A recent story in the news, and displayed on the UNC-Chapel Hill website, reported the large number of Carolina undergraduates who serve as Teach For America teachers.
This reflects, in part, the high level of commitment that many UNC graduates have to public service. These graduates commit themselves, for two years, to work in very challenging circumstances.
Despite the investment of millions of dollars from foundation and federal sources as well as lots of media attention, Teach For America supplies a very small proportion of the teachers North Carolina needs each year. Last year, for instance, TFA teachers represented only .3% of all the teachers in the state. Although their numbers are relatively small, TFA teachers sign on to work in some of the lowest-wealth schools in the state. Some of these schools struggle to find qualified teachers and welcome these energetic young graduates from highly selective universities.
The overwhelming majority of new teachers in North Carolina schools, however, come from teacher education programs at in-state universities – the great majority from UNC system campuses – or from out-of-state teacher preparation institutions. Encouragingly, recent research from the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill shows that the students of UNC system-prepared teachers outperform students taught by teachers prepared outside the state.
Without diminishing the contributions of Carolina undergraduates who become TFA teachers, we should also acknowledge the considerable number of Carolina students – undergraduates and master’s degree students – who are studying to become teachers, not as a two-year public service commitment but, for most, as a career.
Last year, the School of Education graduated 108 students from our undergraduate teacher preparation programs as well as another 52 from our Master of Arts in Teaching program. These teachers are no less committed to improving the learning of all students than are TFA teachers and most will make education their life-long careers. Historically, many of our graduates have gone on to become school, district, and state administrators and policy leaders.
Another indicator of teacher quality that deserves attention comes from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the organization that administers the rigorous National Board Certification process. North Carolina leads the nation in the number of National Board Certified Teachers (NCBTs). In fact, fully 20 percent of all the country’s NCBTs teach in North Carolina. This speaks both to the commitment of prior policymakers who subsidized the National Board fees and to the number of teachers committed to improving their practice.
UNC-Chapel Hill ranks ninth in the nation in the number of its alumni who in 2011 achieved the prestigious rank of National Board Certification. This is all the more impressive considering that our School of Education enrollments are small relative to other institutions. Even within the UNC system, we rank 8th in total teachers produced, although we are 5th in the number of secondary science teacher graduates.
Sadly, we are at a moment when teachers are subject to a level of criticism unprecedented in our history. Many factors have contributed to this, including: our relatively poor showing on international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment; understandable frustration at our continuing struggle to close the gap in opportunity and academic success between poor children of color and white and Asian students; media preoccupation with sensational examples of school and system failures; and an anti-government ideology that pervades the actions and rhetoric of a portion of the punditry and citizenry.
Schools and teachers are easy targets. They hold relatively little political and economic power. Currently, legislative actions around the country are intended to reduce further the relatively modest power they do have.
Despite this steady stream of negativity toward the profession, Carolina undergraduates continue to pursue teaching careers. Our graduates share the current frustration over educational inequities and become teachers in large part because of a bone-deep commitment to addressing those inequities. Some also teach in low-wealth schools but without the external supports that Teach For America’s resources allow it to provide to its teachers.
As a University, we should take pride in all our graduates who take on the too-often thankless but vital task of preparing the next generation of citizens.
Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.