School & District Management

Few Teacher Pacts in Largest Districts Seen as Overly Flexible or Restrictive

Study finds many offer maneuverability for school management.
By Bess Keller — February 14, 2008 4 min read
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Just five of the teacher contracts in the nation’s largest school districts grant school leaders the kind of flexibility they need to run schools well, but two-thirds of the rest do not obviously hamstring administrators with rules applying to teachers, according to a report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In the paper, Frederick M. Hess and Coby Loup examine the contracts—forged with unions or set mainly through school board policies—in the 50 largest districts, rating them on a scale that ranges from “highly flexible” to “highly restrictive.” It found that 15 of the districts, including New York City, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and San Diego, had teacher contracts that were either “restrictive” or highly so in matters such as how much the jobs of veteran teachers are protected and whether mathematics and science teachers can be paid more than other teachers.

The five districts at the high end of the scale, all in states that prohibit collective bargaining in education, are: Guilford County, N.C.; Austin, Dallas, Northside, and San Antonio, all in Texas; and Fairfax County, Va.

None of the 50 agreements offered enough flexibility to earn the “highly flexible” label. The researchers dug into the rules in the categories of teachers’ pay, personnel decisions, and day-to-day activities.

Minority Students Affected?

The most striking finding, according to Mr. Hess and Mr. Loup, may have to do with the 30 districts in the middle, which the researchers find neither very restrictive nor very flexible. Such contracts are typically silent or vague on many matters affecting teachers. In that category, they placed the teacher labor agreements in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Wake County, N.C.

“There seems to be a lot more latitude for the managerial side of school leadership than previously thought,” said Mr. Loup, a policy analyst at the Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates market-based reforms in education and is a frequent critic of teachers’ unions.

Unions are frequently the ones blamed for contracts that tie leaders’ hands in unproductive ways, he continued, yet the responsibility is broader. Not only do school leaders sign off on collective bargaining agreements, anecdotal evidence suggests that administrators often don’t venture beyond tradition even when there is no prohibition on it.

“There should be some fairly thick-skinned, hard-knuckled principals out there willing to grab that authority and try some experiments,” Mr. Loup said.

The authors argue that too often the agreements are artifacts of industrial-era thinking, which has long since been discarded by most manufacturers and many other businesses because it hindered problem-solving.

Mr. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mr. Loup also found that districts with high concentrations of poor and minority students tend to have more restrictive contracts than other districts, with nearly 10 percent of the nation’s African-American students in school systems with the lowest flexibility ratings.

The authors note that the problem for minority students might be greater than the 50 contracts show because the collection of the largest districts skews toward the South. There, teachers’ unions are weakest, and teacher agreements on average less restrictive.

The authors highlight contract work rules as even more restrictive, in general, than the policies governing how teachers are paid, hired, fired, or assigned. For instance, slightly more than half the agreements mandate that teachers be paid extra for training that takes place outside the workday, including conferences, they said.

Mr. Hess and Mr. Loup’s study was made possible by a searchable database of teacher agreements unveiled last year by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality. (“Online Teacher-Contract Database Launched,” Jan. 10, 2007.)

The authors acknowledge that using the database has a tradeoff in currency: At least 18 new teacher contracts have been forged since the Web site opened.

Union Views

Responding to the report, union advocates said that, at the least, the study underplays the critical contribution that union-organized teachers make to protecting schools from bad principals and bad programs.

“Collective bargaining … helps schools ride through rough times,” argued Howard Nelson, the lead researcher at the American Federation of Teachers. “We say publicly that the best schools have strong school leaders and strong [union] representatives. … When they are cooperating, that’s the ideal.”

Bill Raabe, the director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, said the report serves as a diversion from more important matters.

“Placing blame on labor agreements for poor student achievement based on surface analysis is dangerous and shortsighted,” he said in a statement. “It distracts us from addressing the real issues that these schools are dealing with—such as not having the infrastructure, learning materials, and technology they need to provide each child with the quality public school education he or she deserves.”

Joanne DeMarco, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, called the report “another chapter in teacher-bashing and union-bashing.” The Cleveland contract was rated the second most restrictive of the 50 contracts studied for the report.

Ms. DeMarco said the information in the study is outdated because Cleveland implemented a new contract last year. That pact includes a new locally and federally financed program, for instance, that would reward teachers and other staff members at a school for growth in student performance and attendance, she said.

“We are flexible and pro-reform, and we have shown that with the new contract,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week

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