Is the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program Worth the Money?

If placing teachers in high-need schools is the measure of success, the answer may be “no.”

[Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series on teacher education in the UNC System. To read the second installment, on the push to eliminate standardized testing for teacher candidates, please click here.]

Enrollment in North Carolina’s teacher-training programs is falling off even as classroom-instructor vacancies climb, two recent reports conclude. Amid the handwringing over these problematic trends, some policymakers are wondering about the effectiveness of the state’s revived N.C. Teaching Fellows Program. It is intended to send more graduates into the teaching pipeline, but nearly four in 10 participants are not fulfilling the program’s teaching requirements.

The Teaching Fellows Program is available on eight N.C. campuses. Participants must complete teacher-education and licensure programs and agree to fill a STEM or special-education position upon graduating. An additional emphasis is placed on serving in low-performing schools. In exchange, participants receive $8,250 in annual forgivable loan scholarships, which they can satisfy by either serving as the program requires or through cash payback. A total of 461 students have entered the program since 2017-18.

An earlier version of the program was terminated by the General Assembly in 2011, with the last class graduating in 2015. Concerns were raised about spending, the political influence of teachers’ unions, and a dearth of data tracking. The Teaching Fellows Program was reinstated in 2017 on a slimmer, more focused strategy, with a $6 million annual budget.

The Teaching Fellows Commission’s report to the legislature is not particularly encouraging.Filed on Jan. 1, 2023, the N.C. Teaching Fellows Commission’s annual report to the legislature is not particularly encouraging. It does not provide a complete picture of the program, blaming the lack of some required data on “Covid’s impact on testing, observations, and data reporting for [the] 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.”

What the report does show is that the program appears to be missing its targets. Of the 108 graduates to date, only 70 were employed in STEM or special-education jobs. Just three graduates accepted employment in a low-performing school, even though the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) designates some 860 schools as low-performing.

The loan-forgiveness feature of the program was not attractive to all participants. There were 21, or about one in five, who chose to make cash repayments instead. Already some participants are in arrears on payback.

The Teaching Fellows Program also aims to create a more diverse teaching corps. In 2021-22, UNC Pembroke, North Carolina A&T, and Fayetteville State were added to the list of schools offering the program in order to meet that goal. Still, the data show that the percentage of white participants is higher than national population statistics, while the percentages of Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino participants are lower than their shares of the national population.

The UNC-System Board of Governors (BOG) oversees the Teaching Fellows Program, and BOG member Anna Spangler Nelson discussed the program with the Martin Center.

“Of course we care that we spend every dollar to its highest and most productive use,” said Spangler. “That being said, it seems that it’s still a bit early to know the efficacy of the program, partly due to Covid but partly because it’s only been in place a few years.”

With STEM and special-education teachers in short supply, “I’m all about increasing the strength of our teaching corps across North Carolina, and this is one way to go about it,” Nelson said.

Just three graduates accepted employment in a low-performing school.But she expressed surprise when told only three graduates went to work in high-risk schools.

“We need teachers across the board, but of course we especially need them in high-poverty schools so that’s something we’ll continue to look at,” Nelson said.

Nelson and fellow BOG member Art Pope raised concerns about the Teaching Fellows program to Bennett Jones, the new program director hired in October 2022, during a Jan. 18 board meeting.

Pope was taken aback by the deficit of statistics on how many tax-paid scholarship recipients go into the teaching field and where. He said he funds a number of private scholarships that do a much better job of monitoring outcomes.

“That’s a very important factor” to be able to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, he said. “One simple solution is to make a contractual condition of receiving the … scholarship that you report for several years after, and [that] they self-report.”

BOG Vice Chairman Kirk Bradley echoed the call for more details.

“You can only expect what you inspect,” Bradley told Jones. He said he hopes to get a more robust report at the next BOG meeting.

How It Works

The old Teaching Fellows program was created in 1986. Administered by the Public School Forum, its goal was to recruit an exceptional corps of future classroom leaders to fill the gap created by looming teacher retirements and student-enrollment growth. It allotted $253.1 million in scholarships and produced 8,523 graduates out of 10,708 participants. About eight in 10 were still employed after completing their initial four-year teaching requirement, but that number declined to 64 percent after six years or more.

Under the revived program, high-school seniors are eligible to receive four annual forgivable loans.After phasing out the program with the 2015 graduating class, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2017 to resurrect the program in a reformatted fashion. A trust fund was set up in conjunction with the General Administration of the University of North Carolina to provide financial assistance for tuition, fees, and books in the form of forgivable loans, with interest rates not to exceed 10 percent.

The original program was available on 17 campuses but was available only to rising high-school seniors. Under the revived program, high-school seniors are eligible to receive four annual forgivable loans. Unlike in the earlier program, two- or three-year loans are also offered to existing students who transfer into a school with an education program, change enrollment to educator preparation programs, or already hold a bachelor’s degree but are seeking teacher licensure.

Loans and interest can be paid back in cash or forgiven if the recipient serves as a teacher in a STEM or special-education area within 10 years of graduation. The terms vary. If a fellow teaches two years at any N.C. public school, one year of loan money is forgiven. However, a fellow can also receive one year of loan forgiveness for each single year of teaching in a low-performing N.C. school.

