State officials seek to reform UNC’s teacher preparation programs

For years, North Carolina policymakers have stressed the importance of increasing K-12 teacher production and retention rates. Teacher shortages and high attrition rates in rural and low-income areas and in fields such as secondary math and science and special education have prompted many officials to look to the UNC system for more teachers.

Most of the university 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, however, 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 adequately mentor teacher candidates. 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 were given that designation).

Teacher quality was the central theme of an education summit held by the UNC system’s Board of Governors at the SAS Campus in Cary, North Carolina, last Tuesday. A blue-ribbon group of politicians (including Governor 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. Led by Board of Governors member Ann Goodnight, the subcommittee has been working with UNC’s education schools and state policymakers over the last year to craft reform proposals.

Interwoven in Tuesday’s discussions was 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. Ellen McIntyre, dean of UNC-Charlotte’s education school, claimed that low salaries are one reason. “Parents are dissuading their children from going into education. Eighteen-year-olds [may] think $33,000 is a good salary, but their parents know they can’t raise a family on that amount of money.” That sentiment was repeated by North Carolina’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, James Ford, who said that “the luster and the status of teaching…has been materially diminished.”

But teacher preparation enrollment declines are not unique to North Carolina. In California, a state with one of the highest average teacher salaries in the country, the number of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs fell by 53 percent between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

Nevertheless, to draw more students to education programs, the subcommittee recommends the establishment of 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.”

The scholarship would be similar to the state’s Teaching Fellows Program, which was phased out in 2012 (that program provided $28,000 scholarships to students promising to teach in North Carolina for four years). Right now, there is no price tag for the public-private scholarship (or for any of the recommendations) or a specific source for funds.

One reason for the surprising overall decline in education school enrollment is the reduction in students seeking a master’s degree in education. That reduction partly reflects 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.)

The new proposal would return to a pay differential for teachers with advanced degrees in their field—but not in education. An English teacher who earns a master’s in English would receive a pay bump under the proposed plan, for example. Governor Pat McCrory, who made a perfunctory appearance late Tuesday afternoon, supports the pay differential, especially for those pursuing advanced degrees in “high-need” subject areas.

While the benefits of that proposal are dubious, others have more promise. It may be premature to give them blanket praise since most of the reforms will be developed and implemented by the General Administration and education schools, and will require collaboration from an array of educational institutions. But on paper, at least, some of the recommendations make sense and would benefit North Carolinians if implemented effectively.

For instance, one recommendation, already being worked on by the General Administration, will establish an “educator quality dashboard”—a web-based tool that aggregates important information from each UNC education school. Set to launch in May, the online database will provide enrollment data, students’ academic profiles (their high school GPAs and 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.

Another solid recommendation is for teacher candidates to receive rigorous “clinical training”—that is, practical teaching experience that combines content mastery with significant in-class preparation. It’s good that the subcommittee emphasizes practical experience; in its 2014 review of teacher preparation programs, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only five percent of programs across the country provide satisfactory clinical experiences for teacher candidates.

Education schools’ admissions selectivity was also addressed at the summit. James Cibulka is the head of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), the national accrediting body for education schools. A panelist at the summit, Cibulka said that by 2016 CAEP will require education schools to accept only those students scoring in the top 50 percent on normed tests (ACT, SAT, GRE, or a state-based equivalent). By 2020, applicants will have to score in the top 33 percent. These are welcome goals in a field that often has been criticized for attracting subpar students (but the higher standards may contribute to the declines in enrollment that have already been seen).

The UNC Board of Governors is not alone in trying to improve teacher preparation. Last November, the U.S. Department of Education announced a proposal (which soon will be voted on by Congress) to penalize programs whose graduates fail to improve K-12 students’ academic performance. When that proposal was released, Arne Duncan, Education Secretary, said, “It has long been clear that, as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom.”

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Arthur Levine, a higher education expert who wrote a devastating 2006 report on teacher education, was upbeat about the proposals. He told the summit on Tuesday that he supports the subcommittee’s recommendations and CAEP’s new regulations, which he says are game changers.

Next month, the UNC system’s Board of Governors is expected to approve the recommendations outlined at the education summit and work with system officials to begin implementation. Levine told the audience that, based on his experience, reform will require a sustained and robust coalition of policymakers, legislators, education school deans, and university officials. It will probably take about 18 months to get reforms in place, he said, and another 18 months to “get [them] right.”