The recently adopted teacher contract for the New Haven public schools district is being lauded by union leaders, federal officials, and district leaders as a potential model for the country. Called “an incredibly progressive contract” by Joan Devlin, a senior associate director in the American Federation of Teachers’ educational-issues department, the agreement tackles a number of sticky issues, including balancing different measures of achievement in teacher evaluations.
In a recent article for Education Week, staff writer Stephen Sawchuk wrote that AFT President Randi Weingarten called the contract a template that could be replicated elsewhere and that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the union for agreeing to address sensitive issues with educators. Sawchuk quoted New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. saying, “The new contract transforms the role that teachers will play in our public schools.”
HR EdVantage spoke with Andrea Lobo-Wadley, director of human resources and labor relations for New Haven Public Schools, by e-mail to learn more about the role of the human resources department in the negotiation process and how other districts can negotiate sticky contracts in the future.
From the position of a human resources director, why do you think teachers are satisfied with the new contract?
I think teachers are happy with the new contract because of the collaborative nature of the work that was done to get to the outcome. Teachers and central office staff understand that everyone is going to be asked to step up. I believe they also understand that what we were doing was not moving at the pace we had hoped and that the teachers had an opportunity to be a part of taking the first steps to work our way from incremental gains to transformative gains with regard to student achievement. I think teachers were very brave and I applaud them for their courage and willingness to try something new.
What role did your human resources department or the central office have in bringing the key points to the table?
Central office staff played a major role in all aspects of the teacher contract negotiation. From our COO to our Assistant Superintendent to our Superintendent, all were at the center of collecting data, presenting ideas, and working alongside the AFT representatives to achieve our outcome. The human resource staff is playing a key role at this time in crafting and implementing the actions that need to be taken to bring the contract to life, including staffing the committees that were developed in the contract.
Many teachers are concerned with Secretary Arne Duncan’s push for performance evaluations tied to student test scores. How did your district reach an agreement with the union for the evaluation process?
I think it all started with our approach to the negotiations. We began the process by agreeing on a set of common beliefs. At the center of those beliefs was the common understanding that all students can achieve. Once we were both clearly on the same side and wanting the same things for the students, we were able to transition our thinking about the act of teaching from an industrial concept to a more professional concept. With that shift we were able to agree on the architecture of how teacher evaluations will be done going forward. Evaluations will include measures of student performance. But they will also include differential rating scales and in some circumstances peer input. Lastly, evaluations will be timely, fair, and consequential.
When negotiating contracts, what can districts do differently to reach the best possible agreement for all sides?
I think the approach we employed was very important to our success. One important step we took was to create what we called a “joint beliefs statement” that both sides created together and both signed. This document declared our joint focus on student achievement, collaboration, and professionalism. When there were fits and starts in the negotiation about where we wanted to go and how to get there, we would refer back to the statement to help us keep moving forward. This helped AFT realize that we were serious about collaboration and doing something different. We also brought state and national AFT representation to the table. This was another indicator that we were willing to listen to ideas and points of view from all sides with a collaborate intent. Finally, we used a facilitator to help keep our conversations on track.
How do you see the role of human resources changing as a result of this new contract?
With this new teacher’s contract and the reform efforts underway, human resources will play a key role in supporting the district with its reform efforts. Much of the work will be talent focused and student centered. We are playing a key role in creating and implementing new hiring methods and policies that will enable us to attract and retain highly qualified administrators, teachers, and staff. We are looking at new ways of finding these qualified employees and letting them know about us. We will also be at the center of the efforts to evaluate teachers and staff, to help them improve when needed, and ultimately let them go when they do not perform effectively.