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Boston Seeks To Improve Teaching With Higher Standards, Cash Awards

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Beginning this year, the performance of Boston public-school students in a new citywide curriculum will be considered when their teachers are evaluated.

That change is part of a concerted effort by Boston Superintendent Robert R. Spillane to improve the quality and public image of the schools, in part by imposing higher standards of performance on instructional employees. In recent weeks, Mr. Spillane has also initiated dismissal proceedings against teachers on grounds of incompetence and replaced several principals and headmasters.

At the same time, the superintendent hopes to improve morale among teachers by establishing a technical-assistance center to provide instructional support in subject areas covered by the new curriculum and an awards program for outstanding teachers in the system.

Changes Signal New Attitude

Mr. Spillane said in an interview that the changes made in the past few months reflect an attitude in his administration that will signal to teachers that "we only want excellence" and that they are "part of a team." In the long run, he said, the change also will help to improve teacher morale.

"They know the ones who aren't performing up to par," he added. He said these recent actions demonstrate to teachers that "the old days'' of patronage "are over."

The new teacher evaluations will include traditional areas of review such as teaching style and knowledge of the subject area, but they will also consider how well students master reading, mathematics, and writing, Mr. Spillane said. Teachers who do not meet the standards will be dismissed regardless of their seniority in the system, according to Mr. Spillane.

The move to emphasize higher teaching standards was also behind the dismissal proceedings for incompetence initiated this summer against eight teachers who received poor evaluations for their performance, Mr. Spillane said. The dismissal proceedings, he added, were "unprecedented" for the school system, which has frequently been publicly criticized for its patronage practices. So far, only two of the teachers have actually gone off the payroll.

In addition, last month Mr. Spillane reassigned 22 principals and headmasters and replaced them with administrators from within the system who, he said, "have shown effective leadership." Both actions were opposed by the teachers' and administrators' unions but upheld in mediation and in federal court.

Kathleen A. Kelley, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said that her organization supported Mr. Spillane's efforts to improve the school system and that it did not favor retaining incompetent teachers. She was, however, critical of the manner in which the recent dismissals were accomplished. Ms. Kelley said the dismissals were "done in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner."

"The tools have always been available," Ms. Kelley said. "The fact that they hadn't dismissed a teacher for incompetence was the fault of the school administration."

Mr. Spillane contended that higher standards are necessary because the image of public education "is less than desirable."

"We recognize that we have to do some housecleaning," he said.

"Performance must be considered along with other factors," Mr. Spillane continued. "Seniority has its place, but in the past it has been the sole determining factor in layoffs. It is a factor, but there are other things that have to be considered."

He acknowledged that teacher morale reached an all-time low in Boston during the last school year because of layoffs that affected some teachers who had been with the city's public schools for up to 10 years. More than 700 teachers were laid off last year and about 300 of approximately 600 teachers who received layoff notices are not expect-ed to be recalled this school year.

Next year's contract negotiations, according to Mr. Spillane, are going to be "tough" because of his strong opposition to the practice of strict adherence to seniority in teacher layoffs. He said he would like to exclude teachers who receive "excellent or superior" evaluations from future layoffs.

Ms. Kelley, however, said that while the union accepts the principle of terminations for cause, it will oppose any attempt to base layoffs on performance. "Seniority, in my view, is nonnegotiable," she said.

In another initiative to raise standards, Mr. Spillane has recruited local business executives to support a program of cash awards for superior teaching. Details of the program will be announced later this month.

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