Enrollment up in UNC system teaching programs after years of decline

Posted August 22

Paige Christianson, a junior education major at N.C. State University, works with a student at Conn Magnet Elementary School on Oct. 12, 2016.

— After years of declining enrollment in its teacher preparation programs, the University of North Carolina system saw a 6 percent increase in students studying education last school year, according to new data released by the system. This marks the only time the system's enrollment has increased since at least 2010.

More than 14,000 students studied education at 15 of the system's campuses last year, but that's still below the levels from seven years ago, when more than 18,600 students were enrolled. Locally, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University were among the seven campuses that saw increases last year.

UNC system education leaders attribute part of the turnaround to increased recruitment efforts at the campuses and say they're optimistic even more students will enroll in the coming years due to recent boosts in teacher pay and the return of the state's Teaching Fellows scholarship program.

Student enrollment in UNC System education programs

Source: UNC General Administration
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Alisa Chapman, UNC system's former vice president for academic and university programs, has studied North Carolina's education enrollment trends for years. In February 2016, she presented a report to the State Board of Education showing that enrollment in the UNC system's teacher education programs had declined 30 percent from 2010 to 2015. The latest 2016 data shows that overall enrollment is down 25 percent since 2010.

Michael Maher, NC State assistant dean for professional education and accreditation NC State assistant education dean talks about enrollment trends

The declines have slowed over the years, "but we still have reason to be concerned," Chapman told state board members last year. Now a senior fellow at the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapman still follows education trends and said she is watching for improvements in specific areas, not just overall enrollment increases.

"I think we’ve bottomed out in declining enrollments in education," Chapman said. "(But) just increasing enrollments in education and in initial licensure doesn't do it for me. If we’re over-preparing teachers for areas where we don’t have shortages, that doesn't help supply and demand ... We really need to see increases in math, science, middle grades and special ed."

Last year, North Carolina public schools identified the most difficult to staff positions as math and science teachers for middle and high schools and those for children with disabilities.

At N.C. State, students are often trained to teach in STEM-focused areas (science, technology, engineering and math). The school produces more math teachers than any university in the state, according to Michael Maher, the university's assistant dean for professional education and accreditation.

N.C. State was one of seven public universities in the state that saw enrollment growth last school year – rising from 1,059 students in fall 2015 to 1,133 students last year, a 7 percent increase.

"We’ve increased the number of students we’re bringing in, and we have not decreased standards," Maher said. "I just want people to know we’re not reducing quality to increase quantity."

N.C. State credits aggressive recruiting tactics, as well as extra scholarship money from donors, for helping attract more students last year.

"We target recruitment. We visit schools," Maher said. "We know which public (high) schools we get the majority of our students from and so we really kind of hit those schools hard ... It’s almost like we recruit kids in the same way that athletes are recruited."

In Wake County, high schools such as Millbrook, Wakefield, Sanderson and Athens Drive provide many education majors for N.C. State, according to Maher.

Despite last year's gain in students studying education, N.C. State's enrollment numbers are still down 22 percent compared to 2010 levels, when more than 1,400 students studied education at the school. Maher said he is hopeful that hikes in teacher pay in North Carolina, as well as the return of the Teaching Fellows scholarship program, will help enrollment rise in the future.

The average North Carolina public school teacher will receive an estimated average state-funded increase of 3.3 percent this school year and a 9.6 percent increase in 2018-19.

"I tend to be kind of an eternal optimist, that at some point we’re going to see the real value in teachers and compensate them appropriately," Maher said. "It’s meaningful work, and I think people are always searching for meaningful work. And teachers engage in meaningful work every day. So, that’s one of the selling points."

READ MORE: N.C. State Assistant Education Dean Michael Maher talks in-depth about enrollment trends

At UNC-Chapel Hill, school leaders saw their enrollment in education programs drop last year by about 8 percent, down to 315 students. Part of the reason for the drop is UNC-Chapel Hill's decision to end its undergraduate teacher preparation program and shift to a master’s level teacher prep program, which can be completed in 15 months.

"We think this will be very positive," said Diana Lys, UNC-Chapel Hill's assistant dean of educator preparation and accreditation. "It kind of gives us the opportunity to try some new, different things at a time when we really need to not be repeating the same old, same old in teacher preparation."

Lys said the university noticed that more and more students with undergraduate degrees in various fields were expressing a passion to teach.

"The pathways to becoming a teacher in North Carolina are changing. They’re not your undergraduate who comes to you out of high school with a desire to become a teacher," Lys said. "We see more and more folks coming through these different kinds of pathways back to traditional programs like ours and the other UNC System schools, where they come in with bachelor’s degrees or more life experience and then they decided they wanted to come back and be a teacher. I think it kind of shifts how we think about teaching as a field and also how we recruit folks to become teachers."

Teaching is 'not always encouraged'

Paige Christianson, a senior education major at N.C. State, remembers the first time she told friends and family that she wanted to be a teacher.

"Growing up in North Carolina, it's not always encouraged," she said. "You don't get the response that you kind of want to when you tell someone, 'I want to be a teacher when I grow up.' You would get more of, 'Oh, OK,' or 'That's nice' – that kind of tone."

