It’s the Legislation, Stupid

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

In their terrific new article, “Invisible Ink in Teacher Contracts,” teacher quality savants Emily Cohen and Kate Walsh instruct would-be reformers intent on boosting teacher quality not to fixate on contracts or nifty new data analysis techniques. Why? Because, they argue, the first order of business should be fixing state legislation that stifles creative efforts to adopt smarter practices when it comes to pay, evaluation, and dismissal.

Cohen and Walsh explain, “Across the country, many cash-strapped districts fretting over likely layoffs are eyeing seniority rules as they hammer out new contracts. To the surprise of some district superintendents, contract negotiations are not likely to offer much relief. In fact, when it comes to seniority rules, and many other core aspects of teachers’ employment, the contract is not the problem. State law is.”

They tell a compelling story. Indeed, it’s consistent with much recent work on collective bargaining (including the 2008 study The Leadership Limbo that I authored with Coby Loup), which points out that contracts are frequently less constricting than reputed–but that state and federal requirements, along with timidity and a lack of imagination on the part of district leaders, have contributed to a culture of management passivity. Cohen and Walsh point out that it is state law which drives tenure policy and which frequently mandates much of the anachronistic step-and-lane pay schedule as well as the restrictions on teacher evaluation.

Of course, it is also true, just as with collective bargaining, that district officials could be much savvier in negotiating state-imposed constraints. Relatively few leaders have pushed to the envelope’s edge when exploring flexibility within the salary schedule or have emulated the aggressive tenor of Joel Klein’s Teacher Performance Unit in seeking to evaluate and remove teachers within the constraints imposed by state law.

Ultimately, the situation is not an either/or. We need districts to negotiate smarter collective bargaining agreements. We need district leaders to get tougher and savvier. And, crucially, as Cohen and Walsh make clear, we need state officials to step up and address problematic policies. The authors point out promising examples of where this is happening, such as the stellar efforts that Mike Johnston and Deborah Gist have helped to spearhead in Colorado and Rhode Island, respectively.

As Cohen and Walsh say in closing, “State involvement promises to raise standards for the teaching profession to a degree that would be impossible for districts at the bargaining table.” And they note we’re now seeing state-level reforms, fueled by the efforts of ConnCAN, Democrats for Education Reform, and their peers, that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

They’re right. And it’s wonderful to see. Next we’ll see what happens when Race to the Top goes away, November’s elections scramble the board, and the early blush of these efforts fades. Like Cohen and Walsh, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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