Recently the News & Observer ran a story and an editorial taking issue with my comments recommending the elimination of the Teaching Fellows program. This article is a response to the Thursday, August 4th News & Observer editorial
N&O editors make a weak case for why North Carolina taxpayers should continue to fund the Teaching Fellows program. They ridicule Republican arguments as merely “guilt by association” and think conservatives are put off by any teacher who will “band together with co-workers to seek better pay, better working conditions, and more support for the public school enterprise.”
In glossing over important distinctions, editors conveniently create a straw man argument to be readily dismissed. My opposition to taxpayer support of the Teaching Fellows program is based on the program’s relationship with the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the quality of teacher professional development programs and the lack of jobs for current teaching graduates.
N&O editors pooh-pooh the curious links between NCAE and the Teaching Fellows program. The links are numerous. JoAnn Norris, former director of political activities at NCAE, is now Executive Director of Public School Forum, the entity that administers the Teaching Fellows program. Sheri Strickland, NCAE President, also sits on the board of the Public School Forum. In addition, Teaching Fellows program guidelines allow American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and NCAE members to be on the local and regional screening committee for teaching fellow candidates.
The editors also ignore important facts. NCAE is the state arm of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor organization in the United States. If you join NCAE, you must also join NEA.
What is troubling about the connection between NCAE, NEA and the Teaching Fellows?
Let’s look at some numbers. In 2008, NEA tallied $56.3 million in political contributions – more than Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Exxon combined. Those contributions included $1.8 million for Bev Perdue’s campaign as well as $1.7 million in Perdue campaign ads. NEA is a labor union concerned about power, not the education of children. If you think NEA is concerned about raising student achievement, think again. Former NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin made perfectly clear what NEA’s main priorities were when he said the goals of closing the achievement gap, reducing the dropout rate and improving teacher quality “need not — and must not — be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights and collective bargaining… It is simply too high a price to pay.” 
As the major teacher association in North Carolina, NCAE stands to gain heavily by its ability to select and influence Teaching Fellows recipients. And if NCAE and NEA are committed to developing the best teachers and offering quality professional development, why don’t the organizations dig into their deep pockets to pick up the tab for this professional development program instead of forcing taxpayers to finance it? After all, “professional improvement of its members” is listed as the organization’s number one objective in the NCAE constitution. Rather than spending more than $3 million on North Carolina’s gubernatorial race, the NEA and NCAE could have financed a substantial number of Teaching Fellows themselves.
How teacher development is conducted in North Carolina offers another reason why the Teaching Fellows program should be eliminated from the state budget. For starters, there are a lot of offerings. If you are a teacher, aside from private professional organizations, you can access professional development offerings through the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, the North Carolina Teacher Academy or the UNC Center for School Leadership and Development. Programs include: While it is true some organizations and offerings have been scaled back or eliminated, they are still extensive.
The Office of Professional Development within the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction offers training materials and courses in professional standards, course development (LEARN NC), and online teacher training courses. In addition to its own programs, the DPI Professional Development site is also linked with numerous state or federally-sponsored teacher and educator professional organizations, each of which also includes a professional development component. Examples of such organizations include the North Central Regional Education Laboratory and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. In addition to the Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) offers professional development opportunities in common core standards, seminars for beginning teachers, classes for teacher and principal scholars as well as courses for those interested in obtaining National Board Certification. The North Carolina Teacher Academy (NCTA) offered local professional development opportunities to school systems and individual schools. Funding for NCTA was not included in the new state budget. In addition, the UNC Center for School Leadership Development was created to allow public schools to access the resources of the UNC. The Center offers an extensive listing of professional development courses for educators, administrators and other school leaders.
A cursory review of the goals and offerings of these four organizations reveals overlap and duplication. However, along with these concerns there is also controversy. Up until two years ago, DPI received about $12 million in professional development funds for teachers. The loss of funding was a casualty of the economy. However, other controversies surrounding NCCAT and NCTA certainly didn’t help. NCCAT, which has a staff of 100 on two campuses, has been dogged by concerns over extravagant spending, questionable course offerings and lavish facilities. Meanwhile, two years ago, NCTA found itself in hot water for charging $10,000 for literacy coach training sessions. For an extended discussion of these concerns see: Finding Savings in Obscure Places of the Education Budget.
Editors say the Teaching Fellows program shouldn’t be eliminated because it is working. They point to the fact that 60 percent of participants who began teaching twenty years ago are still teaching in North Carolina schools. To say that twenty years later 60 percent of Teaching Fellows are still in the field is a weak endorsement of the program; it fails to say anything specific about the program’s benefits. There are thousands of Teaching Fellows in schools throughout North Carolina. However, why is there so little evidence of the program’s impact? Why do only 66 percent of state students pass both math and reading End-of-Grade tests? Why have fourth grade and eighth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a pattern of general decline from 2002 to 2009? Why do nearly two-thirds of graduates entering community colleges have to take basic algebra, English composition or other basic courses because they didn’t learn it well enough the first time around in high school? If the Teaching Fellows program produces better teachers, twenty-five years and thousands of graduates should make noticeable impacts
Still, there are other questions. Why is Public School Forum paid $810,000 annually in taxpayer money to “administer” the program? For a staff of six people and 2,000 students, the numbers seem excessive. At a time when educators are losing jobs and programs eliminated, can the Teaching Fellows program continue to afford to send students on lengthy “enrichment” trips to places like Australia?
No programs, no matter how noble or well intentioned, exist in a vacuum. The reality is Teaching Fellows graduates have been entering a miserable job market for several years. Two years ago, The News & Observer ran a story on the difficulty of Teaching Fellows graduates are experiencing in finding jobs. According to the Department of Public Instruction, less than half (49 percent) of the graduates from UNC education schools have teaching jobs within one year of graduating. Yes, there is a greater demand for teachers in math and science. However, a quick review of certification areas for recent Teaching Fellows graduates show only about 10 to 15 percent of graduates have certification in math, science or both. That means about 85 percent of Teaching Fellow graduates can join the thousands of other graduates looking for teaching jobs in a shrinking job market. With so many unemployed teachers, now hardly seems like a sensible time to finance a program designed in part to “boost the quantity” of the state’s teacher corps, as the N&O puts it.
We all want good teachers. Encouraging teachers to enter the field and worthwhile professional development are two tasks that can help accomplish that goal. However, professional development, while important, is best provided by private companies and trade associations. Recent controversies show what can happen when an essentially private function is taken over by state government. The Teaching Fellows program, no matter how well intentioned, provides no reason why taxpayers should continue to fund a program whose benefits are not apparent and whose many graduates will likely join the ranks of those who won’t be able to find jobs.
 See: NEA General Counsel: Union Dues, Not Education, Are Our Top Priority, The Foundry blog, July 9, 2009, available at: http://blog.heritage.org/2009/07/09/nea-general-counsel-union-dues-not-education-are-our-top-priority/