High school agriculture programs threatened by teacher shortage

John Christensen
A student uses the 3-D welding simulator in the Ag Mechanics class at Penn Yan Academy.

Recently, the Agricultural Mechanics students at Penn Yan Academy picked up some cutting edge technical experience. Their teacher, John Kriese, arranged for a 3-D welding simulator to be brought to the school for them to try their hands using the industry-leading training tool. Nick Conklin and Cliff McCann from Empire Air Gas Inc. brought the simulator into Kriese’s classroom and trained the students just as they would have experienced their first day of such training in much more advanced technology courses or in on-the-job training. The simulator is also used by companies in hiring tryouts for new job candidates.

Now working with computer generated imagery rather and pre-set guides for positioning the wand and the simulated metal to be welded, several of the students impressed the trainers with the level of skill they already had, and how quickly they adapted to the requirements of the simulator.

Kriese explains that Agricultural Mechanics at PYA is an exploratory class. Some students take it in preparation for BOCES courses later in high school. Others are “late bloomers” who are deciding to go on to a trade or technical school after graduation. But this one course is just part of the vibrant agriculture program at the Academy. Teamed with Technology teacher Scott Chappell, PYA students can receive a Career & Technical Education endorsement on their diploma that requires 22 technical class credits, passing grades on five required Regents examinations, successful completion of a three-part technical assessment (written, demonstration, project components), completion of work-based learning experiences, and completion of a work-skills employability profile.

Kriese also gives his students the chance to take the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) exam; a performance-based test demonstrating skills in welding, oxy-acetylene torch, land surveying, electrical, carpentry, and gas engine repair (all assessed by six local employers), followed by a 180-question test. Penn Yan is one of the few schools in the state that offers the NOCTI exam.

A testament to the strength of the Ag/Tech program at PYA is student Ryan Andersen, who earned first place in the New York State Agricultural Engineering & Mechanics Competition this year. Anderson will progress to the Northeast Regional level when he competes at the Big E in Springfield, Mass. this September.

All of this success is wonderful to be sure, but there is worry on the horizon. Kriese’s retirement is imminent, in June 2018, and PYA will be joining a long list of schools in the state hunting for trained Agriculture teachers. Although agriculture has always been a top industry in New York, the number of potential Ag teachers has dwindled significantly. Kriese has heard there are between 22 to 25 schools currently searching for teachers without success.

Jeff Perry, Senior Lecturer for Horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University (who taught high school agriculture for 17 years prior to joining Cornell), informs us that Cornell closed its Department of Education in 2010. “The Agriculture Education program continued beyond that until 2014 at which point Cornell was due for reaccreditation to be able to certify teachers.” However, the costs to maintain a certification program was deemed prohibitive. “Dean Kathryn Boor reached out to SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College about partnering with their existing education programs,” says Perry. Ithaca College had an existing agreement for sharing coursework and moved quickly to develop a Masters in Agriculture Education as one of their many certification programs. The first cohort of just four students started in June 2016 and will complete in July. “The College of Agriculture and Life Science continues to offer three agriculture education classes that support the Ithaca College program and allow me time to supervise the student teaching program as well,” he adds.

Perry says five students are in the application process for the cohort starting June 2017. “I have a running list of approximately six students per year considering a Masters in Ag Education once they finish degrees at Cobleskill, Morrisville, or Cornell. There are also students certifying through SUNY Oswego, approximately two a year.”

Perry says “Agriculture Education was very common in the 60s, then started to wane as society interests changed and agriculture was not a desired career. The pendulum has swung back to the point where agriculture, locally grown food, caring about food quality have all become important again. The leadership arm of agriculture education, the FFA, has gained a strong reputation for developing the soft skills of students: presentation skills, interview skills, knowledge of work expectations; the ability to problem solve and work in teams; understanding the global perspective of agriculture.

“My perception is that the career success and polished presentation skills of FFA members are the driving force for new agriculture program interest across New York and the country. The Harvard study, ‘Pathways to Prosperity’ in February of 2011 also began to encourage schools to reconsider career and technical programs as a positive aspect of future student success.”

Perry says that while he is developing a steady stream of students interested in agriculture education via 4-year degrees in agriculture, a certain percentage of those will enter the agriculture industry rather than teaching, due to high demand for agriculture graduates with these education skills. “I have also noted a steady growth in inquiries from people currently in agriculture careers that are ready to change gears, get certified, and teach high school agriculture. The Agriculture Outreach Education program at Cornell is working with the New York State Education Department to improve pathways for these non-traditional teachers to gain certification and be accepted into teaching positions across the state.”

Perry agrees with John Kriese in their shared concern about meeting the need for teachers. “I have over 50 schools requesting information about starting new programs, and we have a large number of teachers ready to retire in the next five to ten years. Will we have a shortage? Yes, to a degree.” Kriese and Perry also agree that part of the problem lies in Albany.

“New York State is not making teaching a very desirable career path, given the number of hurdles one has to jump to gain certification,” says Perry. “Salaries are adequate, but not stellar when compared with some industry positions. The students I am working with are excited to teach and will do well in the classroom. I have more lined up behind them to complete their masters, too.

“There will be some schools that will need to be flexible, or teachers that may need to consider teaching an extra year while we certify students that have an interest in moving to a particular area. Certified agriculture teachers will have more than a few opportunities available to them, so schools will have to find ways to encourage applicants to want to choose their school.”