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The Culture of ‘Can’t’ in American Schools

By Rick Hess — May 11, 2012 5 min read
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When it comes to reforming our nation’s public schools, we hear a lot about what educational leaders can’t do. Contracts, laws, and regulations assuredly handcuff school and system leaders. But the ardent drumbeat for “reform” has obscured the fact that school and system leaders can actually do much that they often complain they can’t, if they have the persistence, knowledge, ingenuity, and motivation. In truth, it’s tough to know how much blame should be apportioned to contracts and laws and how much to timid school boards and leaders who prize consensus and stakeholder buy-in.

There are genuine legal and bureaucratic obstacles that hinder leaders. A few states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, mandate that seniority be the sole determinant of who gets cut when laying off teachers. Regulations governing the use of federal funds can be equally burdensome. “It is hard to overemphasize the number of federal compliance requirements that apply to states and districts,” explain education attorneys Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric. They note that the Office of the Inspector General has estimated that Title I alone contains 588 discrete compliance requirements.

Still, these obstacles are less burdensome, and more surmountable, than many leaders or reformers seem to understand. The problem is that in selecting, training, socializing, and rewarding leaders, we do not equip or encourage them to lead. Traditional educational leadership counsels tell leaders that they should rely wholly on coaching and consensus -- while placidly accepting contractual, bureaucratic, or policy barriers. Meanwhile, would-be reformers divert attention from lethargic leadership by rushing to blame “the union.” The result is that school and system leaders operate in a timid “culture of can’t.” As the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s legal analyst Mitch Price has noted, contractual or regulatory issues can serve as “smoke screens for those people who don’t want to do something.”

Take the issue of “last in, first out” (LIFO) layoffs. Across the country, reformers who lament the way in which senior teachers are systematically protected, regardless of performance, at the expense of their younger counterparts are calling on states to change their laws to end this practice. However, the National Center on Teacher Quality’s database of collective bargaining agreements from large school systems makes it clear that many district leaders have chosen to use LIFO of their own volition. Sixty of the seventy-four contracts examined in August 2011 contain LIFO provisions. Of the sixty, two-thirds (41) were in states that had no law requiring LIFO. This is not a problem with state law or nefarious forces; this is a problem of school boards and superintendents having historically caved at the bargaining table.

Happily, across the country there are examples of determined state chiefs, principals, superintendents, and school boards who are ready to stop getting pushed around. In Sacramento, many low-performing “turnaround” schools have been staffed with bright young teachers. The problem: California is one state where state law meant these teachers would be the first to go during layoffs. Rather than play the victim, researcher Heather Zavadsky reports that the district figured out a work-around. The superintendent battled with the union, negotiating a deal which stipulated “that if a teacher had been specifically selected for a turnaround school, and the district could document that the training was different and specific, then the teachers would not be subjected to seniority-based layoff. The district was smart about it. They literally scheduled the training at a different time of the year and carefully documented how the training was different.”

Upon his arrival in New York to head up the Teacher Performance Unit for Chancellor Joel Klein, accomplished attorney Dan Weisberg noted that the Department of Education had a hard time getting principals to rigorously evaluate teachers because any negative result soaked up enormous time and energy. He explains, “Not only was every piece of negative feedback subject to a three step grievance and arbitration process that went through the local superintendent to the chancellor and then to an arbitrator, the prevailing view was that principals had to personally show up to these proceedings. It was big deal, because it meant they had to leave their building and go downtown. Principals complained about this and used it as an excuse of why they couldn’t document poor performance when they saw it. So we asked why they didn’t simply attend the meetings by phone. And the answer we first got was, ‘No, we can’t do it. We’ve never done it that way.’ And I said, ‘Where is that in the contract? Where is that in some policy?’ And the answer is nowhere. So we just did it.” Sure, the contract was a factor, but its impact can be sharply curtailed by savvy educators (or exaggerated by timid ones).

When it comes to equipping and encouraging leaders to do better, there are two rules of thumb to keep in mind. First, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of what K-12 leaders cannot do are greatly exaggerated. Second, crucial allies in doing better are those with expertise when it comes to figuring out what is and is not possible -- we call these folks attorneys. Most school systems lack access to talented legal staff, and the counsel they do use are far more intent on ducking conflict than on helping educators solve problems.

There’s a degree of self-fulfilling prophecy behind so much of the “culture of can’t” in school systems. Laws, rules, regulations, and contracts are a problem, but they’re not as big a problem as our school and system leaders have made them out to be. Any reform agenda which focuses on policy but turns a blind eye to the successes and shortfalls in leadership is going to disappoint.

Note: This article first appeared in The Atlantic as part of their “America the Fixable” series. It was co-written with Whitney Downs, research assistant at AEI.

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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