School & District Management Commentary

Saying Sayonara to the Leadership Limbo

By Michael J. Petrilli & Coby Loup — April 01, 2008 3 min read

Here’s one reason for optimism about American education: The teacher contracts of the nation’s largest school districts aren’t as restrictive as you might have thought. That’s the major finding of an exhaustive review of the collective bargaining agreements and related school board policies of the United States’ 50 biggest districts, recently completed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

To be sure, plenty of large districts (15, to be exact) have the sort of restrictive, cumbersome contracts that most alarm reformers. They explicitly bar school leaders from doing many of the things that their peers in the business world take for granted, such as offering extra pay for high-demand skills or strong performance, choosing the best applicant for a job instead of the person with greatest seniority, and outsourcing tasks that aren’t central to the organization’s mission.

Still, reformers should appreciate the fact that a few—five, to be exact—of the 50 districts in this analysis can claim relatively “flexible” teacher labor agreements that explicitly give leaders broad authority to manage their schools effectively. Not many, but not none.

Yet the most surprising finding is that labor agreements in a majority of large districts are neither blessedly flexible nor crazily restrictive: They are simply ambiguous, silent on many key areas of management flexibility. They neither tie leaders’ hands outright nor explicitly confer authority on them to act. We call this the “leadership limbo.” And we take it as more good than bad, for it means, at least in the short run, that forceful superintendents and principals could push the envelope and claim authority for any management prerogative not barred outright by the labor agreements. (In the long run, of course, such leaders might find themselves unemployed.)

The other piece of good news is that for almost every contract provision we studied, some district, somewhere, has been granted clear discretion to manage effectively. An opportunity for sharing these “best practices” is at hand. Let us help.

The most surprising finding is that labor agreements in a majority of large districts are neither blessedly flexible nor crazily restrictive.

Start with teacher compensation. A smart contract gives leaders the authority to get the right people into the right positions right away, through the use of flexible salary schedules. Broward County, Fla., for example, can offer candidates who have spent years teaching in private schools or colleges, or even working in other sectors, a starting salary that is commensurate with their experience. Anne Arundel County, Md.; Guilford County, N.C.; and Denver can reward teachers based on their classroom performance. Several districts, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Long Beach, Calif., can offer hefty incentives for teachers to serve in high-need schools. And Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., can entice teachers of high-need subjects like math and science with bonuses or salary increases.

Or look at personnel policies. To get results, principals need to be able to hold on to excellent teachers and identify mediocre and poor ones for remediation or dismissal. Some districts have labor agreements that provide such tools. Several allow leaders to include student achievement (however defined) as a factor in teacher evaluations, including Fairfax County, Va.; Cobb County, Ga.; and Hillsborough County, Fla. And when layoffs are necessary, the Austin, Texas, district and the Chicago public schools can retain outstanding young teachers over poorer-performing veterans, rather than follow the “last hired, first fired” rule.

There are also bright spots when it comes to the work rules embedded in labor agreements. Florida’s Hillsborough County and Northside, Texas, give administrators the authority to make decisions around teacher professional development, a key role for instructional leaders to play. Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., are free to outsource certain school operations, allowing the districts to focus on their core missions and save money, too. Fairfax County and Northside also give principals the authority to set schedules for faculty meetings without red tape, and several districts, including Fort Worth and Houston, make clear that leaders aren’t required to let teachers leave the classroom to attend union activities.

Reading through this list, some might wonder: Why don’t all district agreements embrace these common-sense reforms? It’s a terrific question. By stealing language from the best of these contracts, every district in America could give its principals more of the latitude they need to lead effective schools.

Superintendents and school boards, what are you waiting for?

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