Seattle Teachers Approve Tentative Contract With Broad New Evaluation, Hiring Policies

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A tentative contract in Seattle may give teachers there a greater hand in running their schools than any previous agreement involving a big-city school system, both union and school officials say.

In exchange for the power, the agreement calls for teachers to give up seniority rights in hiring, and they will likely face evaluations that are tied to measurable student achievement.

"That piece about student achievement and teacher evaluation, and doing all those things in a collaborative way, I don't think anybody else has got them all together," said Roger A. Erskine, the executive director of the Seattle Education Association.

The Seattle school board was expected to approve the three-year contract this week. Teachers voted 1,038 to 636 in favor of the agreement, which also gives them a 3 percent raise.

Results of the mail-in ballot were released Sept. 9 to the jubilation of union and school officials. A similar contract had been voted down in June.

"Both sides are pretty happy," said Tom Weeks, the director of human resources for the 44,600-student system. The contract represents "the spirit of those teachers who are really committed to changes for better academic achievement."

He praised union leaders as "very courageous."

Innovative Union

The Seattle affiliate of the National Education Association has gained a national reputation for innovation. ("Despite Resistance, NEA's Chase Presses New Unionism," July 9, 1997.)

It has won praise for shifting the tone of contract negotiations from confrontation to collaboration, and for its emphasis on school improvement. But the new direction has also raised fears among some in the rank and file that union leaders have abandoned their traditional mission of protecting their members.

Union and school officials said the contract is the fruit of the new approach and pursues the aim of decentralizing the school system.

In addition to guaranteeing teachers a say in their schools' budgets, academic direction, staff development, and hiring, the contract provides four workdays each school year just for such duties. The time was subtracted from the student year, which has now dropped to 176 days.

Under the agreement, a committee of teachers at each school would screen applicants for job openings in the spring, naming three top candidates. The principals would then choose among those candidates. Previously, spring job openings were filled based on seniority in the system as long as there were teachers seeking transfers.

Mr. Erskine and Mr. Weeks agreed that was a bad system that encouraged manipulation by principals who wanted to avoid hiring certain teachers and left many jobs vacant until August or even September.

The contract also calls for a new teacher-evaluation system that emphasizes agreements between teachers and principals. Teachers with satisfactory records would set their own professional goals, including being able to show that their students are making academic progress.

Meanwhile, a joint union-district committee will work on a system to fairly tie teacher evaluation to some aspect of student performance, the tentative contract states. If the committee fails to come up with one, the new contract calls for an arbitrator to propose a solution.

"What's gutsy about this is going to arbitration," Mr. Erskine said.

But a loosely organized group of teachers who fought the tentative contract said it should clearly spell out the way in which student achievement will be tied to teacher evaluation.

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