I am what you might call a North Carolina education “lifer.” I attended North Carolina public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, enrolled as a Teaching Fellow in a state university where I received my BA in history and a Master’s in Teaching, and taught in both Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County public schools. I then returned to the UNC system where I earned my doctorate in education. I am now an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
As a student and public servant of North Carolina schools, I believe I have a unique perspective to question our state leaders’ misguided attacks on the quality of teaching—specifically, the end of Master’s degree salary bonuses, the dilution of teacher licensure in the state’s charter schools, and the forsaking of the NC Teaching Fellows program in favor of Teach for America.
When I entered the teaching profession, the state had launched a new initiative to supplement salaries for practitioners with advanced degrees, such as a Master’s degree. This supplement provided an additional “carrot” to enter the teaching field. It afforded me a living wage and it provided me with advanced professional training in instructional practice related to my field.
The recent decision by Gov. McCrory and the General Assembly to eliminate this automatic salary increase is incredibly shortsighted. Supporters of this change latch onto studies that suggest Master’s degrees are not associated with student achievement. However, these findings are far from conclusive and fail to consider an important aspect of receiving an advanced degree—namely, that teachers who receive their Master’s are often more invested in teaching.
Having worked with and taught teachers pursuing Master’s degrees, I can attest to the knowledge, commitment and competence of these individuals (as well as the many sacrifices they frequently make). Receiving a higher salary, they are more likely to remain in the classroom and report greater job satisfaction. Research also indicates teachers with more experience and positive workplace perceptions are associated with higher student outcomes.
In a state with already tragically low teacher salaries, the move away from awarding Master’s bonuses will almost certainly damage teacher morale, negatively affect student outcomes and abet a talent drain as teachers flock to states with more sensible salary scales.
In addition to hastily eliminating Master’s degree pay, the General Assembly has caught charter school fever. Though charters should be recognized as potential sites for educational innovation, their comparison with traditional public schools is less than stellar. Perhaps more troubling are the lax standards for teacher licensure in these schools. Only a shockingly low 50% of a charter school’s faculty is required to have a license. Research indicates certified teachers are associated with higher student outcomes than their peers without a license.
Just because one loves their subject area does not mean that they have knowledge or skill set to educate young children.
As a teacher educator in a licensure program, my experience confirms the truth of the old saying that “Good teachers are made, not born.” Populating educational environments with subpar teaching professionals shortchanges the learning opportunities for North Carolina school children.
Finally, in yet another attempt to circumvent teacher education, the General Assembly voted to increase funding for Teach for America (TFA) while abandoning the successful North Carolina Teaching Fellows program.
Recruiting highly intelligent, socially conscious individuals into teaching (as TFA does) is noble. Moreover, there are short-term student outcomes associated with the program.
However, the retention rate of TFA teachers is abysmal and the program’s revolving door workforce can leave schools in complete disarray.
Compare this program to the NC Teaching Fellows. A model for other teacher cadet programs, Teaching Fellows provided academically-gifted North Carolina students with a free public university education in exchange for four years of teaching service. Teaching Fellows take education courses and spend time within schools from their freshman year, onward.
Fellows are associated with higher than average student achievement scores and are more likely to remain in teaching or the education profession than TFA colleagues. As a former Teaching Fellow, my experience confirms this. Why the state continues to outsource teacher training programs while we have had a perfectly good one in this state is truly bizarre.
The bottom line: The (de)emphasis that state leaders have placed on teacher quality is profoundly troubling. On the campaign trail, Governor McCrory called for a “rebranding” of North Carolina. The question remains: is a brand of educational reform which dismantles teacher quality controls and de-incentivizes master educators worth buying?
Dr. Paul G. Fitchett is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at UNC Charlotte.