2012 saw its fair share of blame go around in education. School reformers blamed teachers unions for preserving the status quo. Unions blamed district leaders for budget cuts and stagnant pay. Some school leaders blamed poverty for weak educational performance; others blamed rules and regulations for tying their hands when it comes to managing human capital or increasing instructional time.
Here’s hoping 2013 might be different. In his recently released book Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick Hess shatters the traditional blame game in education. Rick argues that educators, policymakers, parents, and school leaders tend to misattribute responsibility when it comes to our nation’s educational woes. (For more on Cage-Busting Leadership, tune in to the launch event February 12 here at AEI featuring cage-busting leaders Michelle Rhee, Chris Barbic, Kaya Henderson, Adrian Manuel, and Deborah Gist): Based on his analysis, here are a couple of places where we tend to get it wrong:
Reformers blame teachers unions for strict bargaining contracts: Education reform advocates and organizations tend to argue that rigid union contracts make it downright impossible to make changes to curriculum, staffing, school calendars, and much else. This can be true. But Rick reminds us that collective bargaining agreements are signed by two parties – the union and the district – so “district leaders share the blame for dumb or destructive provisions.” This situation is exacerbated when a contract has an “evergreen clause” – a provision which stipulates that contract terms remain in force until a new contract is put in place. So when current school and district leaders agree to uncompromising provisions, future leaders bear the brunt of removing antiquated structures.
Teachers blame reformers for “one size fits all” policies: The last four years have seen an unprecedented push (much of which can be attributed to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program) to evaluate teachers using a particular model – often using student test scores to measure teacher performance. Some teachers argue that these systems create incentives to “teach to the test.” They lament that standardized test scores are poor measures of teacher quality. Some even boycott the tests altogether. But ineffective school leadership is partly to blame here as well. Rick argues that “when school and system leaders fail to rigorously evaluate staff, spend dollars cost-effectively, or push the boundaries of the possible, reformers may decide they have to compel leaders to do these things.” How does this play out? Evaluation systems are written into policy, and end up creating obstacles for school leaders that want to create their own systems, which might be better-suited to their particular schools and communities.
Leaders blame laws, contracts, and federal regulations for their inability to act: As it turns out, laws, contracts, and regulations can be maneuvered with a little bit of knowledge and a dab of elbow grease. In fact, Rick argues that leaders have much more freedom from these impediments than is widely believed. For instance, leaders often grouse that they are unable to make changes to school start times, teacher pay, and evaluation because of restrictive union contracts. But a careful analysis of state collective bargaining laws shows that the majority of states have no state law regarding these topics. Therefore, leaders have much more liberty than they think when it comes to making these changes in their schools and systems. Cage-Busting Leadership also includes a handy chart to inform leaders about what they are allowed, permitted, or restricted from collective bargaining in their states.
By shining a spotlight on leaders who are working around the law, engaging lawyers on these questions, and “busting the cage,” Cage-Busting Leadership is a call to action to do something different. Rick argues that instead of playing the blame game, we need to better prepare and empower leaders to make the changes they want to see in schools and communities. He sketches a number of strategies to help leaders navigate policies, find the right tools, and engage partners in these efforts. So here’s to a 2013 with less blame, a little more elbow grease, and a whole lot of cage-busting.