New Haven Pact Lays New Ground for Evaluations, Pay, Peer Assistance

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 19, 2009 3 min read
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The New Haven, Ct. teacher contract has been approved!

You will recall that earlier this month I was a little skeptical about all this talk of it being groundbreaking given that the details on it were scant. (Reminds me of that line in William Golding’s The Princess Bride about labeling your own novel a classic.)

Now that we have the details, let’s take a look at what’s what.

First, by all accounts these negotiations were collaborative, and both parties are talking up the results. Here’s the district’s take:

“The new contract transforms the role that teachers will play in our public schools,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “Rather than resisting change as some teachers associations have done in other parts of the nation, New Haven teachers have chosen to make change, to help direct change, to be the change.”

And Joan Devlin, senior associate director in AFT’s educational-issues department, had this to say: “We really worked very hard and very collaboratively to get this done. The contract addresses teacher voice and gives the district the flexibility it needs to make this work.”

Second, there’s a new “turnaround school” model that will be utilized in a handful of schools that have failed for many years to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind act. These schools will function as charter schools. The teachers in them will be unionized, but most of the current contract will be waived, aside from some provisions about teacher absences, layoff policies, and personnel files. The existing grievance process will only apply to these provisions.

Everything else, including teachers’ working hours, the length of the school day, and additional compensation programs, will be set at the school level by the principal and an advisory group of parents, teachers and community leaders.

Now for changes that affect all the schools in the district. Many of these are outlined in the contract, and will be fleshed out by a reform committee formed of administrators, union officials and community members The committee will examine and recommend new ways of measuring student progress. Ms. Devlin said this committee will consider test-score data, in addition to multiple other measures.

Then, using these recommendations, a second committee will devise ways implement that data into new teacher evaluations. The data will also be used to classify schools into three “tiers,” with the board exerting more control in setting the instructional program in the lowest-performing tier of schools.

You can see the AFT’s fingerprints in a few of the new areas. The teacher-evaluation committee, for instance, will work to create a peer-assistance and -review program for struggling veteran teachers. Over the last few years, the union has tried to get more affiliates to institute these programs. (Read more about PAR here).

The district and union will also work out details of a differentiated compensation program to be based on schools’ overall test scores, rather than individual classroom results. Teachers and principals in schools that win the bonuses will have the responsibility for divvying up the money. That structure sounds nearly identical to the program AFT President Randi Weingarten negotiated in New York City with Chancellor Joel Klein.

A few other items of note: Evaluations will differentiate among four levels of teacher performance, rather than the current two. The contract allows schools in higher-performing “tiers” to seek waivers of certain work rules in the contract, with teacher agreement.

A few other media outlets (and apparently Education Secretary Arne Duncan) seem ready to declare this a sign of increasing flexibility from the teachers’ unions, partially in response to the Obama administration’s pressing forward on merit pay and so on. (The new New Unionism?)

But perhaps—as seems likely with the NEA’s recent promise to encourage locals to waive some elements of contracts, and with AFT’s Innovation Fund—the proof of real innovation will lie in how these provisions play out and whether they result in higher quality teaching. There is clearly a lot still to be done in New Haven, with all these committees still to meet and hash out details. Devlin acknowledged that much in our conversation.

“We’re really excited, but we know this is just the beginning of the hard work,” she told me.

Still, this is not your mother or father’s teacher contract. It deals with issues that have traditionally made teachers uncomfortable. And I, for one, am excited to see what New Haven comes up with.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.