North Carolina’s public school classrooms these days seem to be running short of happy campers where they’re most needed — among the teachers whose noble job it is to lead the way toward learning.
Teachers in this state have been put through a professional and career wringer, thanks to a General Assembly that has systematically devalued them.
Salaries are meager, especially in light of teachers’ profound responsibilities and in comparison with pay in other states. Job security is being weakened, class sizes and thus workloads have been increased, collaboration with colleagues is being undermined and financial incentives to earn advanced degrees are being abolished.
These disturbing trends will be among the topics spotlighted at the Council of Churches’ 2014 Critical Issues Seminar on June 16 – an event devoted to a thorough look at the challenges now confronting all levels of public education in North Carolina. When seminar participants convene for a workshop session entitled “Teaching: A Profession at Risk,” there likely will be no shortage of evidence that the state’s teacher corps is hurting.
That evidence is clear in the Wake County school system, the state’s largest with 150,000 students and 9,000 teachers. Wake officials recently sent up an emergency flare with their report that turnover in the teaching ranks has spiked. Since the school year began, they said, 612 teachers have resigned, compared with 433 during the same period the year before.
While a given teacher’s decision to relocate, change professions or retire doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is quitting out of disappointment or disgust, it’s easy to see why some teachers would be looking for the exits. Helping prepare young people for success may bring emotional rewards on a grand scale, but those rewards can’t feed a family or pay the mortgage. Nor do they compensate for a lack of respect from elected leaders who fail to understand the importance and difficulty of what teachers do.
Statewide data suggest that the situation in Wake reflects an ongoing pattern. The Department of Public Instruction, which keeps track of year-to-year changes in the teacher workforce, reports that 13,616 teachers who were employed during the 2012-13 school year ended up leaving their districts. That represented 14.3 percent of the 95,028-person workforce – up from the previous year’s departure rate of 12.1 percent.
Reasons for the turnover cover a wide range: family relocation, retirement, child care responsibilities, switching to a non-teaching job in education, non-renewal of contract. State Superintendent June Atkinson took some encouragement from the fact that the most widely cited reason – offered by more than a third of the teachers who moved on – was to teach somewhere else, often in North Carolina.
“The statistics that trouble me,” Atkinson said in a news release, “are the hundreds of educators who left their jobs in 2012-13 to teach in another state or resigned because they were dissatisfied with teaching or wanted a career change. I am concerned that if changes are not made, low pay and a lack of support will push even more educators out of North Carolina classrooms and the teaching profession.”
If affluent Wake County is losing teachers at an increasing clip, school districts in the state’s poorer areas aren’t likely to be spared. Indeed, turnover has been greatest in the rural northeast and in hard-pressed counties to the south. Among the state’s 115 school districts, the highest teacher turnover rate for 2012-13 was in Northampton County, at 35.1 percent, followed in the top 10 by Halifax County, Washington County, Hoke County, Bertie County, Hyde County, Weldon City, Warren County, Scotland County and Pamlico County.
These are the kind of school districts where poverty weighs most heavily in the struggle to provide adequate resources for good-quality education, including enough competent teachers.
If a teacher in Bertie County, say, decides to take a job in Wake, that helps solve Wake’s recruitment problem. But it leaves Bertie looking to fill a slot that may have to be filled by someone with no experience or with experience that isn’t a good fit for what needs to be taught. (The ongoing challenges faced by the state’s low-wealth school districts are also set for discussion at the Council’s Critical Issues Seminar, which will feature 14 topical workshops.)
They’ve had enough
According to DPI’s analysis, school systems in general seem to be having more and more difficulty holding on to teachers who are classroom veterans – meaning valuable experience is being lost. The department reported that 49.4 percent of the teachers no longer employed where they worked in 2012-13 had had career status, otherwise known as tenure. That figure has increased every year since 2008-09, when it stood at 35.6 percent.
With career status, which is gained after successful completion of a multi-year probationary period, a teacher is assured that he or she cannot be fired without due process. It’s a reasonable grant of job security to professionals who otherwise could be targeted on the basis of one disgruntled parent’s phone call to a weak-willed principal. And it helps make up for salaries that are way too low across the board, having dropped to an average of 46th in the nation.
The General Assembly, bristling at criticism from teachers and their advocates, came up with what someone must have figured was a bright idea. Tenure would be phased out by 2018, and most teachers would be hired strictly year-to-year. A fourth of each district’s teacher corps, however, would be designated via some undefined process as top performers, eligible for four-year contracts and $500 raises each year. So teachers, instead of collaborating with their colleagues, would find themselves competing for these extra crumbs falling from the legislative table.
Fortunately, school boards in Guilford and Durham Counties decided they didn’t want to participate in this farce and went to court. A judge now has granted their request for a preliminary injunction against the program. Common sense says the injunction should apply statewide while constitutional issues are hashed out.
Budget message stings
Gov. Pat McCrory, who went along with a state budget that rubbed salt in teachers’ wounds – no raises, bigger classes, no extra pay for advanced degrees — also seems to have decided there’s some merit to complaints about low pay. He proposes raising salaries for teachers with less than 10 years experience from just shy of $31,000 to $35,000, effective next year.
That’s fine so far as it goes. But it’s not likely to help staunch the outflow of teaching veterans. Legislators would have more leeway to pay our teachers what they’re worth and thereby strengthen our public schools if they hadn’t been so determined to cut taxes for high-end earners – a misplaced priority if there ever was one.
The Wake County school board, mindful of turnover in the teaching ranks, seeks to give all district employees a 3.5 percent raise. And Superintendent Jim Merrill wants to bring teacher salaries up to the national average by 2020.
Wake has the wherewithal to follow through, if conservative-leaning county commissioners will go along. Other counties aren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, school systems throughout the state cope with the fallout of state budget choices that seem to tell teachers and prospective teachers, “Your concerns about pay and professional status are a bunch of hooey!” What a fine message to send to the people most of us trust to educate our kids.