School & District Management

Teacher Contract Called Potential Model for Nation

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 21, 2009 3 min read
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A teacher contract approved in New Haven that lays the groundwork for changes to the way teachers in the Connecticut city are paid, supported, and evaluated, has been hailed by union and district leaders alike—as well as federal education officials—as a potential model for the country.

“This is an incredibly progressive contract,” said Joan Devlin, a senior associate director in the American Federation of Teachers’ educational-issues department. “It addresses teacher voice, and it gives the district the flexibility it needs to make [these reforms] work.”

Ratified by teachers earlier this month, the contract awaits only the approval of the city’s Board of Aldermen. It is set to go into effect in July.

AFT President Randi Weingarten called the pact a template that could be replicated elsewhere. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, meanwhile, praised the union for agreeing to address changes to areas that have been traditionally sensitive for teachers.

Officials from both the union and district said an unusual bargaining model in which reform issues were discussed apart from bread-and-butter ones helped get the pact finalized before a tight deadline under the state’s collective bargaining law sent it into arbitration.

The contract outlines a number of areas that would be settled by two committees of union officials, district representatives, and parents. A reform committee would make recommendations on the best ways to measure student growth. It would consider growth in test scores, as well as other measures of achievement, said Ms. Devlin, who provided help to the New Haven Federation of Teachers during the bargaining process.

Those recommendations would be used by a separate teacher-evaluation committee charged with determining how to weight the student-growth data as part of an overall teacher-evaluation system capable of distinguishing among four levels of performance.

The committees’ work would also take place transparently, with progress reported to the board of education and the public, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said in an interview.

The contract is expected to help move along Mr. DeStefano’s ambitious education reform agenda. A centerpiece of his campaign for this year’s election is closing the achievement gap in six years by addressing teacher effectiveness and overhauling low-performing schools. But those pending changes now bear the union’s fingerprints, too. For instance, as part of teacher evaluations, the parties plan to establish a peer-assistance and -review program for veteran teachers.

Such programs, in which struggling veterans receive assistance from other teachers before facing dismissal, have long been promoted by the AFT.

The New Haven reform committee would also work to create a schoolwide performance-pay program and a career ladder for teachers who take on extra responsibilities. Under the contract terms, the pay program would reward schools whose students made “substantial” progress, and it would charge a committee of teachers and principals in those schools with determining how to divvy up bonus funds.

‘Turnaround’ Schools

Student-growth information would also be used to rank schools, beginning in the 2010-11 school year, into three performance tiers. Tier I and II schools would be allowed to waive certain contract provisions with the approval of teachers and principals in those schools. Schools in Tier III would be subject to greater programmatic intervention by the board of education.

A subset of the Tier III schools, deemed “turnarounds,” would be reconstituted with new leadership and staff. Teachers would have to reapply, and principals would select those to be hired. These schools would also be freed up from most contract provisions and could be operated by third-party management organizations, including charter school operators. Issues such as the length of the day, working hours, and even additional compensation programs would be set by teachers and administrators.

The teachers in turnaround schools would be unionized and retain transfer and layoff rights, but they would be expected to commit to working in the turnaround schools for a minimum of two years.

Mr. DeStefano said that one or two Tier III schools would initially be designated turnarounds.

Much of the contract’s ultimate success appears to lie in the hands of the committees charged with fleshing out the contract language. “We’re really excited, but we know that this is just the beginning of the hard work,” Ms. Devlin said.

“Everyone’s got a lot at stake to find an agreement here,” Mr. DeStefano added. “We don’t want to have the board of education unilaterally implement something.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Teacher Contract Called Potential Model for Nation

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