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Q&A: Governor Muses on Contract He Drafted for Denver Teachers

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In addition to his duties in running the state, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado has moved to center stage as a national spokesman on education.

As chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, which is currently drawing up measures to monitor progress toward the six education goals adopted by President Bush and the National Governors' Association, Governor Romer has taken a leading role in advocating a "national assessment system" to measure student performance.

Beginning in January, though, Governor Romer devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to a decidedly local education issue--one that few, if any, governors would have touched.

Stepping into a dispute between the Denver school board and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Governor Romer last month released a four-year contract for the city's teachers that creates "collaborative decisionmaking committees" in each of the city's schools.

The contract gives the school committees wide latitude to decide scheduling issues, how to spend the school budget, curriculum, and who will teach at the school. The school board is given broad policymaking authority, as well as responsibility for setting the curriculum framework and monitoring outcomes.

Teachers gave up some traditional seniority and grievance rights, which the Governor described as a move away from a regulatory atmosphere to one in which teachers make decisions collaboratively.

The teachers' association is expected to approve the contract this week; the board adopted it last week.

Mr. Romer discussed what he learned while working on the contract with Assistant Editor Ann Bradley.


Q. What was the most important thing you learned during this process?


A. That labor agreements or contracts between school districts and teachers' unions can be used creatively on school reform--if you work at it correctly. We did a substantial amount of reform in rewriting that contract. Both sides were pleased by it. It did not just resolve a labor dispute, it got both of them out of some straightjackets they had been in and enabled them to approach some education reform that the [previous] contract had been a barrier to.


Q. Given all the talk about school reform, why don't we see more contracts like this emerge from regular negotiations?


A. We need a paradigm shift. Everyone comes to the table trying to close the ground between the two sides. They are saying, "Hey, how can we reconcile the differences?" when what needs to happen is to come to the table with both sides more willing to risk change and use their creativity.

Labor negotiations traditionally did not provide a good atmosphere for that. Some things now make it possible. One is that the financial pressure on all districts is so great that if we do not increase effective education, we are not going to have sufficient public support to pay salaries.


Q. How will you apply this lesson to your work on the national goals?


A. We're not going to reach those goals without change, reform, and more productivity. The contract is one tool, as are many others, to help us reform this system. It's directly related. The goals panel says, ''Here's the level we need to achieve, here's how to measure it, let's motivate change."

Then we've got 17 to 20 forms of change agents. We need to look at structural relationships and say, "Is this helping us educate children, or is it not?"

In the Denver situation, both sides, in their ready acceptance of what we did, admitted that somebody coming in from the outside helped a great deal. I was willing to take risks, where they were not. When they saw the result, they said, "We'll buy it."


Q. You have given a great deal of authority to the school committees. In your view, what was the most important power granted to them? Why?


A. They have the power to hire and fire, to allocate the budget, and to structure the curricula and classroom instruction at the school site. All three are related and important.

I think the most important is the cumulative result, and that is that what happens here is our responsibility and our opportunity, and not somebody else's. Having people at the site--administrators, teachers, and parents--say we're responsible and we can't pass off the result to somebody else. I think that's a tremendous paradigm shift. It's similar to what is happening in the private sector with the total quality-management movement. If you read the contract, you'll see I used a lot of those concepts.


Q. You have taken the unusual step of allowing school councils to decide how to distribute money to reward teachers' performance. What was the thinking behind this?


A. I find that we have some antiquated ways of compensating teachers. We made substantial change in that in this contract. Pay had been based on an index system, in which you start off in box one [and keep moving based on experience and education]. I interrupted that. Now half [of teachers' pay increase] goes that way, and half is distributed on a purchasing-power index.

I began to inject something into the system that I think needs to be there. We need to learn to make collegial decisions on quality performance. Each group has a small pile of money to be distributed on the basis of excellence. If they can't figure out how to do it, they send the money back. I do believe we need to work toward some reward for excellence. They may want to give it to one team of teachers.


Q. Did you worry that such a system might divide teachers?


A. My intention was, who is better than those at the school site to decide how to give bonuses for superior performance? It should not polarize teachers, the reason being that when they give Nobel Prizes, do all the scientists in America worry about a certain group being winners? No. They should be proud of them and aspire to be one of them by recognizing and trying to emulate that performance.

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