Principals and superintendents frequently lament that their hands are tied by contracts, policies, and regulations--especially when it comes to hiring and firing staff, assigning employees to schools or classrooms, designing programs, or allocating resources. There is something to these complaints, and I believe they are real problems.
But more than one thing can be true at a time. It is also the case that education leadership is marked by a debilitating timidity; reform-minded administrators could make much better use of their existing authority.
John Deasy, former superintendent of Prince George's County, Maryland, gained national acclaim for overseeing substantial achievement gains in low-performing schools. Even in a district with a collective bargaining agreement widely judged as restrictive, he shattered notions of what local leaders could do by transferring hundreds of teachers to new schools and initiating a voluntary pay-for-performance system. "Nothing prohibited any of this," Deasy explained. "Why does it not happen? [Because] most people see the contract as a steel box. It's not. It's a steel floor with no boundaries around it. You've just got to push and push and push."
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.