Teacher shortage: CSU researchers look for ways to retain students

Ann Sebald, Co-Chair, Center for Educator Preparation, School of Education.

When Ann Sebald and Heidi Frederiksen took over the co-leadership role at the Center for Educator Preparation in the Colorado State University School of Education, they noticed a trend among the English education students who showed low retention rates. Recognizing that retaining students is critical for combating a national teacher shortage, they have been conducting a study about this trend, gathering data and analyzing the information.

After some interesting initial findings, they were accepted to present at the World Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology 19th International Conference on Education Studies. At the August conference in Paris this year, the research team, which included Pamela Coke in the Department of English, was recognized by their international colleagues with the Best Presentation Award.

Attrition among students

Coke, who works to help prepare English teachers, noticed the trend of attrition prior to when Frederiksen and Sebald started working with the Center for Educator Preparation. The educators agreed that students who struggled within their program, didn’t finish their program, or didn’t continue within their program had a higher frequency among English education students compared to other education programs. This trend in a field with already high attrition was especially concerning. However, the team wasn’t sure why.

“So we decided to take a look at this trend, and find why this is happening,” explained Sebald. The research team started a project last year that looks at two cohorts of English education students and will follow them throughout their program. The team solicited participants in the first education class that these students take, at the beginning of their first year. Once the participants had been selected, the team conducted interviews and will continue to interview the cohorts throughout their program. The first cohort just entered stage three, and cohort two is starting the second stage of the study.

“We are asking them questions about their perceptions of what it means to be an educator,” explained Sebald, “Embedded within these questions is dialogue surrounding the ideas of persistence and dispositions. The persistence piece gets at the rate of attrition and why they are choosing to continue or discontinue their teacher training. The dispositional aspect is investigating a trend we noticed with students who don’t continue or experience challenges in their program.”

Heidi Fredericksen, Pam Coke and Ann Sebald at the conference in Paris, France last August.

Discourses and dispositions

“One of the great debates in our faculty is whether dispositions can be taught,” said Sebald. “However, if we only rely on people who were born to teach, our profession is going to die. That’s not enough people, and if we are assessing for dispositions then we’d better figure out how to teach it.” The early findings in the research conducted by Sebald’s team indicate that discourses can be taught.

In discussing discourse, James Paul Gee, whose qualitative work surrounds the analyzation of people’s language and discourse, talks about a primary and secondary discourse. Primary discourse involves how an individual was raised and his or her initial experiences. Culture, language, and interactions with parents or extended family all help to build an individual’s primary discourse.

The secondary discourse is developed from interactions outside of that core. This includes going away to college and receiving training for one’s major. The secondary discourse will develop and evolve in a way that is reliant on the primary discourses. “So, our argument is that you can teach disposition in teacher training,” said Sebald. “We highlight that by focusing in on secondary discourse, and by encouraging students to bring their primary discourse into the classroom. The question is: How do we take where they have come from, and use the pedagogy they are experiencing in their coursework to help them develop the dispositions necessary for a fulfilling teaching career?”

Critical teacher shortage

The U.S. is currently experiencing a growing teacher shortage. In the state of Colorado, there is a critical shortage in the majority of the state.

We’ve got to do something about it, because teaching is the profession upon which all other professions exist,” said Sebald. “If we can’t figure it out, bring in people who can teach effectively, and find people who will stay in the field to develop their craft, then we as a country will continue to fall behind.”

Sebald says that estimates of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years of their careers ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent. However, for Colorado, about 28 percent of teachers will leave in the first four years. In recent years and going into the future, there are more teachers who are retiring or getting ready to retire, as is the case with many fields. There are not enough teaching professionals graduating to replace these retirees.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education put out a report last year that said the teacher prep programs in the state are declining in size. “There are not enough teachers being produced to meet the state’s needs. That means we need to recruit from outside the state,” explained Sebald, “but what’s worrying is that we still don’t have a sufficient number to address the national shortage.”

Read more here about steps that the Center for Educator Preparation is taking to address the teacher shortage in Colorado.

The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.