Road to effective change eludes public schools

The powerful forces bearing down on Ohio and public education here were nicely encapsulated in two recent Dayton Daily News articles.

The first was headlined "Newly laid-off Dayton teachers may have to leave Ohio to find jobs" (June 24th), while the second simply read "Report: Delphi to offer buyouts" (June 25th). These are two completely different industries, yet the same forces are at work.

Two industrial-age enterprises-public education and automobile manufacturing-both burdened by powerful and self-interested, industrial-style union work forces, are painfully and involuntarily finding themselves being restructured for the 21st century. How they deal with these changes will profoundly affect the future economic and social health of the Buckeye State.

Judging by recent developments in Dayton, early signs in public education are not encouraging. Urban schools particularly seem to be in denial, struggling mightily even to picture what it would mean to do things differently.

In Dayton, management is struggling to keep the ship afloat, while labor clings to all it can-seniority above all else-even as the vessel threatens to sink. At Delphi, by contrast, part of an industry that has been buffeted longer than public education by job losses, automation, and competition, the United Auto Workers union (UAW) is working with management to restructure the labor force so Delphi can compete anew.

This collaboration is hard, but it's driven by the blunt reality that Delphi is bankrupt and lost $5.5 billion in 2006. Seeking to survive, one key move is to offer early retirements and buyouts to older workers. To remain viable, Delphi and the UAW understand that the company must attract, develop, and retain young, flexible, and energetic employees.

No such lesson has yet been internalized by the public-school sector and its unions.

With the recent rejection of Dayton Public Schools' operating levy, the district is being forced to lay off 208 teachers and 87 aides. (Salaries typically account for more than three quarters of school system budgets-and nobody seems to know how to reduce those costs by substituting technology or other productivity enhancers.)

Following old-fashioned seniority rules, Dayton's cuts are falling mainly on young teachers without regard to individual effectiveness or the personnel needs of particular schools.

This one-size-fits-all approach to downsizing the work force is why one of the city's premier academic high schools-the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA)-has been forced to leave the district and become a free-standing charter school. Its eager younger instructors are much of the reason DECA has earned the academic rating of "excellent."

But only by becoming a stand-alone charter school can it retain them. To its great credit-and the consternation of the Dayton Education Association-the school district's leadership is facilitating this transformation, mindful that hundreds of children stand to benefit.

Unfortunately, other innovative, high-performing schools in Dayton-Stivers School for the Arts, the World of Wonder school, the Charity Adams all-girls school-will see their teaching staffs dramatically altered for 2007-08. These schools, all led by strong principals who have labored to build successful school cultures and teaching teams, must bid farewell to many of the instructors they have developed.

Maybe the principals can do it again, this time by struggling to teach new tricks to set-in-their-ways veterans. Or maybe the schools will sink into mediocrity. That would not be a healthy development for a district where nearly half the schools are already getting the equivalent of Ds or Fs on the state report card.

Laying off young teachers and keeping old ones has the perverse effect of increasing the per-unit cost of educating children without creating greater efficiency or effectiveness.

Yet Dayton Public Schools' leaders are hostage to an industrial model of education, enshrined in a collective bargaining agreement that rewards teachers for longevity, not their impact on student achievement or even the staffing needs of school leaders.

This is a recipe for disaster for a district with a declining tax base and an increasingly poor and aging population that demands doing more with less.

The auto industry may finally be learning its version of this lesson. In the circles that run public education in Ohio, however, there's little evidence that anyone in Columbus or Dayton is intent on rewriting the rules so schools such as DECA (and the personnel arrangements they need to thrive) can become the norm as opposed to a one-time exception.

The time has passed for bailing out the leaky, old ship. It needs to be mothballed and a new one launched.

Read a letter challenging Ryan's op-ed piece, from the July 31st Dayton Daily News: "Writer's comparisons of schools misleading."

Dayton Daily News education reporter Scott Elliott used his blog to open discussion on the seniority issue: "Ryan: Seniority killing school change."

Elliott further discusses the seniority issue in a story in the August 5th Dayton Daily News: "Budget cuts reach beyond those who were laid off."

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