Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

Data context for education debate

As we launched six months ago, we promised to offer policymakers, educators, business executives and citizens access to research and to “report and demystify data” that shed light on how schools are performing and how policy is playing out. In that spirit, this column draws largely from a just-released paper by Kevin Bastian, director of teacher quality research in the Education Policy Initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Bastian’s paper, “More Than the National Average: Rebuilding an Infrastructure to Advance Teaching in North Carolina,” documents the shifts in budgeting and policy that have re-cast the state’s relationship with its 96,000 public school teachers. The paper was commissioned by Think North Carolina First, which describes itself as “policy and message development think tank” — its work designed to assist Democratic office-holders and candidates.

Bastian writes in the dispassionate, straight-ahead language of public policy analysis. He doesn’t mention Democrats or Republicans. But, of course, the scope of his paper covers the period that spans the Great Recession and the Republican Party governance in North Carolina between the 2010 and 2014 elections.

As the House and Senate head into summertime negotiations to determine the 2015-17 state budget and as the political parties gear up for the 2016 elections, here are key findings from Bastian paper that may well inform the great debate over education:

  • About 36 percent of the state’s teachers graduated from universities in the UNC system. As a whole they out perform, and stay longer than, teachers who arrive from out-of-state and through lateral entry from other professions. And yet, Bastian writes, “enrollments in undergraduate UNC system teacher education programs are down 26 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2014….these drops in enrollment are problematic for North Carolina because the state may soon face a shortage of teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.”
  • While facing a potential teacher shortage, North Carolina lacks financial incentives to recruit talent. Bastian points out that the state has discontinued funding for the Teaching Fellows program, for Future Teachers of North Carolina and the Prospective Teachers Scholarship Loan program.
  • Since 1993, Bastian writes, North Carolina instituted a standards and accountability system that raised expectations of teachers. More recently, the state has scaled down its mid-career professional development for teachers. The North Carolina Teacher Academy was completely defunded, and the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching had its annual appropriations roughly cut in half, from just over $6 million to about $3 million.
  • Bastian reports that average teacher salaries, adjusting for inflation, fell by 17 percent from 2003-04 to 2013-14, the largest decline among the states. He takes note of recent legislation to raise pay especially for early-career teachers, and then observes, “the state’s current salary structure maxes out at $50,000 for an undergraduate (degree-holding teacher) and $56,000 for those holding NBC (national board certification).” Both pay levels are below the national average teacher salary.

“It is important to remember,” Bastian writes, “that North Carolina is not an island. Teacher labor markets are geographically expanding and North Carolina is competing with other states, near and far, to recruit, hire and keep high-quality teachers. These teachers, both novice and veteran, are weighing whether North Carolina is the best place for them to teach.”

What appeals to me in Bastian’s paper is his dutiful scholar’s weighing of evidence: that rigorous standards for teachers do pay off in student achievement, that teacher evaluations give school administrators better data for hiring, assignment and dismissing teachers, and that, even though the state offered higher pay for teachers with master’s degrees, research doesn’t prove they produce better results in the classroom. What also appeals is his focus on how to elevate the quality of the state’s corps of teachers.

Adding up an array of policy and budgetary changes, Bastian writes, “more has been asked of North Carolina’s teachers without finding ways to offer them more support in return…Advancing the quality and retention of the North Carolina teacher workforce must be a critical priority for the state.”

North Carolina is in the midst of a great debate over the future of public education. To be sure, that debate has an intensely partisan dimension. Still, it is a debate that needs to be informed and put in context by data-infused research and analysis.

A personal note: My son Justin is executive director of Think North Carolina First. He has no role in EducationNC, and I have no role at ThinkNCFirst. I have worked with the UNC policy initiative, known as EPIC, for its reliable data gathering and analysis.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.