Fewer people are studying to become teachers in New Jersey, according to a report released Tuesday that suggests better pay and benefits would reverse the trend before it threatens the quality of public education.

The research was published by New Jersey Policy Perspective on Teacher Appreciation Day. Among other things, it shows that the number of teacher candidates enrolled in preparation programs in New Jersey colleges dropped from 21,410 at its 2009-10 peak to 7,950 in 2017-18.

“A drop of 63%,” said report author Mark Weber, special analyst for education policy for NJPP and a teacher in Warren Township. “That is really striking, and it says something about how people with college degrees are viewing teaching as a career.”

The number of people completing teacher prep programs was down 47% in those seven years, from 6,373 to 3,366.

Weber said that in the seven years between those two dates, teachers were pressured by higher education standards for students and squeezed by erosion in their pensions and health benefits.

“And at the same time, they’ve seen a real gap in their wages compared to other college graduates,” Weber said. “Given all of these things, it really shouldn’t be surprising that we’re seeing this marked decrease in the number of people who want to become teachers.”

Nora Hyland, associate dean of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, which has actually seen an increase in enrollment during the time period studied, said the financial challenges associated with a career in education start early.

“The actual economic costs of becoming a teacher have actually escalated throughout the last decade,” Hyland said. “So the requirements in testing, even to gain admission to a teacher preparation program, there are several tests that candidates need to take in order to achieve their license. And those requirements continue to expand, and the costs of them are prohibitive.”

The report says that to attract great teachers, they need to be paid salaries competitive with other professions requiring college degrees. The median teacher salary in the state in 2018-19 was around $72,400, according to state Department of Education data.

“Right now, we need to be celebrating teachers,” Hyland said. “It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. Let’s celebrate them, and the best way to value somebody is through paying them adequately and ensuring that they’re able to support their families.”

“Of course, everybody understands this is going to be especially challenging in this world, this post-pandemic world that we have approaching,” Weber said. “But at the same time, we have to think about protecting our place here in New Jersey.”

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While the coronavirus-induced financial challenge facing the state and school districts might make it a bad time to increase education spending, Hyland and Weber said the disruption gives parents an insight into what goes into schooling.

“One outcome of this pandemic I think is that many people are beginning to realize the value that teachers bring and the value of their labor,” Hyland said. “As a mom who’s home with three children, I certainly feel very much indebted to the teachers and grateful for their teachers.”

“Hopefully if anything good comes out of this as far as teaching, it’s that we have a newfound respect for people who do this job,” Weber said.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.