It is amazing how two people can look at the same organization and have totally different views on whether that organization is successful. As citizens, we have an obligation (to the extent that we reasonably can) to assess how well our public institutions are serving us.
Sometimes it’s easy. Did the U.S. Postal Service deliver Aunt Ruth’s gift on time? Did the county plow my street so I could get to work? The larger, more complex and more distant the organization, the harder it is to judge. We still have to try, though – after all, we vote for the people who are (supposedly) responsible for them. And to judge well, we need to know what to look for in order to measure success or failure. (Party affiliation of agency leadership, for example, is a singularly terrible metric, and yet so, so, so many people rely on it. But I digress…)
Much of one’s opinion relies on where one stands in relation to the organization. Wealthy CEOs often don’t see the rot in their own companies if they stay in their cushy offices all day long, and sometimes lower-level employees don’t appreciate a healthy business because they can’t see the bigger picture. One of the lessons drilled into young officers in the Navy is that you must “walk your spaces” constantly, talking to your people at the deckplates, learning from them no matter whether (or especially) if you outrank them. Officers are also taught that you can’t rely solely on a written report of how well maintenance is being done – anything can be made to look awesome on paper. You have to check equipment for yourself, observe work being done, and look for other signs that all may not be well – whether dirty compartments, ignored rust spots, vehement griping or increasing discipline problems.
I thought about all that as I was reading the latest evaluation of Washoe County School District Superintendent (WCSD) Traci Davis by our school board.
On the surface, things seem to be getting better for students in Washoe County, at least in terms of graduation rates. The other “successes” identified by the school board, at least as reported by the RGJ, were far more ephemeral – we know she was praised for “increasing the number of students in career and technical education, diversity in hiring, teacher retention and increasing outcomes for students still learning English.”
But we don’t know what the actual numbers relating to those improvements are. What does “increasing outcomes” for ESL students mean in real terms? And are students actually doing better, or are standards just being lowered in order to artificially boost statistics? Knowing that this numerical jiggery pokery is exactly what is happening with our “increasing” graduation rates, a bit of skepticism is, frankly, demanded. And if the school district had hard numbers to tout, I suspect they’d be touting them.
What was really disturbing, though, was this:
Only 13 percent of employees would highly recommend WCSD as an exceptional district that fully meets the educational needs of its students.
It was a drop from 30 percent when the same question was asked a year ago.
Seventeen percent of the certified staff, which includes teachers, counselors and school nurses, felt satisfied with the district as a place to work.
Morale and job satisfaction of professional or skilled employees is critical to the success of any organization. Plenty of educators are perfectly capable of switching professions and would make a lot more money if they did. I think if you ask most teachers what keeps them in the classroom, it’s that teaching can be so rewarding. When you rely on job satisfaction to keep good people, then plummeting employee morale is a huge warning sign.
It’s not just about retention, either. Employees who don’t feel valued will always reciprocate to some degree. That’s particularly true when salaries are fixed, getting fired is next to impossible and the work is potentially draining emotionally. It’s pretty easy to quit bringing one’s A game (often without even realizing you’re doing it) if the extra effort doesn’t feel like it’s paying off.
Employee satisfaction is different than happiness. Davis’ idea to “fix morale” by having “employee recognition events” or “improving how employees are given information” won’t work, because they miss the point completely. Pizza parties, more emails and employee-of-the-week plaques are great and all, but lasting satisfaction only comes when professionals feel trusted and empowered. In the case of teachers, giving them the flexibility to deviate from formal day-to-day curriculum mandates and modify their approaches to suit the needs of individual students is the only way to really do that.
When teachers in the classroom aren’t allowed to toss out badly written worksheets because a non-teaching bureaucrat has standardized teaching methods and materials, those smart and creative people will chafe, and everyone, especially the students, will suffer. One of the reasons my family has been so satisfied with our move to a charter school over a WCSD school is that our teachers are empowered (and clearly happier and more professionally satisfied), whereas the talented teachers we had previously were not.
Some of WCSD’s bureaucratic bog comes from the state level (which is why greater local control over schools is almost always better), but the absurdly-paid superintendent’s leadership (or lack thereof) is also a big part of it. (If Davis is not responsible for these shortcomings, then her position is non-consequential, and we can start saving a whole lot of money by eliminating her position almost entirely.)
Here’s another thing that will rot teacher morale – the higher ups very publicly proclaiming things are great and getting better when the rank-and-file professionals in the classrooms know this is not so. Positive leaders are great to have around. Blissfully (or willfully) ignorant ones are much less so. Leaders earn loyalty and respect of their people (and the public) by trusting them enough to tell them the truth about the state of their organization.
Real, lasting improvement in the fundamental culture of our school district cannot happen without employees who feel satisfied: valued, empowered, and dedicated to the district’s mission. When 87 percent of our people don’t feel that way, as the evaluation revealed is the case, our children and our community will suffer — if this clear warning from the deckplates is ignored. Lip service to morale is not enough. Leadership, both administrative and elected, had better spend a lot more time looking in a mirror and making real, foundational changes in the coming year.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.