NORFOLK, Va. — For years, education groups have warned that lagging pay for teachers in Virginia and other states could lead to fewer people entering the field. Now they have evidence to back up their fears.
Between 2010 and 2014, the number of ACT-tested high school graduates who said they were interested in education majors or professions decreased by more than 16 percent, according to the nonprofit organization that administers that exam. About 5 percent of students who took the test last year indicated an interest in becoming educators, down from 7 percent in 2010.
Further, the number of students earning master's degrees in education dropped from more than 185,000 nationally in 2010-11 to fewer than 165,000 in 2012-13, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More recent numbers aren't yet available.
One reason for the negative trends is pay. A study released this month by the New Jersey-based Education Law Center found that teachers starting their careers at age 25 earn about 80 percent of what non-teachers earn, on average. At age 45, teachers earn about 70 percent of non-teacher wages.
Virginia ranked last among all states, with teachers making 69 percent of what non-teachers make at 25, and 60 percent at 45. That comes at a time when demands on teachers are increasing as the state has toughened mandatory exams in recent years.
"I think teachers are quite skillful people, and when they think about their options, they're choosing to go into education in not quite as great a rate," said Leigh Butler, assistant dean for teacher education services at Old Dominion University.
Yet the need for teachers is severe. The U.S. Education Department's 2015-16 list of state-by-state teacher shortages is 174 pages long.
Old Dominion is trying to address the issue. In 2013, the university began MonarchTeach, which helps students majoring in math or science receive a teaching license while earning a degree in their content area.
More than 120 people are enrolled in the program, Butler said last month. Often those who might not have considered entering education, the participants gain hands-on experience in Norfolk schools.
"A lot of students get really hooked," Butler said.
High schools also are taking action. According to the state Education Department, close to 60 divisions — including Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk — participated in 2013-14 in Teachers for Tomorrow, a program that aims to attract students to the career.
On a late May afternoon, a few dozen students were in Carrie Gantt's room at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach. The topic for those two classes: What does change in schools look like?
Gantt laid out skills key in this century: collaboration, communication, community, computer literacy, creative thinking, critical thinking and career learning.
In groups of two and three, the students then defined those skills and drew them on posters in ways that children would grasp.
Julia Inglesby, a senior at Princess Anne, has wanted to teach for as long as she can recall. Interning at Windsor Oaks Elementary School as part of the class, she saw how much paperwork educators have and the pressure Standards of Learning exams create.
She also saw the smiles on children's faces when they improved on practice tests. That reaffirmed her desire.
"I think education is such a privilege we too often take for granted," she said.
Gantt has 39 students in her Teachers for Tomorrow classes this year, which she said is about average.
On that May day, she drew laughs by emphasizing the importance of collaboration "unless you live in a forest." At the start of class, she engaged students by having them talk about themselves. The discussion included recent highlights — one girl had gotten her prom dress. It also touched on personal challenges — another girl's parents will be moving to Washington state when she heads to college.
Gantt does not push teaching on students, but rather tries to "get them to see what is within them."
She acknowledges there are many challenges in education, but she hopes at least some students will focus on the benefits.
Jacob Griffin knows about teachers' salary concerns. But the Princess Anne senior described his internship as "the best part of my day." His dream is to teach at the high school level.
"It's worth it," he said. "You constantly have the opportunity to change somebody else's life."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com