Enrollment rebound keeps SESP secondary teaching major afloat


Evan Robinson-Johnson/The Daily Northwestern

A table in Annenberg Hall, which houses SESP offices. Despite a vote to end the secondary teaching major during the 2014-2015 school year, the program has continued due to an uptick in enrollment.

Avi Varghese, Reporter

In 2015, the School of Education and Social Policy faculty voted to shut down the secondary teaching major at Northwestern. Contrary to many faculty members’ expectations and the vote, which still stands, the program has continued to run into the 2018-19 school year thanks to a rebound in enrollment counts.

The department faculty had initially decided to shut down the major after a dramatic drop in enrollment rates for the 2014-2015 academic year, according to Tim Dohrer, director of the master of science in education program. Only one incoming freshman had declared the major that year, he said, when the program ranged from 25 to 30 in the past.

Taking into consideration the enrollment count, nationwide survey data that indicated low career interest in teaching among high schoolers, and the beginnings of a major teaching candidate shortage nationwide that has yet to see an end –– the faculty voted to halt the major.

“For pedagogical and economic reasons, it’s hard to run a class of three students,” Dohrer said.

Despite the vote, the admissions office agreed that year to aggressively recruit students to the major for the coming admission season. Two months later, more than 10 admitted freshmen declared the secondary teaching major, a boost to the program. As a result, then-Dean Penelope Peterson decided to “forego implementing the decision” to see how the situation progressed, Dohrer said.

The removal of the major would not have affected undergraduates’ ability to receive a secondary teaching license, according to Bradley Wadle, assistant director of the master of science in education program. Students have the ability to receive a bachelor’s degree through the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and take additional SESP classes to qualify for the license program.

“There were never any discussions about taking away the ability for undergraduates to get a teaching license,” Wadle said. “(The Weinberg pathway) was always going to continue to be possible.”

Despite this, the specific major affords more flexibility to students who are set on secondary teaching, said SESP sophomore Henry Lang, a secondary teaching major.

Lang plans to become a high school English teacher, and going with SESP allowed him to avoid various Weinberg requirements to focus on specializing in American literature. He also cited personalized advising and the strong community of teaching-focused students and faculty as benefits to being a SESP student.

“As a teacher obviously you are passionate about working with kids regardless if you are in SESP or doing a teacher’s certificate,” Lang said. “I just really enjoy that I am surrounded by people who are interested in making change.”

Dohrer said the decision would not have had a negative effect on the master of science in education program, which shares many of its classes with the secondary teaching undergraduate program, because enrollment remains relatively high in the masters program.

The faculty are still watching the numbers, Dohrer said. Despite the fact that the original vote still stands, he said the faculty is likely to hold a second vote on whether to keep the major, possibly this spring or next year.

For Dohrer, however, the problem is much larger-scale and longer-term, and it doesn’t begin or end with the fate of Northwestern’s programs.

“The bigger story is the number of young people and old people who are choosing to not go into teaching,” Dohrer said. “On the West Coast, in the Southwest and now here in the Midwest, we have a real shortage of teaching candidates because those candidates are not coming to university to get trained. This is an indicator of a much bigger national issue, which is: What is our view of teachers?”

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