Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reevaluating Collective Bargaining Agreements to Benefit Students and Teachers

The School Turnaround Group has published a guide to reevaluating collective bargaining agreements in failing schools to facilitate increased student achievement.  They identify four reasons changing existing agreements is important - they claim that CBAs...

1.  Restrict a school's decision-making abilities with respect to human capital.  (Hiring is taken out of their hands, and evaluation systems don't allow for staffing changes when necessary.)
2.  Prevent schools from setting up classroom structures that respond directly to their needs.
3.  Makes teacher performance a secondary consideration to teacher's years of employment.
4.  Rob schools and teachers of valuable time and money due to lengthy arbitration provisions.

The report seeks changes in a variety of areas, including:

1.  Focusing staffing decision on effectiveness, not seniority; evaluating all teachers each year; and using student outcomes as part of the evaluation process.
2.  Allowing schools to give financial incentives to high-performing teachers based on their successes and reward results rather than years in the district.
3.  Increasing student learning time and giving schools the ability to create a schedule that addresses their needs.
4.  Making instructional decisions at the building level and utilizing data in creating staff professional development programs.

I'm a firm believer that student results should play a part in a teacher's evaluation.  Students need the most effective teachers, not the longest-tenured ones.  And unions ought to agree as well - if experienced educators are better than newcomers, their data should reflect that.  I do not, however, think student data should be the entirety of a teacher's evaluation.  There are too many variables that determine the gains students make, and a teacher is only one of them.  Take the same teacher and put them in two different classes, two different schools, and you get very different results.  As someone who has experience in a traditional public school and a well-run charter school, I have seen this firsthand.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that teachers should be protected from the whims of an administration that may not like them.  I don't think this is often a problem, but during my first year teaching the best teacher on my floor did not have a great relationship with some members of our administration.  I don't know if that would endanger her job, but I could see where in some cases it could be a concern.  The solution lies, and the report mentions this, in creating an evaluation system that does not consist of just going through the motions of an observation.  This may mean more frequent observations, somewhat regular conferences, and more rating options than satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  Teachers should be paired with mentors for meaningful development opportunities, and should be able to observe their peers to learn best practices as frequently as they wish.  But this means changing the way teachers are hired, employed, and, if needed, let go from their positions.

I think some of the report's recommendations with respect to money are good while others aren't.  One thing that's absolutely necessary is compensation for meeting attendance goals.  I know, I know, teachers shouldn't need additional funding to be at work.  But the difference between 95% teacher attendance and 99% teacher attendance is a big one and in my former district a teacher had twelve days per year they could use as needed - and older teachers had many more, as they rolled over from year to year.  The district paid teachers for unused sick and personal days when they left the district for any reason - at a rate of a few cents on the dollar.  When dozens of teachers were told they were not going to be rehired, attendance took a hit.  This structural issue could be fixed by providing a bonus (even a modest one) for reaching a specific attendance goal.  Teachers aren't necessarily doing something wrong by using the days off they're allowed in their contract, but if there were incentives for teachers to not use the days they're allocated, schools would be better off.

I'm hesitant to support giving schools greater autonomy over their budgets.  There's potential for misuse, and I think a school needs to demonstrate financial acuity before expanding their control over budgets.

I do think the way teachers are employed by districts needs to change for there to be meaningful, system-wide improvement.  The current system has failed for decades and isn't working - ask anyone who has stepped into a large number of urban classrooms.  Reforms like these would be a meaningful step toward setting teachers up to succeed.

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