A public education success story silenced

Well, it’s happened again. Shortsighted policymakers have axed a research-based program that has proven effective in preparing high-quality teachers.

Well, it’s happened again. Shortsighted policymakers have axed a research-based program that has proven effective in preparing high-quality teachers.

Parents and schools in North Carolina should mourn the loss of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows.  The program, in place for almost 25 years, recruits top high school students into teaching, pays for their high quality preparation (with extensive student teaching), and supports them in their initial years so they remain in the classroom for a career, not just for a couple of years.

According to yesterday’s News & Observer, the NC Teaching Fellows program costs the state a modest $13.5 million a year. It produces more than 500 top-flight new teachers annually, well-prepared in both content and pedagogy, who commit to teaching in the state for at least four years. Some 17 campuses participate in the program.

Who are these Teaching Fellows? The typical recruit has a SAT score over 1100, a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher on a weighted scale, and is in the top 10% of his or her high school graduating class. Each year approximately 20% of the program’s recipients are minority, while 30% are male.  As reported in the news article, Jason Sinquefield, a 26-year-old math teacher, noted that he “never thought of education as a career choice” until he discovered the NC Teaching Fellows. He credited the program with defining “a way of becoming the best teacher you could be.”

The program’s results are impressive. A recent study by a researcher at the University of North Carolina found that Teaching Fellows are more likely to produce gains on student achievement tests, particularly in elementary and middle grades math, and in high school. The Teaching Fellows are far more likely than other teachers (especially those from alternative certification programs) to remain in the classroom for five years.

And these positive results are longstanding. Over 15 years ago I had the opportunity to assess the impact of the NC Teaching Fellows Program. At the time, tools were not available to examine student achievement effects. However, I found that administrators highly valued these well-prepared, university-trained recruits, who quickly became change agents for long-term school improvement. Today, almost 4,000 Teaching Fellows are teaching in 99 of the state’s 100 counties. Nearly one in four have earned National Board Certification.

They are effective teachers — and specialized recruitment and training made a difference. So why’d this program get cut? Times are tight, of course. But some of the North Carolina state legislators who took the budget ax to the program seem to be influenced by rhetoric that devalues investments in teacher education and professional development.

Ironically, the death of the NC Teaching Fellows program comes as many of our nation’s business and community leaders are calling for our nation to invest more in teachers. The North Carolina Teaching Fellows program employs many of the same strategies that help top-ranked nations to ensure the quality of their teaching workforces. As Linda Darling-Hammond described recently, nations like Singapore and Finland have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors — where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together, engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials.

Obviously, all of these elements are not yet in place in American schools. But in North Carolina, a small state program has managed to take some significant steps to ensure a truly qualified cadre of public school teachers. Over the course of more than two decades, the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program has fine-tuned its strategies and demonstrated its effectiveness. Shame on North Carolina policymakers for bringing this all-too-rare success story to an untimely end.