Education leaders often act lazily, blaming union contracts and federal regulation rather than confronting the problems they have the capacity to solve.
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."