Marquette University’s College of Education is paving the way to address the teacher supply challenge.

By Paula Wheeler
Illustration by Katie Carey

In fall 2016, following a steady stream of local media reports about school districts around the country struggling to find qualified teachers, the Learning Policy Institute released a research report on teacher supply and demand in the United States. It confirmed a bona fide deficit of skilled teachers in many areas of the country, and made a discouraging prediction that the situation would only get worse.

The study’s authors based this forecasting on a number of intersecting factors — growth in student enrollment, efforts to reduce student-to-teacher ratios, ongoing high teacher attrition rates and declines in teacher education enrollment.

Nationwide data revealed a 35 percent drop in enrollment between 2009 and 2014, while Marquette’s College of Education only had one slightly off year during that period. But in fall 2016 the college felt the full impact of this trend as its incoming freshman enrollment declined 40 percent from the previous year.

“This is a national phenomenon, and it seems to be particularly acute in the Midwest,” says Dr. Bill Henk, the College of Education’s dean. “Every teacher preparation program in Wisconsin experienced a significant decline in young people choosing teaching as a career.”

Henk, a central voice in Wisconsin’s dialogue on the teacher pipeline issue, well understands the challenges today’s teachers face both inside and outside of the classroom. The work can be all-consuming, the compensation is often less competitive than other fields, and the economic, social and emotional problems of students — particularly in underserved areas — are more daunting than ever before. Add what Henk says is a very real devaluing of the profession in modern American society and the results are mid-career teachers exiting in droves and young people at a loss to identify the advantages of a career in K–12 education.

But Henk and Marquette aren’t standing by, waiting for a demographic or cultural shift. To address the demand for qualified teachers, the College of Education has gotten creative, systematic and resolute, with strategies designed to attract additional highly qualified applicants and help finance their preparation.

“We want to do our part to get as many Marquette graduates in the classroom as we can because schools report that they are outstanding,” Henk says. “We turn out a high-caliber brand of teacher.”

STEM professionals wanted

Along with special education and English language learner programs, the institute’s report found the greatest need for teachers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. In 2015 to 2016, 42 states reported a dearth of qualified math teachers while 40 states said the same for science.

In May 2017 Marquette announced that faculty from the College of Education and the Opus College of Engineering jointly secured a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The program development and education team, which includes Drs. Ellen Eckman, Leigh van den Kieboom and Jill Birren from education, and Dr. Barbara Silver-Thorn from engineering, is leveraging the grant to create a 14-month master’s program designed to attract exceptional STEM professionals and transform them into top-level STEM teachers for middle schools and high schools.

Eckman, associate professor and chair of educational policy and leadership, says the team wanted to develop a streamlined, efficient graduate program for non-education majors who realize they want to become teachers later in their college years or after starting other careers.

The grant enables Marquette to offer $23,400 to each of 28 incoming students who will be known as Graduate Noyce Scholars. For working professionals in fields such as engineering, this amount is meaningful, says van den Kieboom, Grad ’08, associate professor of educational policy and leadership. “To come back to school for 14 months means leaving their job, losing income and paying for school,” she says. “The financial support is essential.”

The co-op education model used in the program is a key differentiator, van den Kieboom says, explaining that it has long been employed in the engineering industry and enables students to get real-world experience while in school.

What this means for Noyce Scholars is that their preparation will include campus course work integrated with on-site, hands-on work at a middle or high school to which their cohort is assigned. They will also participate with educational organizations such as Discovery World, the Urban Ecology Center and school-based summer programs. It’s an immersive experience, Eckman says, that tightly integrates content and pedagogy.

The Noyce program is already fielding inquiries and preparing to accept applications, as the first cohort of seven students begins in summer 2018. The scholarship package requires graduates to devote at least two years teaching in a high-needs district, van den Kieboom says.

Recruiting gets a personal touch

The 2016 drop in new freshmen was an impetus for the College of Education to examine recruitment practices and determine how they might, as Henk puts it, “secure more of our qualified applicants than we have in the past.”

“Last year we really looked at it and said, ‘We need to do something,’” says Calley Hostad, assistant director of communications strategy and enrollment.

She and fellow team members — including Tina McNamara, assistant dean for undergraduate advising and student services, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions — examined the practices of other Marquette colleges and departments and developed a more systematic approach to recruiting that features a highly personal touch. Elements include personalized letters and cards, notices encouraging applicants to register for a scholarship competition, an inspirational video about the teaching profession, an increased social media presence and more, as ways of making applicants feel more connected to Marquette. Phone calls, as well as the availability of staff and even the dean to meet with prospects’ families, are critical. Outreach to interested candidates from current College of Education students, who can relate to them on more of a peer level, has been a key component as well.

Hostad tracks each touchpoint in a huge spreadsheet, which is how she knows that the office made 567 phone calls in November 2016 and sent 245 holiday cards from the dean that December.

Henk is all too happy to participate in whatever way he can, including meeting with individual prospective students and their families. “We want to send a message of caring from the very beginning, and talking to a dean could help in that regard,” Henk says. “Plus, rather than say, ‘We are Marquette,’ our theme to those who apply is, ‘You are Marquette.’”

Hostad says the college’s 33 percent increase in enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017 “is definitely reflective of the personal touches.”

LIFTing the burden of student debt

Noting that the pipeline issue has propelled scholarships to the top of the college’s fundraising priority list, Henk plans to focus much of his energy on securing new resources specifically to recruit and support Marquette undergraduate education majors. Informally he refers to these efforts within the existing College of Education’s Scholars Fund as trying to give aspiring teachers a LIFT, his personal acronym for a Lifetime Investment in the Future of Teaching.

Recognizing that while their preparation is “world-class,” the College of Education students pay the same private-school tuition as “those in other Marquette colleges who will graduate with the promise of significantly greater compensation,” Henk explains.

Henk is also strategizing with university leaders on potential initiatives that include supporting Catholic school teachers and principals, which would aid undergraduate and graduate students who feel called to Catholic education. The college is also exploring a Back to School concept, which would support re-entry to the workforce for licensed teachers who have left the profession, often to raise families.

Taking a cue from research that says it can be beneficial to “plant the seed early” when it comes to careers in teaching, the college is also working on initiatives to reach middle school and high school students, including hosting 200 middle school students from Pathways Milwaukee’s college- and career-readiness program this academic year. The college is also reaching out to principals about instituting a regional Future Teacher Association to encourage and inform middle school and high school students who show an interest in teaching as a career.

Recruiting even small numbers of students to Marquette’s program, Henk says, has a significant ripple effect. “Our students are game-changers,” he says. “Each time we prepare so much as one less teacher, it means that thousands of children’s lives won’t be touched over the course of what would have been that teacher’s career.”