Contract a sign of things to come?
Big salary hike paves way for merit pay and changes in seniority and tenure
If teacher effectiveness has become the watchword of efforts to turn around failing schools, Washington, D.C., has been ground zero for this battle.
The city’s reform-minded superintendent, Michelle Rhee, hasn’t minced words with her declaration that ineffective teachers must go and that seniority should not be the yardstick for determining which teachers are hired or have preference for positions in the system, which has long been one of the lowest performing in the nation. Over the course of 2 ½ years of contentious contract talks, Rhee’s hard-line views – often delivered with make-my-day bravado – have been the irresistible force colliding with the immovable object that is the D.C. teachers union. Until this week.
In a development hailed by both sides, a tentative contract agreement between the city and the D.C. teachers union was reached on Tuesday. It contains breakthrough provisions on everything from merit pay to seniority rights and tenure protections, changes that could help shape reform efforts in districts across the country, including in Boston, where contract negotiations are due to begin later this month.
Under the D.C. agreement, which still must be ratified by union members, Washington teachers would see salaries go up by 20 percent over five years and would have access to new professional training to aid teacher development. In exchange, the district would enjoy much wider control over assignments and the ability to drive out low-performing teachers. Under the proposed contract, “if you are rated ineffective at the end of the year, you are terminated from the system,” Rhee told the Wall Street Journal.
Views were mixed on just how path breaking the agreement is. Allan Odden, a teacher policy expert at the University of Wisconsin, told the New York Times that the settlement was “just modestly innovative.” Emily Cohen, of the National Council on Teacher Quality, on the other hand, called it “a great leap forward.”
It will be worth watching whether any elements of the agreement find their way into contract talks between Boston school administrators and the city’s teachers’ union, whose contract expires in August. There are rumblings that some local foundations and advocacy groups want to seize the opportunity provided by the current national focus on teacher effectiveness to push for significant reforms in the new contract.
Policies governing the assignment rights of teachers whose positions are eliminated could become a particularly important issue following the passage of the state’s new education reform law in January. Under the law’s school turnaround provisions, Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson has identified six chronically underperforming schools where all teachers will be required to reapply for positions. Under current contract terms, teachers not rehired at one of the schools retain full seniority and tenure rights and could displace teachers with less seniority at other schools. That’s not a prospect that principals and parents of children at other schools are likely to relish.
“I think that’s exactly the issue that they need to address in Boston,” says Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group. Giving principals complete autonomy over hiring decisions was the first recommendation listed in a study earlier this year of Boston’s teacher evaluation system and personnel policies.One big stumbling block to achieving big reforms in the Boston negotiations will be money. The city doesn’t have any extra lying around, and the Boston Teachers Union is not likely to even seriously consider the sort of far-reaching changes agreed to in Washington without significant raises as part of the deal. Leaders in D.C. pulled off their raises-for-reforms trade with the help of $64.5 million in funding from four foundations. The money will help cover the costs of the across-the-board raises as well as the salary boost for teachers opting in to the new performance pay system.
Foundations are anxious to get behind school reform efforts that hold the promise of driving school improvement, with teacher effectiveness a big focus of interest. Maybe Boston leaders should check in with Michelle Rhee on how she made it all happen.