NC teacher reports: Attrition is down, vacancies are up and a new challenge is coming
New reports on the availability of teachers in North Carolina’s public schools paint a complex and sometimes confusing picture.
For instance, the rate of teachers leaving the field held fairly steady during the first two years of the pandemic, despite widespread talk of teacher burnout and mass departures. But teacher vacancies are up significantly this school year, a trend officials say combines difficulty recruiting teachers with possible changes in reporting.
And the recruitment challenge is likely to increase in a year or two, based on declining numbers of people entering North Carolina’s teacher preparation programs, officials say.
“The districts need to be aware that in the ’24-’25 school year, the availability of traditionally prepared teachers is going to be lower than they’ve seen in the past,” Tom Tomberlin of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction told the board Wednesday.
As he noted, the averages don’t always reflect each district’s experience, though the numbers show Charlotte-area districts mostly tracked statewide trends. Here’s what the latest reports show about finding and keeping teachers — arguably the most important step in making sure about 1.4 million public school students get a good education.
Attrition is surprisingly stable
“Attrition in the state of North Carolina is one of the most stable metrics that we have. It is annually right around the same number every year,” Tomberlin told the board.
That proved true even during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite widespread talk of teacher burnout and mass departures.
The state measures the number of teachers who leave public schools between March of one year and March of the next. That includes resignations, retirements, firings and any other type of departure.
The overall attrition rate rose slightly for the report ending in March 2021, the first year of the pandemic, to 8.2%. The newly released report shows it dropping back to 7.8% for 2022, another year that was marked by teacher exhaustion and talk of mass departures. Neither year was dramatically different from previous years.
“This year, our analysis shows that that is kind of back down to pre-pandemic levels,” Tomberlin said.
The report shows that teachers were less likely to move from one district to another during the last couple of years, a measure known as mobility, than before the pandemic. And it shows the total number of teachers employed by North Carolina’s school districts has shrunk slightly over the last four years, from 94,672 in 2018-19 to 93,832 in 2021-22.
During that time, many districts have seen enrollment decline or level off, while enrollment in charter schools has grown. Charter schools are publicly funded and regulated by the state. But they’re not included in the attrition tallies because the rules for employment and licensure are different.
Charlotte-area school districts generally saw similar attrition trends. For instance, the rate dropped slightly to 11% in CMS, 10.3% in Gaston County and 8.1% in Cabarrus County. Union County Schools nudged up a bit, to 12.7%.
District rates tend to be higher than the state average because teachers who leave one district and move to another count as district attrition but not state attrition. During the past couple of years, most districts in the region used federal COVID-19 aid to provide recruitment and retention bonuses in hopes of enticing teachers — even if that meant taking them from neighboring districts.
Reasons are not clear
The state also tracks the characteristics of teachers who leave the profession and their reasons for leaving. As usual, experienced, licensed teachers had a lower attrition rate (6.9% in 2022) than teachers with less than three years’ experience (13.1%), teachers who were licensed through a residency program (11.9%) and Teach for America recruits (25%).
As usual, relatively few teachers — just over 5% of those who left last year — were fired or forced to resign. Just over 42% listed personal reasons such as family responsibilities, dissatisfaction with teaching or career changes, down slightly from the previous two years. The biggest increase was in departures coded as “other” or unknown reasons, which accounted for one-third of the attrition.
Vacancies shoot up
Vacancies, which are driven not just by how many teachers leave but by whether replacements can be found, shot up in 2022. The state tallies the number of teacher vacancies on the first and 40th days of each school year.
This year, schools opened with a total of 5,540 vacancies, or 5.9% of all funded positions. That’s about 1,750 more than at the start of the 2021-22 school year. By the 40th day of this school year, the tally was still 5,091, or 5.4% of positions. That’s almost 1,900 more than at the same point in the previous year.
Those numbers jumped in the Charlotte area too: CMS had 278 teacher vacancies on the 40th day, compared with 80 the previous year. Iredell-Statesville had 72, up from 58. Gaston County went from 66 to 96 vacancies.
District leaders have spoken repeatedly about the challenges of filling vacancies during the past couple of years. Tomberlin said the spike in vacancies is probably driven partly by real challenges and partly by the state’s reporting process.
State law says teaching positions can only be counted as filled if there’s a licensed teacher in a permanent job. That means many of the strategies districts used to avoid disruption to students, such as hiring retired educators and others as long-term substitutes, still counted as vacancies. People who are doing residency programs, where they work toward full licensure while teaching, also count as vacancies.
Tomberlin says DPI worked with districts in the past year to make sure they understood and followed those rules.
Problems in the pipeline
The state board also got an update on North Carolina’s educator preparation programs. That includes colleges of education, school district residency programs and for-profit teacher preparation programs.
Those numbers dropped between 2014 and 2017, then began rising, reaching a high of almost 8,500 in 2021. Andrew Sioberg, director of educator preparation for DPI, told the board those numbers plummeted to 4,951 in 2022, falling to about the same level as 2017.
“Obviously, this was alarming to us out of the gate,” Sioberg said.
Sioberg said he and his staff broke the numbers down in various ways. The decline cut across all demographic groups, he said. The decline was steepest for people entering colleges to earn education degrees, he said, but residency programs also saw a drop in enrollment in 2022.
Tomberlin said the shrinking candidate pool is likely to hit districts going into the 2024-25 school year. And it could be worse than the applicant numbers indicate, he said, because the state has found that less than 60% of people who enter teacher prep programs are teaching a year after completion. The rest either fail to complete the program or don’t stick with teaching.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the state board that the latest numbers emphasize the need for a new teacher licensure and pay plan that’s dubbed Pathways to Excellence. It creates several stages of licensure designed to help people work toward full licensure, and to provide extra pay for experienced teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness to coach new colleagues.
“The Pathways plan is about improving the educational experience for our students, and part of the way we do that is by ensuring that our teachers, but especially our least experienced teachers, have what they need,” she said.
That plan is inching toward a pilot program, which would require the General Assembly’s support. The North Carolina Association of Educators opposes the Pathways approach, calling it a flawed merit pay plan.
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