Are ‘high quality, well-prepared’ teachers the key to a sound, basic education?

By: - January 30, 2020 1:32 pm
Image: Adobe Stock

As North Carolina considers ways to meet its constitutional obligation to provide children with a “sound, basic education,” it musstop placing marginally qualified teachers in schools.

That’s one key conclusion reached by a work-group in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, which recommends that North Carolina ensures all K-12 classrooms be led by highly qualified, well-prepared teachers. 

“We need to move away from the short-term, ‘put warm bodies in schools at any costs’ approach,” Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education and a commission member, wrote in a memo to the panel’s chairman, Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Emeritus Brad Wilson.

Abd-El-Khalick’s comment came last week as the commission met to adopt recommendations it believes will help the state improve the quality of education provided to North Carolina’s 1.5 million or so K-12 students.

His comment also follows the recent release of an exhaustive study of the state’s public education system by WestEd, an independent consultant hired by Superior Court Judge David Lee. Lee is overseeing the state’s landmark Leandro lawsuit. 

The N.C. Supreme Court twice ruled (in 1997 and 2004) that the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure all children have access to a “sound, basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals as well as adequate access to resources.

Student success linked to quality teachers

The commission and WestEd agree that the quality of education received by the state’s children is inextricably linked to the quality of teachers in classrooms.

As the WestEd report noted:

North Carolina can never succeed in providing a sound basic education for its children without vastly improved systems and approaches for recruiting, preparing, developing and retaining teachers and for placing high effective teachers where they are most needed to foster the academic growth of at-risk student.”    

Abd-El-Khalick praised much of the WestEd report, but acknowledged being “underwhelmed” by some aspectsnamely the lack of “actionable recommendations” to ensure well-qualified teachers are in every classroom.

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (Photo:

“Instead, the recommendations seem to continue to advocate for increasing the supply of teachers without placing the heavy emphasis on quality that we all know is crucial,” Abd-El-Khalick said. 

To ensure quality teachers, Abd-El-Khalick noted the commission recommended the state’s 53 Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) be fully accredited by North Carolina and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), which is the nation’s largest accreditation body  

“The state needs to send a clear and strong message by limiting direct investments in teacher education programs to IHEs (Institutions of Higher Education) across the state that are fully accredited … and the state can push the accountability and expectations of these programs to the highest levels,” Abd-El-Khalick wrote.

Increasing teacher prep capacity

The commission and WestEd agree North Carolina needs to increase the capacity of its authorized teacher preparation programs to produce the 5,000 newly prepared teachers the state needeach year.

According to Public Schools First NC, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on K-12 issues, enrollment in undergraduate education programs across the UNC System has declined 41% since 2010.  

To attract more candidates to the teaching profession, the commission and WestEd recommend increasing state funding to expand the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, increasing the number of prospective fellows from 200 to 1,000 within three-to-four years.

The Teaching Fellows Program is a competitive, merit-based, loan forgiveness program that provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.

If there are more applicants than available slots, the commission recommends giving priority to candidates who agree to teach courses with severe teacher shortages and/or those who volunteer to work in low-wealth districts with high poverty schools.

Leslie Winner, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation

Leslie Winner, the former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, said recruitment for Teaching Fellow candidates should begin immediately if possible.

“That could start approximately now for getting people in class in the fall, but if that’s impossible, the least we could do is to get them ready for the next year, Winner said. (Editor’s note: Winner also serves as board co-chair for the N.C. Justice Center, the parent organization of Policy Watch.)

Why is teaching ‘undesirable

Former Rocky Mount Police Chief James Moore drew a parallel between recruiting for police officers and teachers.

He said even after increasing pay and offering other incentives, many police departments still find it difficult to recruit veteran officers or to fill training classes.

“I think we’re going to have to figure out what is undesirable about teaching right now and come up with a P.R. recruitment campaign in Phase 1 (of the commission’s implementation plan),” Moore said. “Before you even talk about increasing capacity [in teacher preparation programs] and increasing [Teaching Fellows] slots, you’ve got to have applicants who want to be teachers.”

He added that the $8,200 per year Teaching Fellows receive isn’t a large enough incentive to entice the thousands of new teaching candidates the state needs each year.

“We have to figure out a way to sell teaching,” Moore said. “That’s the most important part of our plan. How do we get young people interested in this career path? Once we figure that out, let’s increase capacity to get ready for the young people we’ve sold on teaching.”  

The commission also recommends increasing the number of teacher prep programs eligible to host the program, including the addition of  “minority-serving” institutions to increase diversity in the state’s teacher workforce.

Commission members noted that the term “minority-serving institutions” is used in its recommendations instead of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in order to include Pembroke University, which has primarily served Native Americans.

State’s teachers are 80 percent white

The Teaching Fellows program struggled to reach diversity goals before it was cancelled in 2011. The program was rebooted in 2017, but the initiative continues to be overwhelmingly white and female.

In North Carolina, 80% of teachers are white while 52% of students attending traditional public schools are minorities. Some studies show that Black students are more likely to graduate high school and to go to college if they have just one Black teacher in elementary school.

Abd-El-Khalick noted in his memo that the state’s public and private teacher Education Preparation Programs have been reduced to one-half to one-third of their pre-2008 sizes due to enrollment declines.

He said it will take additional funding to “scale up” capacity to handle the students who would presumably flow into the program as a result of proposed changes to the Teaching Fellows Program.

Other incentives intended to boost interest in teaching include partnerships with community collegespay incentives for teachers in low-wealth districts, expanding teacher support programs, and developing an organization to guide teacher recruitment, training and retention.

Additionally, the WestEd report calls for a sharp increase in school funding to close a stubborn achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers. Its estimated that it will cost $8 billion over the next eight years to implement those recommendations.

In addition to quality, well-prepared teachers, WestEd recommends:

  1.  Creating a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  2.  Developing an assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against (and provides accountability consistent with) the Leandro standard.
  3.  Creating an assistance and “turnaround” function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.
  4.  Developing a system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure all students at risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the state, enter kindergarten on track for school success.
  5.  Developing an alignment of high school to post-secondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early post-secondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the state.  

Lawmakers hold the purse strings

The commission’s report also includes recommendations for finance and resources, principals, early childhood education and assessment and accountability. Many of its recommendations align with those made by WestEd.

The commission’s recommendations didn’t come with a price tagBut its members acknowledged that state lawmakers must be amenable for them to come to fruition.

“There’s an art to this, I think, about right-sizing your request, which makes the prioritization that much more important and making the list as long as necessary and no more, including: What does it take to hit that sweet spot where what you do propose will get meaningful time and attention and deliberation?” Wilson said. 

In the meantime, attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants in the Leandro lawsuit have been given 60 days to submit a plan to Judge Lee spelling out how they intend to meet the short-term goals recommended in the WestEd report. Plans for longer-term goals will be addressed later.

Mark Richardson, a county commissioner from Rockingham County, noted a survey in which 49% of respondents chose “parental support” when asked which factor is more important to a child’s success in public schools.

He said neither the commission nor WestEd’s reports made recommendations about how to encourage or improve parental support for students.

“For most of us, we’d tell you that is the key element in the success of our children in the education area as well as others,” Richardson said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize we are aware that priority exists. Perhaps, we’re incapable of a recommendation to fix it.”

Richardson said the commission should have considered inviting Robert Leandro (the son of Kathleen Leandro, the first named plaintiff in the original lawsuit) to talk about the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education.

Despite not receiving a sound basic education in North Carolina’s public schools, Richardson said he’d learned Leandro has become a successful lawyer.

“I suspect he would tell you that somebody in his house helped to encourage that,” Richardson said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.