devoted to standardized testing — are doing more harm than good, and will do little to improve student performance.
There were roughly 3.7 million full-time elementary and secondary teachers in the nation's public schools in 2011, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The majority, 76 percent, were female, and the average annual salary was about $56,000.
While that figure increased by 7 percent since 2001, there is another side to those numbers. Historically, nearly 50 percent of new teachers abandon the profession within five years. And the nation has been shedding about 300,000 teacher jobs annually since 2009, according to a 2012 White House report.
While many of the area's local teaching colleges have experienced a dip in new enrollments, how serious the situation is depends on who you ask. Some education department heads are reluctant to attribute the dip to anything more than the recession and a bad economy.
"The job search process is more difficult than ever before," says Joanne Larson, professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at the UR's Warner School. She recommends that students have multiple certifications so they enter the job market with two or three areas they can teach.
Graduate student Kirsch is a perfect example. She was initially certified to teach music, "but being a new teacher, I was always being faced with cuts," she says.
She is now getting certified to teach first through sixth grade.
Larson says she tells her graduate students that they'll have to apply to hundreds of positions and that they could have a long commute or even relocate.
While many Warner students aspire to teach in the Rochester school district, the chances of getting hired there are pretty slim, Larson says, because the district is downsizing. And even though many teachers retire every year, teachers with seniority can transfer into those positions.
But Larson says that while there have always been ups and downs in enrollment in education programs, she is concerned that something is different this time.
"Because the profession has been devalued, they [students] are looking out there at a dismal space," she says. "It's a blame game in urban districts in particular."
Teachers are taking the brunt of responsibility for societal issues impacting children's preparedness and focus on learning, Larson says.
While the UR declined to provide enrollment data for the Warner School, Professor David Hursh says the decline is more serious than a temporary scarcity of jobs. He's queried education departments in six Rochester-area colleges, and though he would not name schools, he says the drop in enrollment during the last three years is as high as 40 percent in some schools.
"I think it's a crisis for some of these schools," he says.
Hursh has interviewed many local education faculty members who have been let go and are looking for jobs.
"I don't know what to tell them," Hursh says. "Should I tell them to go on and get their Ph.D. in education?"
That may be a risk, he says, because many colleges are hiring adjunct instructors instead of full-time professors on a tenure track. The colleges, many of which have invested millions of dollars in new buildings and infrastructure, want flexibility, Hursh says, because they're not sure about the future, either.
Craig Hill, interim dean of Nazareth College's School of Education, says there has been a significant drop in enrollment at his school.
"It's not just here," he says. "It's occurring throughout the state."
Like Larson and Hursh, Hill attributes the drop to multiple concerns, but the main suspect is apprehension about the Annual Professional Performance Review.
The new teacher evaluation system links 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation in New York State to students' test scores. Many teachers say the evaluation's reliance on test scores is flawed, Hill says, and they doubt it will filter out ineffective teachers.
"I absolutely think there should be accountability," Hursh says. "But there are better models being used successfully in other countries than the one we're using."
The evaluation anxiety has led teachers who once welcomed student teachers into their classrooms to turn them away, Hursh says. The teachers are concerned that the student teachers will bring down their evaluations, he says.
And school counselors and teachers are not promoting the field as much as they used to, he says.
"There's so much competition that [teachers] don't help each other collaboratively as much as they should," says graduate student Kirsch. "Teachers spend a lot of time filling out paperwork now and watching their backs."
The frustration with testing is not just about the APPR, some educators say. There is a heated debate about what the testing measures and whether students are receiving instruction that will lead to the critical thinking skills they'll need for college and a career in the global market.
Kirsch says she's talked to many students in her current after-school job who have just been through the testing grind.
"They come here and they're just exhausted," she says. "It's not only fearful for teachers, but the kids, too."
Kirsch, who has taught in multiple schools, says testing anxiety is not just with teachers, parents, and students in urban schools. The concern is spreading to the suburban schools, too, she says.
"It's time to come back to a balance," says Nazareth's Hill. "I believe in assessments, but we're down to teaching to the test."
Some education researchers say that the colleges themselves gave rise to the reforms and may be partly to blame for some of the turmoil in the industry. The recent enrollment downturn in education programs could be seen as a market correction, they say.
In a 2011 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The New Normal of Teacher Education," Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, writes that after shifting teacher training to higher education institutions, the country may be seeing a shift toward alternative training programs with more support from the business community, like the Teach for America program.
"Critics say the modern programs have lost touch with the practice," Levine writes. "Teacher education is a low-status field in universities, even within education schools. Too often, admissions and graduation standards are weak."
The colleges produced substandard teachers over the last three decades, he says, and those teachers filled the nation's schools.
But the UR's Hursh strongly disagrees with that view. He says it's an extension of the view that teachers sit around thinking about tenure and all the time they have off. He says he's never heard one of his teachers talk about tenure, and that most teachers he knows spend their summers in required professional development classes.
"Our master students are by and large very, very strong candidates, and no, we do not accept everybody," Hursh says. "And just because you're admitted doesn't mean you'll finish."
The UR's Larson says attitudes about teaching that may be impacting enrollment have more to do with how society views what teachers do, and that it's a field still dominated by women. The caretaking, nurturer role is both positive and negative, she says.
If the enrollment decline continues, Larson says there could be a more serious shortage of special education, math, and science teachers than there already is. And she says she's especially concerned that rural communities will have difficulty filling teaching positions because, like many professionals, the teaching candidates tend to prefer urban and suburban environments.
"This is very hard work," Larson says. "All of us could have done a better job of communicating the value of teachers. I would hate to see people discouraged from teaching because of all that's going on."
Shaun Russell just finished his master's degree at Nazareth and fellow student Sarah Bevan is in her last year of the program. Both are hoping to teach elementary school, and they say they are cautiously optimistic. They've seen some of their friends get hired, and they say they understand the field is changing, and that their eyes are wide open.
They say they know what to expect from the new APPR evaluations, and that they've been working with the new, more rigorous curriculum called Common Core, which is being introduced in all New York public schools.
"I really feel we're prepared for this new world we're entering," Russell says.