TEASER Schools

(Courtesy Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

At the recent start of the new school year, I heard that Moore County Schools had a total of 16 teacher positions that were vacant. This number is equivalent to having an entire elementary school without permanent teachers.

What could be the cause of such a shortfall in what is the most important job in our school system?

Shortly thereafter, in The News & Observer of Raleigh, I saw the results of a new national study of the states and the District of Columbia, which ranked North Carolina as the 45th-worst state in the nation for teachers. The WalletHub website developed a ranking system based on 21 categories including teachers’ income growth potential, pupil-teacher ratio, and teacher safety.

Some of North Carolina’s specific rankings were: 36th for average starting salary for teachers, adjusted for cost of living, 34th for average annual salary for teachers adjusted for cost of living, 43rd for teacher safety, 38th for teachers’ income growth potential, 43rd for public school spending per student, 46th for 10-year change in teacher salaries, 34th for pupil-teacher ratio, and 13th for quality of school system.

Clearly, based on this nationwide analysis, North Carolina is comparably not a great place for teachers. In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that, on average nationally, 20 percent of new teachers leave the teaching profession before they even complete one year in it, and almost half of public school teachers teach less than five years.

But what about North Carolina college students considering a future career in education? Might our county have hope that there are lots of new teachers in the pipeline coming out of our universities?

I turned to Dr. Marion Gillis-Olion, dean and professor of education at nearby Fayetteville State University, to see whether that might be true.

“The number of students enrolling in upper-division undergraduate teacher education courses has been decreasing at Fayetteville State University,” she responded. “Comparing enrollment of juniors and seniors between fall 2014 and fall 2016, there has been a drop in every program: Elementary education dropped from 99 to 88, middle grades education dropped 38 to 26, early childhood education dropped from 88 to 56, and secondary education dropped from 35 to 25.”

In addition to the lower enrollments, she said, the number of graduates from teacher education programs has decreased as well.

Gillis-Olion added: “Students are leaving the programs due to the expense ($1,000) of tests required (Praxis Core Reading, Writing and Mathematics for entry into the programs; state required licensure tests Pearson Foundations of Reading, General Curriculum and Mathematics Tests, Praxis II for some secondary content areas; and the recently introduced edTPA Portfolio assessment for licensure). Over 50 students leaving teacher education programs have graduated from other majors at the university.”

So even among the reduced enrollments, the university is further losing potential future teachers because of the expense that they must incur to take the multitude of required tests that serve as a gateway threshold into teaching.

This point really surprised me. With a spouse who had taught education majors at the University of Delaware, I was aware that various teacher certification tests had been established over the years. However, it never occurred to me that the cost of these tests would be borne by the new teachers and not their employing school districts.

Nor did it occur to me that the cost of the tests would be so high that it would cause people not to become teachers.

So where does all of this leave North Carolina and specifically Moore County? Apparently, we, through our elected representatives, have created an environment that is comparably bad for teachers. Our school system has difficulty filling a significant number of teacher positions.

Fewer college students are choosing to major in education. And among those who do, fewer are graduating with an education major. Then, among those who do graduate with an education major, a significant percentage leave the profession within the first one to five years.

Why is this state of affairs not a matter of primary focus in our public discussion of education? Shouldn’t we all be worried that we have created an environment that is keeping people out of teaching?

Among all the public issues that consume our attention, we should prioritize addressing this decimation of the teaching ranks — or else we will slowly but surely see the decline of the public education system we depend upon here in our county and our state.

Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.

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