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Cages of Our Own Design

I talked on Monday of how reforms will generally fail to deliver on their promise if educators in schools and systems aren't willing, able, and eager to make them work. (The discussion drew on my recent National Affairs essay "The Missing Half of School Reform.")  Equally telling, I think, is that many reform-minded efforts to lift legal constraints are not actually necessary in the first place. Indeed, many of the problems reformers are trying to solve are the result less of statutory constraints than of confusion, apathy, ignorance, or excessive caution.

Observers are often surprised by this state of affairs. Given a dozen years under No Child Left Behind and the experience of fierce state and federal policy battles, those sympathetic to the reform agenda imagine that school systems have already done all that they can -- and that only policy-driven change will enable schools to get smarter about things like teacher evaluation, pay, and dismissal. But often that is simply not the case.

Attorney Dan Weisberg, former chief of labor strategy for the New York City Department of Education, relates, "When I first got into education, I was amazed how rarely I heard, 'We're doing this because this is the right policy for kids,' and how often I heard, 'We have to.'" Starting out in New York City under then-chancellor Joel Klein, Weisberg recalls being told that principals needed five negative letters in a teacher's personnel file before that teacher could be "discontinued." At first, he thought the culprit was the city's muscular teachers' union. Yet, upon a closer look, it turned out the contract was not to blame -- as a contractual matter, one letter could suffice. Even after extensive staff training, though, Weisberg continued to hear the five-letter excuse. Where was it coming from? Weisberg found that it was not the union but "our own district lawyers in the field." It made the lives of the attorneys easier if they had stacks of paperwork when trying to fire a teacher.

Ariela Rozman, CEO of TNTP, similarly recounts, "We went into [one troubled Midwestern district] expecting to find a very restrictive contract. [But] we found a very limited, small contract that covered only a few specific topics. And the reason the district was doing a ton of forced placement was because that's just the way [human resources] had operated for years. But the superintendent believed it was better to be out there lambasting the union than to be cleaning up his house internally." Rozman says this kind of thing is dishearteningly common. Superintendents and school boards have learned that scapegoating unions is often easier than taking tough steps or adopting a negotiating stance that would provoke conflict. Meanwhile, they have found that credulous reformers can be distracted into blaming the union bogeyman, letting administrators off the hook.

Lackluster leadership can even threaten to undo crucial wins. In Indiana, for instance, the legislature also moved in 2011 to limit the scope of collective bargaining. Yet, dozens of districts went ahead and left restrictive contract language intact, even though doing so now violated state law. After a year or two, these choices become the new conventional wisdom, with district officials operating under the assumption that their hands remain tied -- even when they are not.

There are exceptions, of course. When Adrian Manuel took over as principal at the low-performing Accion Academy in the Bronx, he knew dramatic change was required. Part of his strategy entailed giving staff one full day a week to collaborate on improving the quality of instruction. He needed to do this without extra funds, and he was committed to doing it without sacrificing instructional time. The problem was that the mechanics of the plan would require some teachers to teach more than three classes in a row -- a violation of New York City's collective-bargaining agreement. Manuel explored his options and found that, in New York City as in many other districts, teachers at a particular school can waive nearly any part of the master contract if a sufficient percentage of them vote to do so. His staff voted unanimously for the change. A few years later, Accion Academy was one of New York City's best-performing middle schools.

Administrators around the country have a surprising wealth of similar options, but most choose never to explore them or make use of them. And reformers have too often allowed themselves to turn a blind eye to this state of affairs. 

On Friday, we'll talk about some of the steps that might help change things.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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