Point of View

NC public schools not broken – yet

May 5, 2014 

Contrary to what often passes for conventional wisdom, North Carolina’s public schools are not broken. In fact, they are educating a more challenging and more diverse student population to higher standards, across a much broader array of subject areas, than ever before – all while achieving record graduation rates.

But our public schools face a looming crisis. As the student dropout rate decreases, the teacher “dropout rate” is skyrocketing. In exit interviews, teachers have made clear that low pay is a key factor in deciding to leave. If we do not dedicate resources to pay our teachers more now, our children and state will pay a hefty price.

In North Carolina, public schools educate almost 1.5 million students or nearly 90 percent of our school-age children. As a native North Carolinian, I have always held a deep conviction that investing in public education – pre-K through our state university system – is the bedrock of our state’s prosperity. It’s what made North Carolina different – and special.

Last year, our state’s graduation rate passed 82 percent, up 14 percentage points in the last seven years. Unfortunately, at the same time, 14.3 percent of teachers left their jobs, up from 12.1 percent the previous year. In poorer counties, turnover rates were as high as 35 percent. Wake County, a school system long recognized as an employer of choice for teachers, has seen an alarming 41 percent increase in mid-year resignations this year.

Compounding that exodus, the number of students entering schools of education in the UNC system – the single largest pipeline of teachers for public schools in our state – fell 7 percent last fall. That’s the equivalent of losing 1,300 new teachers, some of whom would have become tomorrow’s rock star teachers. But increasingly they are choosing to take their talents to other states and other professions.

When you look at how we compensate our teachers in North Carolina, this choice should not come as a shock. Teachers in 45 states are paid more than teachers in North Carolina, who have not had contractual pay raises for six years. We’re not even regionally competitive, which may explain why we’re losing teachers to Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

With the ever-expanding and more demanding roles we expect teachers to play, the job they do with shrinking resources is nothing short of heroic. While many children enter school able to read and write, others do not know how to hold a crayon or identify colors. Many live in single-parent households or have parents who cannot afford food or rent or who do not speak English. Many have disabilities or struggle as learners for a variety of reasons.

Improving our public schools is a complex, long-term task. But the first step is simple: We need to increase our investment in our teachers immediately. We must make it clear that we truly value the work they do in preparing our children to succeed. Making salaries a true reflection of that value will help our schools continue to respond to the complex challenges of educating students for life and work in the 21st century.

The Public School Forum has helped lead the charge in North Carolina teacher recruitment for nearly 30 years. We have also conducted numerous studies of other countries that excel in providing the best educations to their students and found one common thread: They respect and invest in their teachers. Teaching is viewed as a valuable and significant profession, and teachers are given the support, opportunities and funding that would be expected in any other noteworthy profession.

We need to look at our systems for compensating teachers, rewarding excellence and encouraging school and classroom-level leadership and innovation. We should be open to new ideas involving differential pay for teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas and hard-to-staff locations. We need to explore career ladders for educators who want to advance in their profession without leaving the classroom. And we should make intelligent use of the measures we have for evaluating teacher performance, even as we acknowledge their deficiencies and seek even stronger measures.

If we expect teachers to prepare and motivate students, we must place the highest priority on the recruitment, training, support, retention and inspiration of those teachers. Investing in our teachers will yield incalculable returns for our students and our state. It is an investment we cannot afford not to make.

Keith Poston is president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

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