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SUNY striving to train more teachers as shortage looms

Payne Horning
At SUNY Oswego, a small class of education majors learn how to incorporate an experiment into their lesson plan about time. Professor Eric Olson, left, says he has seen the number of students in his teaching courses dwindle over the years.

The number of students who are choosing to enter the education profession is declining. SUNY, which trains 25 percent of the New York’s educators, is trying to address the issue because the state's school districts are now seeing a shortage of qualified teachers. 

SUNY Oswego, which was originally created to train teachers, now enrolls a third of the number of education students it did 10 years ago. Marcia Burrell, chair of the curriculum and instruction department, says the college's phones are ringing off the hook. 

"Whether it’s art, technology education, special education, science, modern language, math – every single one of these faculty members say they get phone calls from superintendents, from districts as far as Buffalo, Finger Lakes, saying 'Send us some teachers,'" Burrell said. 

The drop is not specific to SUNY Oswego. Systemwide, SUNY education majors are down by about 30 percent. Elementary education student Kaylee Fallat says she feels a calling to education, but she recognizes the drawbacks.

“My dad wanted me to be well off so the money aspect came into it, of course, but he soon realized it made me happy and he accepted it and supported me ever since," Fallat said. "But at first, there was that kind of ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'"

Low pay and public scrutiny have always been deterrents to the profession and teaching shortages are cyclical. What many say has changed is the process to become a teacher. Post graduation, New York teachers have to pass four certification exams and get a master’s degree within five years. Burrell says these expensive and duplicative requirements are becoming barriers to the profession.

“Providing these gates with these assessments that there’s no evidence that they make for a better teacher means we’re kind of spinning our wheels," Burrell said. "We have to rethink all the hoops that teachers have to go through in order to become a teacher."

To alleviate the shortage, SUNY Oswego is now offering a 15-month graduate teacher certification degree to help train more educators. But Burrell says larger institutional changes are needed.

SUNY is undergoing a major overhaul of its education programs systemwide. Teach-NY was formed in 2014 with the goal of developing "bold policy that would transform teacher and school-leader preparation in New York." The initiative, which incorporates ideas from the New York State Department of Education, K-12 teachers and education faculty from SUNY's campuses, will focus on broad areas around recruitment, teacher leadership, assessment and clinical practice. SUNY Assistant Provost for Educator Preparation David Cantaffa says it will also focus on strategic approaches to meet the growing teacher demand. 

“We do want to look at is expanding program offerings in areas of greater needs so for example there are specific increased needs in the sciences, career and technical and so forth to work with local communities to develop expanded enrollment in those particular areas are something we want to do on our campuses," Cantaffa said. 

The first Teach-NY report released last year recommended increased recruitment and more financial aid to attract more students.

Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics from the United University Professions union, was critical of the report for not addressing teacher certification requirements, which she calls road blocks to the profession. Dangler says SUNY can train as many teachers as it wants, but until the state eases certification requirements New York will continue to lose teachers to other states.

“It’s not surprising that many of our young folks who are actually graduating from teacher education programs are deciding not to even try to get certified in New York state," Dangler said. "They’re just leaving the state.”

Dangler is encouraged by the New York State Board of Regents’ recent decision to eliminate one of the certification exams and she hopes SUNY administrators recognize that as they craft their reforms.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
The chair of SUNY Oswego's curriculum and instruction department Marcia Burrell, center, and Oswego City Schools Superintendent Dean Goewey, right, cut the ribbon for the new Leighton Learning Community Classrom. College students will be able to attend class in the same building where they are getting their student teaching experience.

SUNY Oswego recently unveiled its new immersive classroom at an Oswego elementary school where college students can spend their days taking class and leading it in the same building. Like many school districts in the state, Leighton Elementary Principal Kara Shore says they are already seeing a shortage of substitute teachers. That's why she says investments in training the next generation of teachers like this are necessary because the outcome has ramifications for every New Yorker.

“What they will do and what they will do for our society all comes back to the fact that they were in grade school, whether they were president of the United States or doing construction in the summer, they were in first grade once," Shore said. "So we really want to make sure everyone understands this is about all of us and we need to make sure there is excellence and kids feel they can reach their goals."

SUNY plans to release its policy change recommendations this spring and begin implementing it later this year.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.