Teaching as a Profession?: Heading for the Exits, Fellows, and North Carolina

Teacher attrition is an issue across the United States. Amongst traditionally trained teachers, about 50% leave after 5 years. The infamous Teach For America program has an attrition rate of about 80% after five years (this is why Teach For America wants to focus the public on a 50% in “education” field number). As seen on TV, North Carolina teachers are heading for the exits in droves due to the recent draconian and out-dated policy approaches implemented by the politicians in that state. Its quite amazing that a few determined politicians can wreck a functioning system in just a few years. One solution to teacher attrition has been early identification of teacher candidates. One such program has been the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program. What is the program?

[The North Carolina Teaching Fellows] was adopted and funded by the 1986 North Carolina General Assembly as part of a ten-point teacher recruitment plan proposed by the Public School Forum of North Carolina. The first recipients were named in 1987.

Applicants must be North Carolina residents currently enrolled as high school seniors and qualifying high school juniors. Selection is made on the basis of high school grades, class standing, SAT scores, writing samples, community service, extracurricular activities, and references from teachers and members of the community. Interviews at the local and regional levels are required. Recipients must be accepted for admission to one of the following postsecondary institutions in North Carolina… Subject to continuing legislative appropriations, up to 500 Teaching Fellows are selected annually from area high schools. The maximum award is $6,500 per year and is renewable for a total of four years of college.

Over the past several years, the program has been axed and un-axed by North Carolina legislators. In this post Dr. Francesca Lopez, Associate Professor at the University of Arizona and Sarah Taylor, a former North Carolina Teaching Fellow and current University of Texas at Austin Educational Policy and Planning masters student, consider the merits of North Carolina’s early identification approach.


by Dr. Francesca Lopez

The authors of an Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) policy brief entitled The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program: A Comprehensive Evaluation focused on “the human capital of the teacher workforce” and “expanded access to highly qualified teachers for at-risk students” assert that North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, which attracts “individuals with significantly higher academic credentials into North Carolina public schools” (p.5), has “positively affected North Carolina’s schools and students” (p. 6).

The Fellows Program’s approach to address the issue of attrition and access is incentivizing teacher preparation for “academically competitive students” (p. 1). Certainly, treating teaching as a rigorous profession that requires serious training certainly has merit—particularly when compared to other models that reflect the belief that content knowledge alone is sufficient for teacher effectiveness. Attempting to find solutions to the issue of teacher attrition is also urgent, but what does significantly higher credentials mean? Is access to these teachers improved for at-risk students?  Missing entirely from the brief is any mention of long-term solutions to teacher attrition. Why do teachers leave?

Considering that high school GPAs are better predictors of college performance than SATs (Hiss & Franks, 2014) and that preservice program GPA is one of the most robust predictors of teacher effectiveness (D’Agostino & Powers, 2009), it is disappointing to find that the brief omitted any effect sizes for the differences in the academic credentials of Fellows and their non-Fellow peers at the University of North Carolina. A figure in the brief suggests that there is difference of about ½ point in the GPAs of Fellows compared to their in-state peers—but does this difference justify $26,000 in scholarships to Fellows, a majority of whom tend to leave after 3 years? Perhaps the cost is justified if they are indeed more effective in classrooms with at-risk students. Teaching Fellows, however,

… are initially hired into schools and assigned to classrooms with more high-achieving students. In 5 out of 5 comparisons, Teaching Fellows teach both in schools with significantly higher percentages of students passing state tests and in classrooms with significantly higher performing students. Furthermore, Teaching Fellows also teach in schools and classrooms with fewer economically disadvantaged students. In 5 out of 5 comparisons, Teaching Fellows work in schools and classrooms with significantly smaller percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. Finally, Teaching Fellows work in school districts with significantly larger teacher salary supplements than in-state prepared and alternative entry teachers, but significantly smaller supplements than out-of-state prepared and Teach For America teachers (p. 3)

The brief lauds the Fellows program as “enhancing the human capital and persistence of the teacher workforce and improved student achievement” (p. 5). If the Fellows are indeed better teachers than their non-Fellow peers, the program has failed to connect these highly-qualified teachers with students who need them most. But are they better?

It is noteworthy that in spite of highlighting the fact that Teaching Fellows were more successful than in-state trained teachers in some areas (and worse in others), the effect sizes were miniscule (ranging from .02 to about .04). Given that the comparisons are based on individuals that are in “easier-to-staff” settings, any edge the Fellows may have had in students’ achievement scores could have been attributable to the students, rather than the Fellows themselves.

The issue of finding ways to attract highly qualified teachers to schools with at-risk students is urgent given the recent announcement by Wake County Public Schools that “600 teachers have quit since the start of the school year” (WNCN, 2014). Many blame the “flat payscale” as well as “the recent legislated removal of both career status and higher pay for teachers with graduate degrees.” Indeed, the attrition was expected.  Incentivizing a revolving door is not a long-term solution to ensure students have access to quality teachers.

