RALEIGH — In recent years, teacher shortages, along with high attrition rates in rural areas and in fields such as secondary math and science, have prompted state officials to look to the UNC system for more teachers. But while most of the system’s previous efforts were aimed solely at adding more teachers to the pipeline (via the system’s 15 schools of education), recent criticism of teacher preparation quality has added a new dynamic to policy debates.
For example, according to a report released last summer by the National Council on Teacher Quality (published in U.S. News & World Report), many education programs lack rigorous curricula, accept academically weak students, and fail to mentor teacher candidates adequately. The report’s authors called the entire teacher preparation field an “industry of mediocrity” and gave less than 7 percent of the 1,612 programs they analyzed a top designation (and only 3 of 47 reviewed UNC programs received that designation).
Teacher quality was the central theme of an education summit held in January by the UNC system’s Board of Governors at the SAS Campus in Cary. A blue-ribbon group of politicians (including Gov. Pat McCrory), education school deans, university chancellors, and teachers from around the state heard recommendations from the board’s Subcommittee on Teacher and School Leader Quality.
Interwoven in discussions was the recognition of a startling fact: total enrollment in UNC’s undergraduate and graduate education programs has plummeted by 27 percent over the last five years. One reason for the enrollment decline is the legislature’s 2013 decision to eliminate bonuses for teachers earning advanced degrees (those degrees tend to be in education). The governor and legislature supported the elimination of the pay bumps then because many studies suggest that advanced degrees don’t enhance teacher quality. (Students enrolled in master’s programs before the 2013 decision were “grandfathered” into the old pay increase, however.)
To help increase enrollment numbers, the new proposal would provide a pay differential for teachers with advanced degrees in their field — but not for advanced degrees in education. An English teacher who earns a master’s in English would receive a pay bump under the proposed plan, for example. The subcommittee also wants to establish a merit-based public-private scholarship “targeted to attract the very best prospective candidates who are preparing to teach in North Carolina’s highest need licensure areas.”
Another recommendation seeks to establish an “educator quality dashboard” — a Web-based tool aggregating important information from each UNC education school. Set to launch in May, the online database will provide enrollment data, education school students’ academic profiles (their high school grade point averages, SAT scores, and their cumulative college GPAs compared to those of non-education majors), and a breakdown of the counties and K-12 schools where graduates from a given program end up teaching.
The teacher quality subcommittee also proposes that teacher candidates receive rigorous “clinical training” — that is, practical teaching experience that combines content mastery with significant in-class preparation. (In its 2014 review of teacher preparation programs, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 5 percent of programs across the country provide satisfactory clinical experiences for teacher candidates.)
Admissions selectivity also was addressed at the summit. James Cibulka, head of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the national accrediting body for education schools, said that by 2016 CAEP will require education schools to accept only those students scoring in the top 50 percent on norm-referenced tests — ACT, SAT, GRE, or a state-based equivalent comparing test-takers’ scores to those of others who have taken the same test. By 2020, applicants will have to score in the top 33 percent.
The UNC system’s Board of Governors is expected to approve the recommendations outlined at the education summit and will begin working with system officials and the legislature to implement them. Right now, there is no estimate of the cost of these changes.
Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.