Indiana teachers colleges see drop in applications

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Applications to teacher colleges across Indiana have hit their lowest levels in at least five years as new laws and increased pressure on educators have deterred many from entering the field.

A Journal & Courier survey (http://on.jconline.com/TMtniW ) found enrollment at Purdue's College of Education has fallen 23 percent over the past five years, while Ball State's Teachers College has seen a 32 percent decrease in applications since 2008. Indiana University's School of Education has seen a 20 percent drop in applications since 2008, and enrollment there is down 11 percent from last year.

"People don't want to be a teacher because they either think teachers aren't doing a good job, or they're telling us what to do, or now they have all this pressure on them. I just feel it's not very attractive," said Melissa Colonis, a Tecumseh Jr. High School math teacher who has spent 21 years in the classroom.

The decline in applications stems in large part from a wave of education changes that emerged from the 2011 Legislature. Their goal is to increase teacher and school accountability, but many teachers feel they've come under fire unfairly and are being blamed for failing schools. The political rhetoric that has polarized both sides of the education overhaul arguments hasn't helped.

"Our biggest critics are the ones who are making the most sweeping statements about failing schools, and they're the very same ones saying what we need to do to improve schools in this country is attract the best and brightest," said IU Dean of Education Gerardo Gonzales. "I don't think they understand the decisions they're making are having the reverse effect."

The changes include a new requirement for annual teacher evaluations, part of a program that ties teacher pay to student performance.

School districts have adopted evaluation models in which teachers identify their lowest-performing students and develop ways to help those students improve and gauge their progress.

Gov. Mitch Daniels said the system might not be perfect but that it's a starting point for discovering the best way to evaluate teachers.

He'll get to see how the policies are affecting higher education when he takes over as Purdue's president in January.

"There's an enormous opportunity for any college of education which chooses to excel in these areas," Daniels said. "Think of all the great research waiting to be done. What is the most fair and accurate way to evaluate teacher performance? What are the best ways to reward or recognize that? For the school that decides to align with that, I think, there's a huge opportunity waiting."

But officials at teachers colleges say the law change has had a stifling effect on established educators, many of whom are reluctant to bring student teachers into their classrooms. Deans at Purdue, IU and Ball State say some teachers are afraid a student teacher could negatively impact their students' learning and, in turn, the teacher's evaluation rating.

Maryann Santos de Barona, dean of Purdue's College of Education, said the lack of student teaching opportunities prompted Purdue to scale back admissions. But the drop in enrollment is larger than intended, and she blames the law change and negative media attention surrounding the field of education.

John Jacobson, dean of education at Ball State, said the Indiana Department of Education sent out a letter cautioning teachers who were planning to accept student teachers to work closely with universities to ensure that the students don't negatively impact the teacher's rating.

Ball State saw local superintendents start to back away from accepting student teachers, but it responded by outlining an approach called co-teaching in which the load is shared between the established and student teachers. Purdue and IU are adopting similar models.

"That letter did have an impact initially," Jacobson said. "Had we not been prepared to come back (with co-teaching), we would have many more schools saying we don't want to take student teachers. That is a reality in the state."

Gonzales said the new evaluations send a mixed message by de-emphasizing the link between advanced degrees and higher pay. In the past, teachers could get more money by earning a master's degree.

"New teacher evaluations now disallow, or at least discourage, the use of master's degrees as a factor in teacher raises," Gonzales said. "So here we are saying we need better educated teachers — and we're passing legislation that discourages master's degrees among teachers."

Education department spokesman Adam Baker said such degrees don't necessarily translate into a high-quality teacher.

"Degrees and certifications do not guarantee student success," Baker said. "So, our concern is with a teacher's ability to drive student learning and growth."

He notes that Indiana still requires exams to ensure that teachers know their subjects well before entering a classroom.

Teachers colleges are stepping up their recruitment efforts to compensate for the decline in applications.

Purdue's College of Education is looking to hire its first full-time recruiter and launched a summer camp designed to expose students to careers in teaching.

IU's School of Education developed a direct admissions program to streamline the process.

Ball State's Teachers College launched a study to determine how best to reach prospective students and has made changes to its curriculum.

Gonzales and Jacobson say the rhetoric about failing schools isn't helping their efforts and risks demoralizing educators.

Daniels disagrees and says the old system didn't perform well. He thinks the changes should excite teachers and ensure that the best ones are in the classroom.

"The teachers we're going to see these days are drawn to that challenge," Daniels said. "Anybody who wants to run from it, I respect their point of view, but they may not be the best suited."

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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