Using the Schools and Staffing Survey, North Carolina ranks 4th lowest in beginning teacher pay—a ranking that does not correspond to its cost of living (NC ranks 27th most costly out of all 50 states [C2ER]). The recent exodus of teachers is also not captured in North Carolina’s standing as the 22nd state with the highest proportion of teachers with less than 4 years of experience (11.7%, according to the Schools and Staffing Survey—but that proportion does not reflect the recent higher-than-expected resignations that have taken place this year).

There is no question that all students deserve access to highly qualified teachers. Scholarships that incentivize teaching should be promoted—but they should reflect commitment to teach in the hardest-to-staff schools. Moreover, rather than further promoting the revolving door of teachers in 3-5 year cycles, states should pay teachers in a way that is aligned with the demands placed on them. If the Fellows program has been successful in attracting competitive preservice candidates based on the incentive of competitive scholarships, why not offer a long-term solution: incentivize competitive admission to preservice university-based programs by paying teachers more.

Wake County Public Schools anticipated teacher attrition because of North Carolina Governer McCrory’s education reforms that included larger class sizes, heavier workloads, and other indirect financial burdens (Woodbury, 2014). When we consider that at[1] least 12 to 15% of the variability in students’ reading scores is explained by the proportion of the teaching workforce who has taught less than 4 years (for each 1 standard deviation increase in the proportion of novice teachers—one measure of the increase in attrition—there is a .35 to .40 standard deviation drop in state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores), the need to consider ways to retain highly qualified teachers is essential. The professionalization of teaching may start with incentivizing admission to preservice programs, but until teacher pay is aligned with the demands, it is not surprising that too many will leave.


D’Agostino, J. & Powers, S. (2009). Predicting teacher performance with test scores and grade point average: A meta-analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 46, 146-182.

Henry, G. T., Bastian, K. C., & Smith, A. A. (2014). The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program: A Comprehensive Evaluation. Education Policy Initiative at Carolina.

Hiss, W. C., & Franks, V. W. (2014). Defining promise: Optional standardized testing policies in American college and university admissions. Retrieved at http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Documents/DefiningPromise.pdf

Woodbury, A. (April 18, 2014). Republican Governor’s Education Policies Result in Mass Exodus of NC Teachers. Politicus USA. Retrieved at http://www.politicususa.com/2014/04/18/mccrory-education-policies-result-mass-exodus-nc-teachers.html




[1] State NAEP scores for 4th and 8th grade from the NCES data explorer were used in the analyses.

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By Sarah Ann Taylor

Above, Dr. Francesca Lopez of the University of Arizona responded to a policy brief issued by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC).  The EPIC brief focused on the positive impact of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program on the state’s students.  Dr. Lopez’s response presents two concerns with regards to the brief and the Teaching Fellows initiative: First, she dismisses the Fellows program as a long term solution to teacher attrition and second, she argues that the Fellows program fails to match highly-qualified teachers with at-risk students.

I will call upon my experiences as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow and a current Education Policy student to address both concerns and to more fully inform stakeholders and policymakers on the N.C. General Assembly’s decision to cut funding for Teaching Fellows, while concurrently increasing funding for Teach for America.

On the Teaching Fellows program as a solution attrition…

Lopez and I agree that incentivizing admission to pre-service programs is not enough.  Referencing the EPIC brief, Lopez argues that “Missing entirely from the brief is any mention of long-term solutions to teacher attrition.”  A part of the North Carolina teacher exodus, I am a walking testament that the Fellows program fails to address larger issues associated with soaring attrition rates.  I left Wake County Public Schools at the end of my fifth year in large part because I never received a raise.  My decision to walk away from the classroom was a tough one.  I loved the children and their families, I loved the work, and I loved my principal and the team of teachers around me.  According to evaluations, I consistently and significantly exceeded basic competence on the state’s official performance rating scale.  Truth be told though, I did not take very good care of myself during my tenure.  I spent long days at school.  I brought work home with me.  And I worried.  Constantly.  About putting money away for an advanced degree and for retirement, about paying bills, and about supporting the family I hope to have one day.

Nonetheless, I would argue that incentivizing pre-service programs is an important start to addressing attrition.  Born and raised in North Carolina and a product of the state’s public schools, I happily solicited a copy of the Teaching Fellows application in my eighth grade year.  I had long known I wanted to teach, had heard about the reputable Teaching Fellows program, and thought it wise to work towards becoming a strong candidate for the Fellowship.  After finishing first in my high school class, I entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Teaching Fellow.  The program prepared me for entry into the classroom by prescribing four years of practicum experience, additional course work, service requirements, and cultural and enrichment opportunities.  Through Teaching Fellows experiences, I began to recognize myself as a professional, to think deeply about equity, and to value both the academic and emotional demands associated with being in the classroom.  In fact, I discovered the Title I Magnet School where I would later begin my career during a Teaching Fellows summer experience.  While I might have entered into teaching even without the Fellowship, I can say with certainty that I would not have entered into the profession quite so eagerly or so prepared.

