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A Crisis in Our Midst

by Bo Boylan

June 7,2008

We have a crisis at hand in our K-12 education system. The crisis is an acute – some argue chronic – shortage of qualified teachers. While the issue spans across public and private school systems, our local public school system is particularly impacted.

The national teacher shortage is even more acute in our state and in our community. It’s an issue of supply and demand. Let’s look at the math: Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employs just over 8,000 teachers that serve approximately 135,000 students in 165 schools. Every year CMS experiences a workforce loss of approximately 1,200 classroom teachers – roughly a 15% turnover rate. While the reasons for turnover vary, teacher vacancies are primarily the result of transfers out of CMS to other communities; the so called “trailing spouse” phenomenon. A husband or wife transfers out of Charlotte to another community for professional or personal enrichment and the spouse follows along.

Charlotte does benefit from this phenomenon as well. The city continues to enjoy strong economic conditions in comparison to other similarly situated communities and we pick up a few trailing spouses of our own. The challenge is that this is only one factor in successfully recruiting and training a qualified classroom workforce. And we have something called “reciprocity” that some argue serves as a constraint in assimilating qualified teachers from other school systems. Some argue further that while we certainly welcome growth, we are less welcoming of those from the outside that support this growth.

A second path to filling vacancies is to recruit and hire new teachers from accredited teaching colleges within North Carolina. We certainly enjoy the benefits of high quality instruction and field preparation from our teaching colleges and universities. The problem is they simply are not producing enough teachers to fill the need; particularly in critical subject areas including mathematics, English as a second language, special education, and technology. Consider that our colleges and universities produce a little over 2,000 new teachers per year. Mecklenburg County could easily eat up half of this production. The problem is that 100 other counties in North Carolina have the same need.

Lateral entry is a third option. Harvesting experienced individuals from our business community and professional organizations that possess subject matter expertise – a technology expert from IBM as an example – holds great promise. What these individuals lack are proper teaching credentials including licensing and certifications, and general classroom management skills to apply their knowledge in a school house setting. As with shortages of new teachers from our teaching colleges and universities, training capacity to equip lateral entry candidates with the tools and credentials necessary to join the cause is limited. We are seeing great strides from both UNC Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College, but there is still considerable work to be done.

The fourth option is good old fashioned head hunting; aggressively recruiting qualified teachers from other school systems in the state. As is often the case, the old fashioned approach tends to yield the greatest results. Of course the challenge is that all of the other state school systems are doing the same thing.

So what is the answer? Or better asked, what are the answers? A blend of all of the options mentioned above. But significant constraints remain in place to thwart progress. Certainly there are political solutions that must be considered. They include revisiting reciprocity and lateral entry mandates that make it difficult for qualified candidates to fill vacancies. Ideally, this will encourage more candidates to wade through the process without becoming frustrated and lending their considerable talents to other pursuits. There is also teacher compensation. North Carolina establishes pay rates, including salary increases for teachers across the state. Mecklenburg, along with other large urban/suburban districts, have elected to offer local supplements to increase the competitiveness of pay relative to other alternatives teachers can choose from. Certainly our community can revisit this process as well. But before we try to tackle these tactical issues, we desperately need to define what we want from our education system, particularly from teachers. Perhaps second only to a committed caring adult at home, no single factor directly impacts the success of a student than a qualified teacher.

Open and honest conversation. Might this be a fifth option?

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