Opinion: Daily Journal

North Carolina’s Real Teacher Recruitment Problem

North Carolina has a genuine teacher recruitment and retention crisis. But it has nothing to do with tales of teacher discontent spun by the mainstream media, special-interest groups, and teacher unions.

Rather, the state’s public schools continue to encounter a critical shortage of qualified math, science, and special education teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education report, “Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing 1990-1991 through 2014-2015,” said the relatively meager supply and strong demand for math, science, and special education teachers has been a persistent weakness in North Carolina’s teacher labor market.

Of course, North Carolina’s public schools occasionally confronted teacher shortages in other areas, including Spanish and theater. Nevertheless, these were short-term supply issues.

Lasting shortages of high school teachers in core subjects are another matter. The demand for these teachers continued to outpace the supply, intensifying the competition for math, science, and special education teachers both within North Carolina and between states.

Part of the problem is that graduates from North Carolina’s schools of education do not correspond to the needs of our teacher work force. In 2013, the state’s colleges and universities produced 6,155 credentialed teachers, but few graduated with a teaching degree in a high-demand area. Among that year’s graduates, colleges and university teacher education programs in North Carolina combined to produce five physics teachers and 553 social studies teachers.

These disparities have done little to change the way North Carolina’s schools of education operate. Appalachian State University, which has one of the most respected schools of education in North Carolina, typifies the market-be-damned trend in teacher education.

According to federal teacher education data, Appalachian’s Reich College of Education in 2013 failed to graduate any physics education students and only one earth science education student. It managed to graduate three chemistry teachers that year, the same number who graduated from the college’s drama/dance education program.

I do not mean to single out Appalachian. All of North Carolina’s colleges and universities struggled to supply science teachers to the state’s public schools. In 2013, UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon University, and Wake Forest University eked out one certified physics teacher each, while Western Carolina University produced two.

One obvious way to address this problem is for lawmakers to remove state-imposed barriers to entry and cultivate alternative pipelines to the teaching profession.

Why haven’t elected officials been more responsive to the needs of the state’s teacher labor market? I believe that decades of negligence by Democratic leaders in Raleigh had everything to do with their fidelity to an idea that teacher unions hold dear — no teacher deserves to make more money than any other.

Pressure from teacher unions is a major reason initiatives designed to differentiate teacher pay do not last. In 2001, North Carolina public schools began awarding annual bonuses of $1,800 to certified math, science, and special education teachers who chose to work in a low-income or low-performing school.

Elected officials discontinued the program in 2004. A study later published by Duke University researchers concluded that the short-lived bonus plan reduced mean turnover rates of the targeted teachers by 17 percent.

For years, the John Locke Foundation has urged lawmakers to provide substantial pay supplements to outstanding teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas. We believe teacher compensation should be based, at least in part, on actual labor market conditions.

To his credit, Gov. Pat McCrory’s newest teacher-compensation proposal includes salary supplements for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects. Hopefully, the Republican leadership in the General Assembly will embrace this sensible and long-overdue education reform.

Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.