Finally, I would challenge the author’s claim that a majority of Teaching Fellows “tend to leave after 3 years.”  Upon receiving the Fellowship, pre-service teachers sign a promissory note, pledging four years in the state’s public classrooms or repayment of scholarship loans with ten percent interest.  Folks who exit classrooms after only three years return their loans (plus interest) to the state.  The EPIC brief explicitly states that “over ninety percent of Teaching Fellows returned for a third year of teaching, with seventy-five percent continuing into a fifth year” (p. 5).  In an effort to look beyond the dataset presented in the EPIC brief, I followed up with the Public School Forum, the organization that created and manages the Teaching Fellows initiative.  According to the Coordinator for Teaching Fellows Information Services, the Public School Forum there are 6,900 graduates of the program.  Of the students selected, 89 percent followed through on their initial pledge to spend four years in the classroom and around 64 percent of those graduates were in classrooms in the 2012-2013 academic year.  Additionally, there are currently 344 (or roughly five percent) Fellows in Administration/Central Office roles and 358 (or just over five percent) in Instructional Support roles.

On matching highly-qualified teachers with at-risk students….

Lopez laments that “If the Fellows are indeed better teachers than their non-Fellow peers, the program has failed to connect these highly-qualified teachers with students who need them most” and she asks, “But are they better?”  I will argue hardily alongside Lopez that Teaching Fellows fails to connect highly-qualified teachers with the state’s neediest students.  In my own experience, I quickly learned that nearly every county in the state offers a bonus or supplement in addition to the base salary paid by the state.  Though I applied for jobs in districts with lower supplements closer to my hometown, I jumped at the opportunity to work in Wake County- the district then offering the largest supplement in the state and nationally recognized for its commitment to equity.  Identifying as a Teaching Fellow from the UNC-Chapel Hill no doubt garnered the attention of principals looking to hire new teachers and so, I like so many other Fellows, had some options in terms of where I wanted to work.

In response to Lopez’s question, “But are they better?”- I argue yes.  Full disclosure: the Teaching Fellows program routinely touted my peers and I as the “best and brightest.”  My argument is based less on the rhetoric and more on the the countless principals and forty-six school boards who publicly championed Teaching Fellows when the North Carolina General Assembly recently axed the program.  Further, my argument is based on the Teaching Fellows program’s role as a national model for other teacher cadet programs.  Most importantly, my argument is based on the simple idea that four full years of being in classrooms, volunteering in various education settings, and engaging in coursework and conversations around pedagogy, leadership, social justice, and excellence trumps the one to two years of training required of traditionally trained teachers and the quick five-week training program offered to Teach for America corps members.

Lastly, I would contest Lopez’s argument that the effects sizes were minuscule when comparing the effectiveness of Teaching Fellows with other in-state prepared and alternative entry teachers.  I understand that she and the folks from EPIC are looking at student performance on state issued tests; however, I humbly submit the argument that using end of grade test scores as a means for assessing teacher effectiveness is incredibly problematic.

Why it matters!

Lopez and I agree that all students deserve access to highly qualified teachers and that policymakers in North Carolina (and throughout the country) must develop stronger solutions to the very real attrition problem.  The Teaching Fellows program was a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, the N.C. General Assembly’s most recent budget reflects an outsourcing of teachers for the state’s public schools.  The state’s 2013-15 biennial budget cripples public schools by phasing out funding for Teaching Fellows, a homegrown and nationally lauded recruitment and preparation program, while simultaneously increasing funding for Teach for America (Wagner, 2013).  Though both TFA and Teaching Fellows have a history of recruiting individuals who demonstrate high levels of academic achievement, Fellows are much more highly qualified and significantly more likely to remain in education than their TFA colleagues.

I recommend that North Carolina policymakers:

  1. Increase teacher pay so that it aligns with the demands of the classroom (without cutting funding for Instructional Coaches and/or supplies).  Give teachers a financial incentive to stay.
  2. Restore support for the Teaching Fellows program and work with districts to coordinate staffing efforts in low-income communities across the state.
  3. Consider the significant recurring costs of Teach for America and only hire TFA teachers when no traditionally certified teachers are available in the hiring pool.

Christensen, R. (2011). Praised teacher program gets ax.  Retreieved at http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/07/31/1380399/praised-teacher-program-gets-ax.html

Henry, G. T., Bastian, K. C., & Smith, A. A. (n.d.). The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program: A comprehensive evaluation. Education Policy Initiative at Carolina.

Henry, G.T., Bastian, K.C. & Smith, A.A. (2012). Scholarships to recruit the “best and    brightest” into teaching: Who is recruited, where do they teach, how effective are they, and how long do they stay?. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 83-92.

Teach for America. (n.d.). History. Retrieved from http://wwww.teachforamerica.org/about/our_history.htm.

Teaching Fellows. (n.d.). The Program: History.  Retrieved from http://www.teachingfellows.org/theprogram/history.cfm

Teaching Fellows. (2013). Teaching Fellows Summary.  Retreived at http://www.teachingfellows.org/userfiles/file/TfsummaryOnly2013WithLogo10-7-13.pdf

Wagner, L. (2013, July 25). Vouchers gain ground, public education loses in final budget.

N.C. Policy Watch. Retrieved from http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2013/07/25/  vouchers-gain-ground-public-education-loses-in-final-budget/


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