Enrollment plunges at UNC teacher prep programs

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson discusses Common Core at her office in Raleigh last year.
Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson discusses Common Core at her office in Raleigh last year.

Enrollment at the 15 UNC schools of education has plummeted 30 percent since 2010, a worry for a state where those programs are the biggest source of classroom teachers.

Fewer graduates from schools of education means local districts’ problems finding teachers will continue. Hiring math, science and special education teachers has been a challenge for years in some districts, but superintendents say this was the first year that some of them had trouble hiring elementary school teachers.

“The challenge in hiring teachers is going to increase,” Alisa Chapman, UNC system vice president for academic and university programs, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. Getting specialty teachers into rural areas and hard-to-staff schools “will be even more challenging,” she said.

The decline in participation in teacher preparation programs mirrors drops in other states. And some of the other states where enrollments have fallen are places where North Carolina also finds teachers, Chapman said.

UNC is trying to recruit more students to its schools of education, Chapman said. She noted that the enrollment decline had slowed in the latest year, to a one-year drop of 3.4 percent.

Over the past two years, the legislature raised pay for beginning teachers to $35,000 to make the starting salary more competitive with surrounding states.

But pay remains an issue, state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said during a break in the board’s meeting. She named pay, lack of respect and lack of time for professional development among the top reasons for declining enrollment in UNC teacher preparation programs.

Atkinson, a Democrat, last week recommended a 10 percent across-the-board raise for teachers as a foundation for increased compensation. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, quickly dismissed the idea, calling it political and unrealistic. He talked about raises closer to 2 percent.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said Wednesday that the decline in students’ interest in teaching is a national and cultural trend. Society emphasizes “making a lot of money as opposed to making a difference,” he said.

Increasing interest in teaching means “finding a way to appeal to the better nature of young people,” Cobey said. “I think they do care. Sometimes society gives them the message if you don’t pursue the almighty dollar, you’re not doing what’s best for you.”

Cobey said he also wants raises for teachers and principals, but he did not specify an amount.

The state board is likely to vote next month to remove one irritant from teachers’ professional lives by dropping student growth, as determined by test scores, as a stand-alone component of their evaluations.

The state uses the student-growth component in performance reviews as part of an agreement with the federal government that soon will be invalid.

Teachers have said they viewed that part of the evaluation as punitive rather then helpful.

“I doubt we’ll find anyone who’s opposed to this,” board member Eric Davis said Wednesday.

Student growth still will be calculated, and the information used in evaluations, officials said.

The state Department of Public Instruction is recommending the change because teachers are required to show improvement within 90 days in the components of their evaluations where they’re not proficient, and that’s not possible when student tests are given once a year.

Rather than motivating teachers, the student growth part of evaluations was causing more anxiety for teachers, said Tom Tomberlin, director of district human resources for DPI.

The board discussed the idea Wednesday and probably will vote on the change next month.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner