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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Lose-Lose Deal: Timid Leadership Yields Half-Baked Policies

By Rick Hess — May 02, 2012 3 min read
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Readers may know that I’m currently finishing the manuscript of my Cage-Busting Leadership book for Harvard Education Press, with the crack assistance of Whitney Downs (who coauthored this post). Writing the book has made it clear that one major problem with leaders failing to take advantage of the operational freedoms they already enjoy is that it forces advocates and policymakers to try to compensate with the crude tools at their disposal. Absent bold leadership, reformers feel they have little recourse but to resort to crude policy proposals that often fail to address real chokepoints and let timid boards and superintendents off the hook.

Case in point: the hundreds of Massachusetts school boards and superintendents who, by failing to lead assertively, have set the table for a lose-lose fight over a ballot initiative (Petition #11-20) which would micro-manage how schools across the commonwealth must evaluate, retain, and dismiss teachers. It would require school districts to either use “model educator evaluation standards” or a state approved evaluation system when deciding how to measure teacher quality and how to weigh teacher experience. It would require school systems to use a state system that is brand new and evaluations that aren’t even half-baked, and in which few have been trained. In late January, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) filed suit to block the petition.

The union stance is predictable and understandable. The real culprits here are the superintendents and school boards who have cheerfully relied upon quality-blind layoffs. Seniority is the sole or dominant factor when it comes to layoffs in 69 percent of Massachusetts school districts. More troubling still is that low-income districts are much less likely than other districts to pay any attention to performance, with nearly 60 percent percent of low-income districts relying only upon seniority.

So, the status quo is a mess. But the proposed solution isn’t so hot, either. If it passes, Massachusetts will wind up with crudely drawn policies, hurried efforts to adopt not-yet-ready-for-prime-time metrics, and a debilitating litigation. The teachers’ union, school committee leaders, and Secretary of Education Paul Reville have all raised legitimate concerns. Richard Hebert, a Scituate School Committee member accurately observed, “This one-size-fits all approach is dangerous and simplistic ... and ignores the special circumstances each community faces.”

So why the push? Because initiative supporters legitimately fear that otherwise the existing evaluation regulations will remain toothless. In the end, the conundrum is the result of a disconcerting truth. Given the freedom to craft sensible, quality-sensitive evaluations that thoughtfully give some weight to seniority, the state’s school boards and superintendents have... punted.

Many casual observers are under the impression that current Massachusetts law requires teacher seniority to drive staffing decisions. That’s inaccurate. Even Stand For Children, which is energetically backing the ballot initiative, has noted, “Current [Massachusetts] law leaves the procedure for layoffs among teachers ... [to] the local level.” In other words, districts already have the freedom to choose quality over seniority when deciding which teachers to let go. Indeed, three in ten Massachusetts districts have dumped blind adherence to seniority in favor of smarter approaches to making layoffs. The problem is not that leaders can’t act, it’s that too few choose to do so.

When educational leaders fail to lead, reformers and policymakers justifiably feel a need to step in. Yet, in demanding action, reformers often excuse lethargic leadership by blaming it all on “the union.” Teacher unions deserve blame, but so do irresponsible superintendents and school boards. Until we start to insist upon and see responsible district leadership, reformers will have no choice but to embrace half-baked, one-size-fits-all state policies. And that’s a pretty dismal recipe for racing to the top.

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.