The Money Trail

According to the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA), 71 borrowers now have loans that are being forgiven in exchange for years of service. Another 27 have made cash payback arrangements, and 12 borrowers are already in arrears on their payments, with $163,358 in principal outstanding.

Additionally, sizeable payments are still due from participants in the old Teaching Fellows Program. To date, 1,371 borrowers have paid their loans in full, with those payments including $27.2 million in principal that was forgiven through service and $5.3 million in principal that was repaid in cash. But 545 borrowers still owe $7.3 million in principal outstanding, and 416 of those are in arrears. Just 10 borrowers are still attempting to fulfill cash payback in the 10-year window. (These data are only for accounts that were still active in 2018 or later. Earlier data are not available due to an SEAA system conversion in 2021.)

“The bottom line is I don’t know if it’s worth the money or not.”To recoup money from those who do not pay voluntarily, SEAA’s Repayment Services Department refers accounts to the Attorney General’s office for litigation, or to collection agencies contracted by the Department of Justice, among other methods.

“The bottom line is I don’t know if it’s worth the money or not,” said Lindalyn Kakadelis, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools. “I’m glad the [UNC System] is asking questions about it. That’s good.”

Kakadelis, a member of the original iteration of the N.C. Teaching Fellows Commission, said a comprehensive system of metrics needs to be designed to measure program performance to avoid repeating missteps of the old system. Conceding that “that was a long time ago,” she doesn’t recall the commission receiving thorough evaluations or follow-through data of program progress.

“I don’t know if it did all it was supposed to do, even then, except that it did produce some good teachers,” she said. “It was like, ‘This program exists, we’re going to talk about all the good kids coming through it’” without being provided with longitudinal studies to assess value.

While she’s all for finding ways to grow the teaching pool, Kakadelis questioned the impact that the new, smaller Teaching Fellows program will have on burgeoning classroom shortages. The state’s “Annual Report on the State of the Teaching Profession for 2021-2022” determined that, in North Carolina, there were 5,091 (5.4%) instructional vacancies in 94,083 teaching positions on the 40th day of school that year.

Meanwhile, the EPP Performance Reporting document shows that, in 2021, there were 8,498 candidates in the first year of a teacher-education program, but, by 2022, that number had shrunk to 4,941, a 42 percent decrease. The report warns that the lower enrollment in 2022 “will have greater employment impact in the 2024-25 and 2025-26 academic years.”

New Director Is Undaunted

Jones, who has been in public education for 25 years, the past 10 as a high-school administrator, said it is “an exciting step” professionally to recruit, prepare, and place into North Carolina schools teachers who will serve the next generation of North Carolina students.

Lower enrollment in 2022 will have employment impact in the 2024-25 and 2025-26 academic years.Acknowledging that the number of applicants to the Teaching Fellows Program is lower than desired due to Covid and lower college-going rates, he said that more than 160 applications were submitted in the application cycle that just ended. That is an increase of 28 percent over last year but lower than pre-pandemic numbers of about 200 per year.

Jones disagrees that there is a void of program data, pointing to the annual legislative report. But he is bringing accountability expectations to the job regarding improvements in data collection and the tracking of graduates, as well as prioritizing recruitment.

“I will set measurable goals for improvement and develop a strategic plan to increase applications and successfully recruit participants,” he said. That includes raising the program’s visibility through marketing, social media, and connections with public schools and community colleges.

He said program staff “know how important it is for students, especially students of color, to have teachers who ‘look like them.’ That’s why we remain committed to recruiting a more diverse array of candidates” and will refine marketing and communications to meet that goal.

“Where we can get sharper is in working with DPI to understand how many program participants total are teaching in North Carolina public schools and where they are teaching,” he said. Tracking graduates who move out of state to teach remains a challenge, “so we are looking into solutions including surveys of program graduates.”

Such tracking could help answer why so many Teaching Fellows graduates are not showing up in STEM or special-education teaching roles. Jones said graduates could decide to work in other industries or vocations after graduation, teach in other content areas in public schools, teach in private schools, or move to other states to teach.

Despite only three graduates going into high-risk schools, Jones believes the Teaching Fellows Program “has great potential to help low-performing schools.” But teaching in such environments is “the hardest work in American public education.” According to Jones, a tight labor market in which candidates often have their pick of opportunities within and outside of education makes recruitment challenging. Despite the incentive of a faster loan-repayment by working in a high-risk school, there is not always an open position that matches a teaching fellow’s expertise and certification area.

Jones’s enthusiasm and candid recognition of the challenges ahead is reassuring. He should consider finding a way to ensure that teaching fellows remain in North Carolina instead of draining away to other states. Tracking graduates is an immediate must-fix situation. A value-added measure should be implemented to determine whether the Teaching Fellows Program produces student academic gains. And the challenges facing the Teaching Fellows Program present a good opportunity for policymakers to revisit higher pay for specialty and hard-to-fill teaching positions.

Dan E. Way is a senior communications manager in the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer. He was previously a writer for Carolina Journal and the editor of the Chapel Hill Herald.