The Leadership Limbo

It's no real surprise that, after years of lurking menacingly in the shadows, The Contract has emerged into the spotlight, indeed has leaped to the top of the education policy agenda. Sooner or later, the purveyors of any number of flavors of school reform were bound to see their prospects entangled with teachers' collective bargaining agreements.

Consider the standards-and-accountability movement. In its early days, reformers focused on setting clear expectations for what students should learn, developing reliable measures of whether they were learning it, and spouting vague talk about holding "schools" accountable. Eventually, though, they came up against the plain reality that one can't really hold institutions accountable (especially when they're not legally distinct entities); one holds people accountable. And if those people are to include teachers, their union contracts are an unavoidable issue.

So too with the school choice movement. (Those disappointed by the weak response of school districts to vouchers and charter schools eventually blame union contracts.) The "teacher quality" movement. (How to transfer great teachers to poor schools if the contract works against it?) Or those, like us, who want to see stronger school leadership and effective management. Each has collided in some sense with collective bargaining agreements (and, in non-collective bargaining states, the formal board policies that substitute for such agreements).

So, all roads lead to Rome, and all reforms lead eventually to The Contract. Hence it's no wonder that the past few years have seen an explosion of studies, analyses, and symposia examining teacher collective bargaining agreements and their impact on just about everything that matters in education.

Some of this work has been quite good. The most impressive product has come from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) (on whose board Finn serves), with financial help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: an exhaustively detailed database that codes the collective bargaining agreements of the fifty largest school districts-along with analogous board policies in non-collective bargaining states.

Meanwhile, our friends and colleagues Rick Hess (director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute) and Marty West (assistant professor at Brown University) published A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century. In this crisp manifesto, they laid out a compelling argument for thinner, smarter teacher contracts, the kind that allow principals to do their jobs effectively while still protecting teachers from arbitrary and capricious behavior. They specifically identified three areas--compensation, personnel policies, and work rules--where leaders need significantly greater authority if they are to manage strong schools.

We saw the makings of a great combination: NCTQ had the data while Hess and West had the vision and theory. Put them together and perhaps we could find out which of the nation's fifty largest school districts have contracts that allow for strong school management-and which do not.

West wasn't available, but to our delight Hess agreed to identify the indicators in the NCTQ database that best mapped onto their vision of effective school leadership, then use them to appraise the teacher labor agreements of the nation's big districts. The result: The Leadership Limbo.

The results are truly informative--but complicated, too, and a bit surprising. Those seeking simply to bash teacher contracts may want to stop reading now. To be sure, at the time we tapped NCTQ's database, plenty of large school districts (fifteen, to be exact) had the sort of restrictive, cumbersome teacher union contracts that most alarm reformers. They explicitly barred school leaders from many of the practices that their peers in the business world take for granted: offering extra pay for high-demand skills or strong performance, for instance, or choosing the best applicant for a job instead of the person with greatest seniority, or outsourcing tasks that aren't central to the organization's mission.

Nor should reformers take solace from the fact that just five of the fifty districts in the analysis can claim relatively "flexible" teacher labor agreements that explicitly give leaders broad authority to manage their schools effectively. (The Fortunate Five are Guilford County, North Carolina; Austin, Dallas, and Northside, Texas; and Fairfax County, Virginia.) Particularly because the study is skewed to the "right to work" South--Dixie tends to organize its districts by county, making them bigger than those in the North and West, and thus is disproportionately represented in any study of the "largest" districts--it's disappointing to see so few leader-friendly agreements.

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, neither tying leaders' hands outright nor explicitly conferring 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 aggressive superintendents and principals could push the envelope and claim authority for any management prerogative not barred outright by the labor agreements. And it means that, for a majority of big districts, the depiction of The Contract as an all-powerful, insurmountable barrier to reform may be overstated.

But don't call us naïve. The long run may be very different and leaders who move aggressively to exploit contractual ambiguities may end up paying the price. Teacher unions have ways of tying leaders' hands beyond getting explicit language into collective bargaining agreements.

Still, reform-minded leaders should take some heart. In the report, we offer our advice for language to fight for in the next contract negotiation, language that others have succeeded in getting into contracts in their own districts. In the meantime, most leaders can push the envelope more than their lawyers may be telling them-a measure of management flexibility is waiting to be seized.

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