In the “consent order’’ he issued this week, Superior Court Judge W. David Lee instructed state education officials “to work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions’’ to implement seven overarching enhancements to North Carolina public schools. The judge did not say the one-through-seven list reflected an order of priority. Still it’s impossible to ignore the centrality of item number one:
“A system of teacher development and recruitment that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.”
Competitive pay, a significant phrase. In North Carolina, a state that pays attention to where it ranks in all manner of indicators, decisions on teacher pay usually devolve into a debate focused on average-salary rankings — and how far the state would have to climb to reach, not near the top, but the national average. More important than rankings, however, is to measure teacher salaries in relation to comparable professionals.
For many education professionals, their passion to teach drives them into the classroom with such force that it prevails over their disquiet over historically modest pay. But inadequate pay serves as a disincentive to young people (and their parents) from entering schools of education and thus works to diminish the supply of teachers. Judge Lee pointed out that while public school enrollment in North Carolina rose 25% over two decades, enrollment in traditional teacher education dropped by 50% from 2008 to 2016, and teacher credentials issued fell by 30% from 2011 to 2016.
“Even as teacher wages stagnate and state investment in education declines, teachers are being asked to do more than ever — and enrollment in teacher preparation programs is decreasing significantly nationwide,” says a report released in December by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank allied with the Democratic Party. Lisette Partelow, a former first-grade teacher who is now senior director of the center’s K-12 Strategic Initiatives, produced the report by drawing from research studies and federal data.
The center’s report has a series of charts — yes, state-by-state rankings — that help put North Carolina’s condition and challenges into wider context. The nation, says the report, had one-third fewer students in teacher preparation in 2018 than in 2010 — more than 300,000 fewer students — and a 28% decline in students completing their course of study. And at a time of increased racial and ethnic diversity, there were one-quarter fewer Black and Latinx teacher candidates in 2018 than in 2010.
One of the center’s charts shows that enrollment in teacher education has declined in all but five states. North Carolina places among the states with falling enrollment, but it ranks in the five states with the lowest rates of decline. In the chart showing the decline in completion in 45 states, North Carolina ranks 31st.
The center’s report points to modest gains by North Carolina in two categories. From 2010 to 2018, North Carolina went from zero to 508 teachers completing alternative post-secondary training programs, and it was among 13 states with growth in African-American students preparing for teaching.
All in all, ranking among the least deficient is not exactly a cause for cheering, especially in this fast-growing state. Judge Lee’s commentary strikes a balance in acknowledging North Carolina’s history of educational initiatives and pointing out that the state has “substantial assets to draw upon to develop a successful PreK-12 education system,” while he also observes that policymakers “face greater challenges than ever,’’ not least in bolstering high-poverty schools with high-quality teachers.
To meet those “greater challenges than ever’’ will surely require from the state’s public decision-makers more urgency and energy in the 2020s than in the 2010s.