FORTUNE — Call it the exodus of the ed major.
More of America’s youth are opting to pursue education, but far fewer choose to study it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 just over 6% of undergraduate students left college with a bachelor’s degree in education — a jaw-dropping slide from the 21% that did so in 1971.
Even as the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred annually has doubled over that time period, America’s colleges produce 70,000 fewer graduates each year with education degrees than they did 40 years ago.
Why are so few students choosing to follow the path of pedagogy? Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, believes the reasons are multifold. During the 1970s, the sharp initial drop in education degrees resulted from increased job opportunities for women. In 1971, teaching was one of the few career paths open to female undergraduates. When their prospects broadened, women entered other fields of study, and the number of education majors fell.
But according to Welner, that doesn’t tell the whole story. In the last few years, teaching has become a less desirable profession. Why is that? Welner attributes it to a changed classroom environment that places heavy emphasis on standardized testing and limits teacher freedom.
“A lot of people enter teaching because they want to work with students in rich, engaging ways, and the high-stakes, test-based approaches undermine the ability of teachers to create those environments,” said Welner in a phone interview.
“There’s a lot of teacher bashing,” he continued. “Do people want to enter careers where they feel they would be unfairly blamed?”
More students are also opting to pursue an education career through alternative programs. Teach for America, for instance, allows college graduates without education degrees to work in the classroom while pursuing a master’s degree. The Department of Education estimates that 31% of teacher preparation programs are non-traditional ones like Teach for America.
In addition, 27 out of 50 states require at least some teachers of secondary education to have a content-specific bachelor’s degree. Translation: If you want to teach high school biology, you’d better have a biology degree. Given the difficulties of double-majoring, some students are opting to study a certain subject in college and then prepare for a career in teaching through non-traditional programs.
While there are many reasons for the decline in education majors, the trend is clear. And as alternative programs and standardized testing continue to gain prominence, it’s likely that the number of education degrees will continue to decline.