Why Effective Education Reform Often Is So Hard: Pueblo Edition

Yesterday’s Pueblo Chieftain featured a very telling story of why serious education reform cannot simply be entrusted to the good will of local school bureaucrats.

Not that they aren’t necessarily trustworthy, because most of them certainly are. But the prevailing number of federal and state regulations, added on top of the provisions negotiated into the master union contract, have stacked incentives in favor of pleas for more money to help get them out. See what I mean:

Local school administrators are well aware of the attempts by districts around the country to find ways to reward teachers and give them incentives to do better but it’s not something that can be done without also finding ways to pay for it.

Kathy West, interim superintendent of Pueblo City Schools, said that there are indications that new federal programs will be coming soon to help cash-strapped districts like Pueblo’s do that. But for the time being the district remains with its narrowly worded contract and pay scale that bases salaries on years worked, degrees and training earned and on annual across-the-board pay increases.

“It’s just too hard….” In other words, labor peace trumps teacher quality. Then again, that’s a big part of what makes Pueblo an especially tough nut to crack. Leaders could avail themselves of the Innovation Schools Act and its liberating potential, if there were the local political will to accomplish it. But sometimes the school system just lives on in service to the interests of adults.

As the New Teachers Project documented about Pueblo (PDF), ineffective teachers are being passed on with “satisfactory” evaluations, then in some cases transferred from school to school but not dismissed. Meanwhile, the school district is wedded to the antiquated one-size-fits-all salary schedule that denies any opportunity to reward teachers based on performance.

In addition, as my friends here in the Education Policy Center have highlighted, Non-union teachers during the first few weeks of the school year have to ask their way out of paying union tribute. Year after year after year….

Streamlining the policies and enforcement of tenure pose a challenge, perhaps because fears of favoritism abound. Protecting the rights of non-union teachers and providing performance pay may persist because no leader sees the benefit of challenging entrenched union power. It’s a vicious cycle that circles the wagons around the status quo.

Does this mean it’s time to give up? No, but even at my age, I’m coming to realize you’ve got to be realistic about the obstacles you face in pushing reform.