Point of View

Urgent wake-up call from NC teachers

December 30, 2013 

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    Find “Listening to Those on the Front Lines,” a report on a survey of N.C. teachers, at nando.com/teachers.

In a state that has witnessed the loss of numerous industries in the past decade, a private software company headquartered in Cary remains a beacon of success. With annual revenues of nearly $3 billion, SAS employs approximately 14,000 people in 59 countries. Jim Goodnight, the company’s CEO, has a straightforward philosophy: “If you treat employees as if they make a difference, they will make a difference.”

Goodnight also says that, “If the employees are happy, they make the customers happy.” He recognizes that providing strong salaries and benefits (subsidized on-site day care and an extensive recreational facility, for example) is not only employee friendly but smart business.

Goodnight’s perspective on employees lies in stark contrast with the findings of our recent survey of teachers and administrators in North Carolina. In our research, we asked more than 600 educators across the state about the effects of recent legislative changes on the quality of learning in their schools, their morale and their professional intentions. What we found was striking. Over 97 percent think the legislative changes have had a negative impact on teacher morale, 74 percent indicated they are now less likely to continue working as a teacher/administrator in North Carolina and 96 percent think public education in N.C. is headed in the wrong direction. Regardless of one’s political affiliation or profession, these statistics must be seen as deeply troubling.

Among the major changes to education passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor in 2013 include another year without a pay increase for teachers (now almost five years in a row), the removal of tenure, the end of a salary increase for earning a master’s or doctoral degree, identification of only 25 percent of teachers to receive a $500 annual pay increase (in return for giving up tenure early) and the removal of class-size caps. The legislature said these changes were due to tight budgets. However, the sheer number and reach of the changes made it clear this was also a legislature eager to put its stamp on education. Overall, the changes reflect a deficit view of teachers and public schools by those in the state capital.

Tenure was eliminated because it protected incompetent teachers, the subsidy for graduate education was removed because further education for teachers was not seen as valuable and only the top 25 percent of teachers deserve to be rewarded because evidently just one-fourth of teachers are seen as worthy. Add to this the new voucher plan, and the impression of many was confirmed: The legislature had a limited commitment to, and respect for, public education.

SAS’s philosophy and success are certainly tied to its tremendously low employee turnover – around 3 percent. This compares with a teacher turnover rate of 14.3 percent with some districts at 35 percent!

More alarming is that the effects of these changes are only now being felt and turnover rates will most likely accelerate. Not only will this make it more difficult for districts to find qualified teachers, but high turnover means a loss of expertise. It also adds to the challenge of establishing a consistently high-quality school culture. Our students suffer as a result.

Another lesson from SAS is that the company actively empowers its own employees to be the drivers of success. Goodnight says the culture “rewards innovation, encourages employees to try new things and yet doesn’t penalize them for taking chances.” In contrast, the legislature’s recent education reforms give the distinct impression that the state’s educators are not to be trusted.

When nearly all the policies seem to fly in the face of one of the most successful for-profit businesses in North Carolina, then it is time to start asking questions. When 96 percent of individuals in any profession indicate they believe the field is headed in the wrong direction, this ought to serve as an urgent wake-up call.

Seven years ago, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction initiated major changes in education, including changes in teacher preparation and new teacher and administrator standards. These changes spoke to a new era, in which teachers assumed leadership roles to help create a re-imagined vision of teaching and learning in 21st century schools.

How times have changed. We need to take a page from SAS and return our trust to those most capable of finding answers to the challenges in education. And just as SAS is the envy of many companies in the U.S., our goal should be that public education in N.C. be the envy of other states in the nation.

Scott Imig, Ph.D., is an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Robert Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of education at UNCW.

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