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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

No Cage, and Still No Change

By Guest Blogger — March 29, 2013 3 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Ariela Rozman, CEO of The New Teacher Project. TNTP recruits and trains effective new teachers, builds better teacher evaluation systems, helps school leaders nurture and reward excellent instruction, and advances smarter teacher-quality policies.

We’ve been talking about cage-busting leadership this week. And it is often easy to assume that the only barrier to change is the cage itself--if it can be busted, then all of our problems will be solved. Without question, innovation in public education has been hamstrung on a number of fronts by one-size-fits-all approaches. Over the years, we’ve written about many of these problems: negligent teacher retention (in The Irreplaceables), forced-placement hiring, meaningless teacher evaluations and quality-blind layoff rules.

But, we have witnessed exactly the type of thing that Rick detailed in his latest book - that restrictions and rules are not always the issue, and freedom to act is not a panacea. Our experience has been that even after the cages are gone, leaders still act like they’re trapped.

Consider charter schools. They can pay their teachers based on almost any criteria they want. They certainly don’t have to fall back on the compensation systems most school districts use, which award pay increases only for seniority or academic credentials and completely ignore performance.

It’s exactly this sort of managerial flexibility that supposedly sets charter schools apart. But with the exception of a few particularly innovative networks, they often resort to the way things mostly are, building lockstep compensation systems that fail to recognize and reward great teaching.

They do this even though dissatisfaction with compensation is one of the top factors that cause great teachers to leave their schools, and even though performance-based compensation systems could help schools keep their best teachers longer. In Washington, D.C., for example, offering bonuses and large raises for outstanding performance has helped the district retain more of its top teachers.

Performance-based compensation should be an obvious path for all charter school managers, because the number one issue many of them face is retaining great teachers over time. And yet this is a case of no cage, no change.

Or, consider quality-blind layoff rules, which require layoff decisions to be based on seniority alone. Research clearly shows that they hurt teachers and students, yet these destructive policies have proved difficult to end--in part because districts sometimes fail to grasp that they have the power to do so.

Many states require quality-blind rules by law, and a few require specific quality-based rules. However, more than 30 states allow individual districts to decide on their own layoff rules through collective bargaining or other means. Even when given the option, though, most districts never question the quality-blind approach and put little or no effort into finding a better way. This is true even in districts that don’t need to negotiate layoff rules with their local teachers’ unions. Seniority is an effortless and conventional way to make decisions, so it sticks. No cage, no change.

The lesson here is that you need courageous leadership even when the policy cages are gone. It’s important to get the policies right, but even the best policies can be undermined by lax implementation. This is easier said than done, of course. Stepping outside established norms requires us to make a compelling case for new ideas that can generate significant blowback.

Real cage-busters see this challenge as an opportunity, not a reason to settle for the old way of doing things. They know how to keep leading even after the cages are busted.

--Ariela Rozman

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.