Experts: Better pay, student loan debt relief key to diversifying state’s teacher workforce

By: - September 29, 2022 4:05 pm
North Carolina A&T University student Jayden Seay speaks as First Lady Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona look on.

North Carolina A&T University student Jayden Seay speaks as First Lady Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona look on. (Photo N.C.A&T)

GREENSBORO, North Carolina — Jayden Seay, a sophomore education major at North Carolina A&T University, didn’t need any arm-twisting to decide to become a teacher.

His dream of teaching started long ago while attending K-12 schools in Woodbridge, Virginia, Seay told an audience welcoming First Lady Jill Biden to the campus earlier this month.

Biden joined U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to kick off the Department of Education’s “Road to Success Bus Tour.” The week-long, multi-state road trip showcased how school communities are helping students recover from the pandemic, as well as the strategies states and districts are using to recruit and retain educators.

Biden, a longtime community college educator, also encouraged Black students to consider a teaching career.

“Students of color deserve to have educators who look like them and who can understand their paths,” Biden said. “Because to better serve all of our students, our classrooms need diverse perspectives and the chance to learn from teachers of all backgrounds.”

During his entire K-12 career, Seay said he only had three Black teachers – none of whom were men – despite attending schools that were predominately Black and Latino. He and other Black students in advanced courses, spaces occupied mostly by white students, struggled to fit in, Seay­­­ said.

The handful of Black teachers made a difference.

“I was fortunate to have them in my life as they were the teachers who assured me that I belonged in the rooms where I found myself,” Seay said. “They are the ones who inspired me to be greater. They are the ones who inspired me to teach and they are the ones who brought me to an HBCU [Historical Black Colleges and Universities].”


Addressing a chronic national shortage

The national conversation to recruit and retain teachers of color has heated up in recent years amid numerous studies that show Black students often perform better academically when they are taught by at least one teacher who looks like them.

But despite the documented benefits of having a diverse teaching workforce, recruiting and retaining teachers of color have proven to be a heavy lift.

Nationally, about 80% of teachers are white, while Black and Latino students make up slightly more than 50% of students attending the nation’s public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And even in schools where most students are people of color, 40% to 80% of teachers are white.

According to teachers of color surveyed by a team of RAND Corporation researchers, better pay and student loan forgiveness are the keys to recruiting and retaining them. The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that develops solutions to public policy. The survey findings are from a section of the 2022 “State of the American Teacher” survey that focused on the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s teacher workforce.

A panel of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who participated in a related discussion agreed that increased pay and loan forgiveness are promising practices to help school districts attract and keep more teachers of color. “Grow-your-own” programs that introduce middle school and high school students to the profession also got a nod from the panel.

Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at the Rand Corporation who led the project, said it makes sense that issues around financial relief were a priority. In addition to increasing pay and loan forgiveness, policies to reduce the cost of teacher preparation programs, stipends, service scholarships and other such strategies to relieve the burdens of people working to become teachers are necessary to attract more people of color, survey respondents said.

“We saw very strongly through these results that these policies together or a combination were ranked at the top by teachers,” Steiner said. “I think this makes sense given what we know; Black students generally and Hispanic students generally are more likely to incur student debt as they’re going through their post-secondary education and more likely to have larger amounts of student debt than white students, and so we hypothesize that might be one reason that pay and financial relief strategies were perceived to be at the top of teacher rankings.”

According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, 30.2% of Black families hold student loan debt versus 20% of white families and 14.3% of Latino families. Black families owe a median of $30,000 in student loans compare to $23,000 among white families and $17,600 among Hispanic families.

In North Carolina, the state base salary for beginning teachers is $37,000; for all levels of experience, the average annual teacher salary is $54,150. The state is ranked No. 33 nationally in average teacher pay and much lower when salaries are compared to what individuals with comparable education and experience can earn in the private sector.

A new licensing and compensation proposal could allow teachers to make more. Backed by state education leaders, it would replace the state’s seniority-based teacher salary system with one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state tests.

Teachers, however, have pushed back against the proposal, which they contend is an unwanted move to a system of “merit pay” that places too much emphasis on student scores on standardized tests. They contend that a better strategy to recruit and retain teachers — a stated goal of the new proposal — is to pay them a fair wage.

