NC Superintendent opts for marketing over substantive change

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After weeks of controversy and speculation, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson held his Innovation and Leadership event in Raleigh on Tuesday to make what he had hyped as ‘Major announcements for our education system.’

The keynote speaker of the night was Kelly King, CEO of BB&T and board member of Best NC.  King scared the crap out of the audience, painting a dark, positively Trumpian picture of the social landscape in North Carolina:

‘We are leaving a worse society for our students than we grew up enjoying.  We aren’t leaving them with any hope. And with no hope, they go out and get on drugs, they kill others, they get guns, and they get into other sorts of trouble.’

Our superintendent was more upbeat.  He praised teachers for their dedication, saying, “Teaching is a wonderful profession.  It is a fulfilling, fruitful profession.”  From another source, Johnson’s words might have felt inspirational.  But take a look at this actual video of Mark Johnson at the end of his ‘fulfilling, fruitful’ second year teaching science at West Charlotte High School in 2008:

via GIPHY

It would have been great had the evening included some actual major announcements for our education system.  To his credit Johnson did call for a 5% increase in pay for teachers, which was a refreshing change considering only a year ago he referred to $35,000 for a starting teacher as ‘good money.’  

But rather than debuting a game changer, Johnson’s ‘major announcement’ was about a marketing campaign called Teach NC which aims to “reclaim the image of what teaching is” and increase recruitment and retention of educators in our state.  

Details are scarce at this point.  There’s a Twitter account which was created and parked last month, and there’s a bare-bones web site with some vague talk of re-imagining teacher recruitment efforts to look “beyond ‘traditional’ teaching professionals to individuals without education degrees, teacher training, and experience.”  

What’s interesting is who was tapped to lead the charge on refurbishing the image of the North Carolina teacher.  Best NC is a pro-business education reform lobbying organization whose board of directors is made up of wealthy, influential executives from businesses like Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Allen Tate Real Estate.  

Education advocates might tell you that, since its founding a few years back, Best NC’s most noteworthy contributions to the public education arena have been two things:  The first was actually the lack of a contribution–the organization stayed silent on the corporate and income tax cuts which have deprived public schools of billions in potential revenue. It was also silent on last fall’s constitutional amendment to cap income tax, again limiting future education revenue.  Imagine the impact had a coalition of the state’s most successful business people come out in favor of increasing public education funding rather than prioritizing financial profit for the private sector and already wealthy individuals. It didn’t happen.

The second thing Best NC is known for in public education circles is its enthusiastic lobbying for North Carolina’s principal pay plan.  At a Best NC legislative gathering held just prior to Mark Johnson’s event on Tuesday, Representative John Fraley referred to that pay plan as ‘a mess.’  He’s right.

North Carolina’s principal pay plan came at time when North Carolina had fallen to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, and change was desperately needed.  Unfortunately, the change that we got after all of Best NC’s behind-the-scenes work with lawmakers was a plan that pays principals based on their students’ standardized test scores despite findings by the Department of Education that such measures are not accurate predictors of future success.   The plan is so flawed that some North Carolina principals stood to see their salaries drop by as much as $20,000, and the General Assembly had to add a hold harmless clause to prevent a mass exodus of principals from the state.

It’s difficult to know how our ‘innovative’ approach to compensation has impacted principal recruitment because, surprisingly, the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t track principal turnover.  But I think it’s safe to say that folks aren’t streaming into the state for an opportunity to lead one of our schools.

Now Best NC will bring its transformative vision to teacher recruitment and retention.  I’m sure that with so many successful CEOs behind the curtain the marketing know-how at Best NC is top notch.  But as we move forward, let’s keep one important point in mind.

What North Carolina’s public schools need is not the appearance of being great places to work, they need to actually become great places to work.  They need to become places with roofs that don’t leak, where educators are respected and empowered, where students are safe and supported, and where we have all of the resources that we need to get the job done.  Those are the changes that will improve recruitment and retention of teachers in our state.

The transformation we need is going to require a whole lot more than a slick marketing campaign.  It’s going to require leadership that believes in putting the public good ahead of adding more money to the pockets of the already super rich.  Time will tell whether Best NC can get behind a vision like that.

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