Back in the 1980s, North Carolina had a serious teacher problem. There were shortages in much of the state, but the bigger problem wasn’t how many teachers, but who they were.
“We had a real need to raise the scholastic profile of candidates for teaching and also to increase the numbers of males and minorities in teaching,” remembers Jo Ann Norris, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
The Legislature’s answer to the problem became the Teaching Fellows program, which Norris now oversees.
It worked like this: each year 500 high school seniors from across North Carolina were selected to receive a scholarship worth $6,500 a year to attend an in-state university. To get it, they promised to teach here for four years after graduation.
It was a great deal, and it attracted the best and brightest, like Anthony White.
“I was a very good student,” says White. “I had straight A’s. Education was in me so that I knew that teaching was the foundation for it. So I just wanted to be the best teacher I could.”
White grew up in Plymouth, in northeastern North Carolina, and was one of the top students in his high school class. He graduated from North Carolina Central and has taught math for six years at Southern High School in Durham. And he has big plans.
“Hopefully, in ten years, I will be a principal of some school, hopefully, here in Durham,” he says. “But, if not, somewhere across the state, I will be a principal.”
The Teaching Fellows program has had a transformative effect on the profession in North Carolina: currently more than 4,000 teachers are Teaching Fellows. And more than three-quarters stay on as teachers past five years.
Despite these results, the Republican-controlled Legislature abruptly cut the program two years ago.
“Teaching Fellows was trying to identify those potential teachers in high school,” says Senate Leader Phil Berger. “It’s our belief that allowing kids to move through their college experience and present them with the opportunity to go into the classroom would be a better model for making sure we move more kids into teaching positions.”
To understand the type of model Berger wants, we need to go back again more than 20 years ago, when another teacher training program also came to the state. Teach For America was launched as a national effort to put elite university graduates in hard-to-staff schools. The non-profit picked eastern North Carolina as one of its original locations when it launched, bringing in mostly out-of-state graduates, training them over the summer, and placing them in places like Halifax and Warren Counties.
“What we do well, I think, is we partner with school districts to meet their needs,” says Robyn Fehrman, the Director of the eastern North Carolina chapter of Teach For America. “What the research shows is that Teach For America is the state’s source of our most effective beginning teachers.”
That research is a UNC-Chapel Hill study first released in 2010 (pdf) that found Teach For America was the most effective teacher training program operating in the state, at least as far as student test scores go. The Teaching Fellows were a close second.
But Teach For America teachers make up just one-half-of-one percent of all the state’s teachers. And where 75 percent or so of the Teaching Fellows stayed in teaching beyond five years, less than ten percent of Teach For America teachers did.
“Although we are a small percentage of the overall number of teachers in the state, we are a high percentage of the number of teachers working in low-income schools in the state,” says Fehrman. “The work we really do is targeting students who are the farthest behind in terms of student achievement and ensuring they get an excellent educator in front of them every single day.”
Teach For America will place more teachers in eastern North Carolina than ever starting this fall, and TFA’s political influence has grown here has, as well. Governor Pat McCrory recently named a former TFA teacher as his new education advisor. Nationally, Teach For America has a budget of around $300 million, drawing donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton Family Foundations.
Fast forward then to last month, and the State Senate’s proposed budget (pdf). For the third straight year, the Teaching Fellows annual budget of $13 million went unfunded, as it did in the Governor’s version of the budget.
Teach For America, meanwhile, is poised to get a new initial allocation of $6 million in the Senate budget.
“I think, overall, the expense is going to be less,” says Berger. “And I think the results are, obviously we don’t have as full a body of data as we do for Teaching Fellows, but the preliminary results are very promising.”
The no-bid contract between the state and Teach For America would expand TFA into the Triad and southeastern North Carolina, and launch programs Teach For America has not tried in any other location in the country.
But that doesn’t mean those programs would be unfamiliar here. Teach Beyond Two, and Make It Home are designed to recruit high-achieving North Carolina students into the teaching profession and keep them teaching here for a long time.
“There’s going to be a very long time before they come anywhere near matching the Teaching Fellows numbers in North Carolina,” says Norris.
Last year, the State House budget restored funding to the Teaching Fellows program, but it fell victim to the horse trading that occurred when the House and Senate negotiated a final budget.
That same fight is on tap this year. The House budget released earlier this week (pdf) restores the Teaching Fellows program. Senate leaders, meanwhile, have vowed to push their version, and Teach For America.