Other than an aunt who is a special education teacher, Christianson says no one else in her family works in education. Those closest to her questioned the pay teachers receive and the stress of working with children.

"My family's all in the business track of careers, so it's just very different than every other choice that they made," she said. "It took a lot of soul searching to really decide what was most important to me when it came to what I wanted to do with my life. And honestly, nothing compared to the joy that teaching kids brings me."

Paige Christianson

As she begins her senior year at N.C. State, Christianson is proud to say she plans to become a teacher.

"When you want to be a teacher, I think you always sort of know it. It's always there in your mind," she said. "When people hear that we're whatever ranked in the country for teacher pay or whatever it is, I think that just gets a bad reputation for the profession as a whole, which it really shouldn't. If you really want to do it, it should be what you want to do, no matter what the pay raise or the pay is."

Tyra Kornegay, a fellow education major at N.C. State, encountered the same resistance when she began considering a teaching career. But instead of pushback from friends or family members, she was discouraged by those in the profession.

"I had teachers who would ask me what my major is and would be like, 'Do you want to do that?' or, 'Hmm, marry someone rich,'" she said. "It's so discouraging. Of course money, you need it to survive, but at the same time this is what I love and I wouldn't be doing this just for the money."

Kornegay says she fell in love with teaching in elementary school after a teacher helped her with math, a subject she was struggling with.

"She was really there for me. I was inspired to be her," Kornegay said. "A couple years ago, I was able to contact her and tell her that she was the reason I was teaching. And we both were crying on the phone because we got really emotional. That was so rewarding for me, having a chance to tell her, 'You are my reason and inspiration to go into a school.'"

Tyra Kornegay

Kornegay and Christianson are both studying elementary education at N.C. State and spent part of their junior year interning at Conn Elementary School in Raleigh, where they worked with second-grade students in teacher Brittany Laube's class. As interns, they observed Laube's teaching methods, took notes and worked with students individually or in small groups. As seniors this school year, they will get to be student teachers and help lead classrooms.

"One thing that's great about Ms. Laube is that I've never heard her raise her voice," Kornegay said. "She has so many classroom management strategies to where the kids know what's going to happen and what they're expected to do."

Laube has a lot in common with her young interns. She graduated from N.C. State in 2010 and says she often thinks about her student teaching days.

"I think about the teacher I did my student teaching with on a weekly basis and draw from things I saw her doing and learned from her," Laube said. "Just seeing how she came in and had this command over the classroom and had these children that she was inspiring."

Brittany Laube

Laube is hoping to inspire the next generation of teachers and says she encourages them "to just stick with it."

"I think our state needs to continue to show these pre-service teachers that it's something worth going into," Laube said. "Continuing to provide opportunities for teachers to advance within the field is something really important ... Encouraging teachers to pursue opportunities like their masters degree (and) national board certification are all things that are important to a teacher. You don't want to feel like you're going into a field that's stagnant."

Teaching 'is what I'll always do'

In her 28 years of teaching, N.C. State associate professor of reading education Ann Harrington has seen the ups and downs and says she believes the years of declining enrollment were due to a combination of factors.

"I think it’s working conditions in North Carolina. I think (students) have people who have talked with them frankly about what it’s like to be a teacher in North Carolina," Harrington said. "I do think salary is one of the factors, but it’s only one. I think there are lots of choices, other than becoming an educator. This is not an easy profession, particularly now with the accountability that’s in place. So, it’s tough."

Ann Harrington, NC State professor

North Carolina's average teacher salary was $49,837 for the 2016-17 school year – about $9,000 less than the national average of $58,950. North Carolina ranks 35th in the nation for average teacher pay, an improvement from last year, when the state ranked 41st, according to estimates released in May by the National Education Association.

Among the 12 states in the Southeast, North Carolina ranks fifth, an improvement from ninth last year. The State Board of Education has set a goal to become No. 1 in the Southeast.

Southeast 2016-17 average teacher pay ranking

Source: National Education Association

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For Christianson and Kornegay, teacher salaries are not a top concern.

"I know the states like New York, New Jersey and Michigan, they do pay more, but I've never been like, 'I'm going to move to New York because they pay more.' I'll end up where I end up," Christianson said, adding that she wants to work at a school that focuses on character education.

Kornegay said she plans to visit schools that interest her, talk with the teachers and find an environment that is collaborative.

"I think about where I want to live, but it's not because, 'Oh, teaching's going to pay better here,'" she said.

Teacher pay often doesn't become a top concern until students are in the classroom fulltime, according to Harrington. She and other N.C. State education professors stay in touch with students after graduation, and that's when teacher pay and other concerns start to arise.

"I think they are concerned about the amount of testing and accountability that they’re seeing," Harrington said. "I think they’re concerned about the lack of autonomy in schools. They are concerned about pay. They know a number of other teachers have second jobs in order to make ends meet. That’s concerning. Those are the main concerns that I hear."

Despite the challenges, Harrington said there is no career she would rather do.

"It really is a great profession, and if you have the passion to be an educator and to work with children, this is the greatest job there is," she said. "Teaching, I know, is what I’ll always do."

Ann Harrington, NC State professor


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