Back to school problems | Eastern North Carolina Now | Bells are ringing across North Carolina as some 1.5 million children start another school year. Can you remember your back-to-school experiences?

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Tom Campbell

    Bells are ringing across North Carolina as some 1.5 million children start another school year. Can you remember your back-to-school experiences? There was always a bit of anxiety and excitement to learn who would be your teacher and what friends were in your class.

    This year's school start is cloaked with questions. Will children be able to attend all year in person without masks and social distancing? Can they recoup the estimated 6 months to a year they have fallen behind grade level expectations? Will the NC Supreme Court rule that the state is required to pay an additional $750 million in funding, as was agreed by the Leandro settlement? If so, will the state comply?

    But the most urgent question is how big a teacher shortage will we experience? Late summer reports indicated a shortage of 1,500 to 3,200 of the 94,000 our state needs for a full teacher complement. We won't know for certain until a week or so after the start of classes, when school attendance numbers are consistent. Systems across the state have been pulling out all the stops recruiting new teachers from states near and far.

    The problem is two-fold. We aren't graduating enough new teachers to replace those leaving. Studies say enrollment has declined of as much as 50 percent in colleges of education. There is also the problem of young teachers who leave the classroom after two to five years to choose other careers. And teachers who have taught 20 or more years are opting to retire. The normal attrition rate is around 8 percent each year; some are predicting it will be in double digits this year.

    Spend time talking with teachers and you hear that the pay isn't worth the conditions they experience. Teachers talk about mental, physical and spiritual stress; they don't believe their voices are heard and increasingly feel disrespected by students, parents and elected officials. They report student behavioral and mental health issues have increased and aren't being adequately addressed. North Carolina spends about $3,000 less per pupil than the national average and teachers often spend their own money for supplies.

    Let's talk about pay. Beginning teachers in our state make 17 percent less than all states in our region except Arkansas and Mississippi. Trying to get an authoritative average teacher pay is difficult; most peg the average around $54,800. Even after the legislature gave modest pay increases recently, North Carolina ranks 34th in the nation and about $10,000 below the national average.

    For more years than we can remember there have been discussions about raising teacher pay, as well as overall funding for education. Legislators, especially Republicans, don't like the notion of paying according to how many years someone has been in the classroom and this past session came up with a new plan to pay teachers and principals based on their performance. It isn't being well received.

    Here are the problems. While most of us embrace the concept that outstanding performers should earn more, this notion doesn't always work well in public education, notably because of the great siphoning of students away from "district" schools in recent years. They are going to charters, private and even home schools.

    And many of those leaving come from above-average income families and are gifted students, those who have resources. Sadly, district schools are increasingly populated by lower-income, second language and special needs students.

    Here's my spin: We agree that aside from the parent the teacher is the most important single person in a child's education experience. But they aren't the only one, and to assign that responsibility and pay largely to teacher performance lets everyone else off the hook. If that performance assumption were true, we are grossly under-valuing our teachers. And since he or she sets the atmosphere in a school, the principal is also vital.

    I have never favored a system where everyone gets the same pay for just being present. Top performers should receive more rewards, but we don't want teachers just "teaching to the test" and need to be more honest in dismissing mediocre or poor teachers. Principals, parents and other teachers know who they are. When compensation is calculated by factors over which teachers and principals have no control (like which students are assigned to their schools and the range of student abilities) the playing field isn't level. It effectively disincentivizes educators, resulting in even more leaving the profession. The same is true for performance pay for principals. There must be better, fairer ways to hold educators accountable while providing them opportunities to earn more.

    Finally, pay isn't the reason many went into the profession and many have stayed because they have a calling to teach. We must return to respecting our educators, treating them like the professionals they are and providing them with adequate support staff like nurses, counselors, classroom assistants and safety officers that give them more opportunity to excel. They shouldn't have to tolerate requirements like lunchroom, hall or bus duty, and especially not behavioral problems.

      Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 1/2 years. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.
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