Here are additional findings from the RAND report:

  • No panelists and very few teachers supported ending or reducing certification requirements or eliminating preparation program admission standards to recruit teachers of color.
  • Principals of color often rely on social networks to recruit teachers of color.
  • Panelists endorsed training— such anti-racist hiring practices and supporting new teachers of color— as an effective hiring practice at higher rates than teachers of color did.

Teachers of color indicated that working with other staff of color and nurturing positive collegial relationships could boost retention

At NC A&T, Biden noted that because of student loans coupled with low pay, students might hesitate becoming teachers; veterans teachers could leave the profession.

“It’s because so many obstacles have stood in their way: Student loans and low salaries. Class sizes and safety concerns,” Biden said. “If we want to add more bright, talented people into this field—if we want educators to be able to do what they do best—we have to give them the support they deserve.”

President Joe Biden took a swing at the student loan crisis last month with a plan to forgive $10,000 in federal student loans for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year. The student loan cancellation plan will cost $400 billion over 30 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Nearly 1.2 million North Carolinians could be eligible for debt relief under the plan.

Gerrelyn Chunn Patterson – Photo: N.C. A&T

Incremental progress in North Carolina

Gerrelyn Chunn Patterson, who chairs the Department of Educator Preparation at N.C. A&T, said the better pay part of the survey response is obvious. Scholarship programs to lessen the financial burden of becoming a teacher also help, she said.

“We have found that providing students with some sort of financial incentive — [such as] making sure that our students who are eligible and are really serious about joining the profession are aware of the [federal] TEACH Grant, which provides them with a four-year stipend as long as they come out highly qualified and are willing to go teach in a low-income school in a high-needs field — that helps us with our recruiting,” Patterson said.

Teacher Education Assistance for College [TEACH] grants provide students who are completing or planning to complete course work to become a teacher with up to $4,000.

While TEACH is a federal program, N.C. A&T provides some education students with stipends while they fulfill a year-long student teaching requirement during their senior year. The goal of the stipend is to reduce financial barriers that might prevent students from choosing the profession.

“What we found is that we had students who were completing the year-long student teaching experience; they would report to a school at 7:30 a.m., they would leave at 3:30 p.m., and then they would go work a job,” Patterson said. “They were exhausted. They were literally working two full-time jobs, and so not being paid during the student teaching internship and needing to work for survival, was a significant barrier.”

Students awarded “senior scholarships,” she said, receive $5,000 the first semester. They must demonstrate success during the first semester of the internship, then reapply to receive another $5,000 in the second semester.

“You can imagine how that takes away the pressure of; how am I going to pay for my Wi-Fi and how am I going to pay my car payment?” Patterson said.

To entice more students of color to become teachers, lawmakers recently added three minority-serving schools — UNC Pembroke, N.C. A&T, Fayetteville State universities — to the list of institutions offering North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarships. The competitive, merit-based, loan forgiveness scholarship program provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.

“I think that was an important component to recruiting and retaining teachers of color,” Patterson said.

Patterson said it’s difficult to quantify whether the programs have been effective, because of the impact the pandemic has had on the teaching profession and enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the UNC System.

“I do think that these programs are increasing our enrollment,” she said. “I’ve seen for the past two years, our freshman enrollment in our educator preparation program has been larger than in previous years.”

Students such as Jayden Seay are being pulled into the teaching profession by something greater than a large paycheck, Patterson said. They want to make an impact on the students and communities they will serve, she said.

“Our students see the pay, but they also see the mission and they are willing to work toward the mission of supporting our schools and in particular children most in need in low-income schools and working to get them to where they need to be,” Patterson said.


This story was first published by NC Policy Watch, part of the States Newsroom network with the Louisiana Illuminator.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Greg covers K-12 education for Policy Watch. He joined the team in December 2018 after nearly 30 years at The Herald-Sun of Durham, where he spent his last five years covering the Durham Public Schools, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools. Greg also covered city and county governments in Durham and Orange counties, higher education and spent 10 years as an associate editorial page editor.