Combating the "Culture of Can't": School Leaders Have More Power Than They Think

By Hess, Frederick M.; Downs, Whitney | Education Next, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Combating the "Culture of Can't": School Leaders Have More Power Than They Think


Hess, Frederick M., Downs, Whitney, Education Next


When big-dollar attorney Dan Weisberg left his private-sector position in 2003 to join the New York City school system, the district was having a hard time getting principals to provide honest assessments of low-performing teachers. Each negative piece of feedback was subject to a three-step grievance and arbitration process and, as Weisberg explains, "The final two steps were a big deal, because [principals] had to leave their building and go downtown, which could take hours. Principals complained about it and used it as an excuse for why they couldn't document poor performance when they saw it."

When Weisberg's team asked the principals why they couldn't attend the hearings by phone, he notes, "The answer we first got was, 'No, we can't do it. We've never done it that way. And we said, 'Where is that in the contract? Where is that in some policy?' And the answer was nowhere. So we just did it. It was a small thing, but it showed principals that we cared, that we understood this was very burdensome and we were trying to make their lives easier. ... It had a concrete impact in encouraging principals to take action to document poor performance."

When it comes to reforming American education, today's would-be-reformers get it half right. They correctly argue that statutes, rules, regulations, and contracts make it hard for school and school-system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. They are wrong, however, to ignore a second truth: school officials have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.

It's true that prescriptive union contracts and procurement processes, rules and regulations like the federal "supplement not supplant" provision, state laws, board policies, and the like hinder school officials in all kinds of ways, making it difficult to repair a fence, hire talented staff, or schedule grade-level team meetings. But it has become increasingly clear that much of what administrators say they can't do, think they can't do, or just don't do is in fact entirely possible. Contracts, rules, regulations, statutes, and policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them--with enough persistence, knowledge, or ingenuity.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The problem is not just the very real statutory, regulatory, and contractual barriers, but the "culture of can't," in which even surmountable impediments or ankle-high obstacles are treated as absolute prohibitions. This mind-set threatens to undermine the success of hard-won reforms and can make policy impediments appear more severe than they truly are.

The Bogeymen of Leadership

We often hear from principals about all the things they'd like to do but that are impossible due to circumstances beyond their control. Perhaps the most commonly cited sources of frustration are, first, teachers' contracts and, second, state and federal policies that tie the principals' hands when it comes to teacher assignment, compensation, hiring, professional development, instructional time, and much else.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Yet a closer look raises some questions about these common complaints. For example, in a 2008 analysis of the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) of the 50 largest U.S. school districts, Coby Loup and I found that although one-third were highly restrictive, the majority included much room to maneuver. Lehigh University professor of education and law Perry Zirkel notes that the perception that it's nearly impossible to let go of low-performing, tenured teachers arises from "the substitute of lore for law. The lore is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to win a performance-based termination of a tenured teacher. The reality is quite different." In his study of court decisions on teacher terminations for competency, Zirkel found that "defendant districts prevailed over plaintiff teachers by better than a 3-to-1 ratio. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Combating the "Culture of Can't": School Leaders Have More Power Than They Think
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.