For more than a year, media outlets have trumpeted stories about North Carolina’s decline in per pupil funding, elimination of teacher tenure, end of additional salary for earning master’s degrees, removal of class-size caps, elimination of the Teaching Fellows Program, introduction of vouchers and growing exodus of teachers from the profession.
While the past year has been tumultuous, North Carolina is only now feeling the forward winds ahead of the real storm. Our state’s colleges of education, the training ground for our most successful career teachers, are seeing substantial declines in enrollment, and a potentially serious teacher shortage is looming.
Most North Carolinians recognize the importance of having a quality teacher in every classroom. In numerous studies, most notably those by Dr. William Sanders of SAS, the power of talented teachers to positively affect student lives has been documented. Likewise, the deleterious long-term effects of one or more poor quality teachers have also been demonstrated.
Fortunately, North Carolina’s colleges and schools of education do an exceptional job of producing fine teachers. In their large-scale research of student end-of-grade testing, professors Charles Thompson of ECU and Gary Henry, formerly of UNC, documented that teachers produced in North Carolina colleges of education outperform teachers from nearly every other route. On average, North Carolina-trained teachers produce greater learning gains than those from other states, and they significantly outperform lateral-entry teachers (career switchers).
Further, a comprehensive evaluation of the NC Teaching Fellows program, a program that provided scholarships to many of our state’s brightest students who enter the teaching profession, reported that “competitive scholarships have enhanced the human capital of the teacher workforce and improved student achievement in NC.” Sadly, the NC Teaching Fellows program was eliminated.
Problematically, N.C. public and private colleges of education produce only about 61 percent of the teachers needed to fill our classrooms. The remaining teachers come primarily from other states, and a small number enter through other routes into the profession. Reliance upon teachers from other states moving to North Carolina was tricky in good times. Now, with N.C. education budgets and salaries squeezed, the allure of teaching in our public schools is certainly diminished.
The shortage of trained teachers means it is harder for public schools to fill teaching positions, with schools having to hire more individuals through lateral entry and without formal teacher education and, in many cases, relying on long-term substitutes. Our students are facing the consequences of this gap in qualified teachers, and it is most pronounced in rural and urban districts.
Additionally, just as North Carolina is seeking to expand schools that have a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focus, these are precisely the teaching fields that are in shortest supply.
Dramatic policy changes, an exodus of teachers, removal of the Teaching Fellows program, a shortage of teachers moving to North Carolina and now a significant decline in education school enrollments may be the perfect storm we fear. Enrollment in many colleges of education is off by 20 percent, and some declines exceed 40 percent. Most undergraduate education programs take two to four years of specialized study to complete, so the current decreases in enrollment will hit our public schools for many years to come.
Addressing this looming teacher shortage needs to be a top priority and should start with treating teachers as professionals and seeing public education as an investment crucial to the well-being of children and the future of our state. Perhaps it is time to stop blaming the ills of our state on the very people who are working to ameliorate them. Time to stop supporting policies that have no basis in research. Time to stop working to take money from public schools to hand to private contractors – particularly when we know it doesn’t work. Time to stop celebrating the fact that there are now at least a few states that pay worse than North Carolina.
Perhaps it is time to start investing in our education professionals. It’s time to start to put more of our state’s best and brightest students in our education programs by bringing back the Teaching Fellows program. It’s time to support continued high-quality professional development and invest in teacher retention. It’s time to start acknowledging that North Carolina’s teachers are incredibly talented, hard-working individuals and understand that the future of our state is being shaped in their classrooms.
Scott Imig, Ph.D., is an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Robert Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of education at UNCW.