Andrea Kurjah thought education was her calling.
After graduating from USF in 2007 with a degree in elementary education and working as a first grade and kindergarten teacher, Kurjah said she soon realized the field she had entered was not one that had the best interest of students in mind – primarily because of local legislation.
Kurjah said she not only saw pay cuts every year in her three years as a teacher, but she also faced great uncertainty in job security. At the beginning of her final year as a teacher, she wasn’t sure if there would be enough students to allow her to hold her teaching job because of legislation that decreased the number of students in each class.
“The (legislation) pretty much put tape over the teachers’ (mouths) in allowing them to have a voice,” she said. “The best person to know what the students want (and need) would be the teachers, not someone who’s not in the classroom. It was unjust.”
Kurjah, who said she is now studying law to be involved in education reform through pro bono work is one of many college graduates and students who have left the education field in recent years.
The USF College of Education (COE) has witnessed a decrease in enrollment over the last five years.
According to USF’s Infomart, the college has seen a 22.6 percent decrease in overall enrollment for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees since 2007, when they housed 2,230 undergraduate students on the Tampa campus.
Now, they have 1,726.
Over the same period of time the College of Arts and Science undergraduate enrollment has increased by 3 percent, the College of Arts increased by 9.6 percent, the College of Engineering increased by 10.6 percent and the College of Nursing increased by 11.7 percent, according to Infomart.
Enrollment in the College of Business (COB) decreased by 16.7 percent, according to Infomart. Yet, unlike the COB, Michael Stewart, associate dean for educator preparation in the COE, said the COE is seeing a shortage of applicants.
“The atmosphere in the United States towards teachers, in general, is one that has a negative effect on individuals going into the profession,” Stewart said. “I think people want to be in a profession that is valued, and a lot of people are questioning whether teachers are valued today.”
In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law that tied teacher pay to FCAT performance and education levels attained by the instructor. Tenure for all new hires in K-12 education was cut. Last week, sick leave pay for teachers came under scrutiny by the government to find ways to save money, according to tampabay.com.
Stewart said the majority of the undergraduate population typically studies elementary education. With lower paychecks and increased pressure on standardized testing performance, Stewart said the COE seen its lowest numbers in elementary education enrollment at USF.
“It’s kind of early to tell as to whether or not we’ve stabilized or things will continue to go down,” he said.
Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said the outlook on Florida’s public education has been bleak in recent years.
“Politicians are certainly making (teachers’ jobs) more difficult,” he said. “It’s a shame. We need good teachers. It’s a profession that is so vitally important, but because the salary that’s paid is not comparable to other college degree positions, it’s a shame.”
Pudlow said the messages being sent from the government to teachers is not positive.
“We ought to be looking at teachers in the same way we look at architects and software programmers and so many other fields out there that are better compensated than teaching,” he said. “I think that’s something we’re missing the boat on – in Florida and throughout the country.”
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Florida ranks 47 out of all 50 states in average teacher salaries. Florida ranked 28 during the 2006-07 year.
According to a report by the Education Information and Accountability Services, the average salary for a Florida public school teacher during the 2010-2011 school year was $45,723. The average salary for an architect in 2011 is $65,574 and the average salary of a software engineer or programmer in 2011 is $99,257.
Overemphasis on standardized tests like the FCAT and an environment in which teachers are responsible for teaching more home skills to students because parents are trying to work more during the recession has deterred many from entering the education field, Pudlow said.
“Over the last decade or so, there’s been a real trend to blame teachers because test scores aren’t what some politicians would like,” he said. “The funding for education, not only at the K-12 level, but also at the university level, has been dwindling over the last few years and those are choices that the politicians have made. It’s a much harsher environment for public education now than it was ten years ago.”
Stewart said recruitment initiatives for new students tend to be in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education – a field that has promised jobs, according to the Florida Board of Governor’s New Florida Initiative that focuses on STEM programs.
Though COE enrollment has decreased overall, the number of USF students majoring in mathematics education has increased over the past five years by 11 percent, Stewart said.
Our focus in all of our programs is really trying to produce quality in our programs,” he said. “We don’t want to graduate students in areas where there aren’t jobs. We’ve purposely cut back in some areas.”