Accords Designed to Turn Around Troubled Schools

By Vaishali Honawar — June 06, 2007 7 min read
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The school district in Anne Arundel County, Md., this spring entered into what appears to be a unique contract with the local teachers’ union over struggling Annapolis High School: Teachers will work year-round and make a commitment to stay at the school for three years.

Designed by Superintendent Kevin Maxwell to fend off a state takeover, the plan requires all 193 staff members to reapply for their jobs, a strategy he has described as “zero-basing.”

The contract appears to be the first in the nation to focus on a single school and to require such sweeping changes. But it is the latest in a string of agreements designed by districts and unions to turn around failing schools as they struggle to fulfill federal mandates.

In such districts as Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Cleveland, administrators and union officials have worked together on contract provisions or formal agreements designed to help low-performing schools make gains. Many include peer review, extended hours, and increased professional development, and most reward teachers with additional pay or bonuses.

The district-union collaboration to address failing schools is not a surprising development, said union expert Linda Kaboolian. Under the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are threatening to close failing schools, putting districts and their teachers under pressure to raise achievement.

“They are now facing a reality that nobody can duck from,” said Ms. Kaboolian, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and author of the book Win-Win Labor-Management Collaboration in Education. “They have a mutually defined interest created by an outside party, and it is very hard to escape,” she said. “They have to row in the same direction or sink together.”

‘Long on Carrots’

The federal law lays out a timetable for steps to be taken when a school receiving Title I money fails to reach minimum levels of growth specified by a state for two consecutive years. Annapolis High School had failed to make adequate yearly progress for four years.

Teachers had little choice but to accept the changes, said Tim Mennuti, the president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. In addition to the pressure from the federal law, Maryland law allows the superintendent to move teachers around, so long as they find jobs at other district schools.

Creative Collaboration

Districts and unions have forged agreements to try to improve failing schools.


Teachers who agree to teach in a high-poverty school can move together with a group of selected colleagues.

A contract commits the district and teachers to raising the scores of all 3rd graders in the city’s public schools to match those of 3rd graders in the rest of Ohio within three years.

At eight low-performing schools in the Fresh Start program, leadership teams, made up mostly of teachers, come up with five-year plans for the schools.

At 39 schools in the School Improvement Zone, teachers put in additional hours and work an extended school year.


Teachers at one struggling school will work year-round and stay at the school for three years.

National-board teachers are hired on the fourth step of the salary schedule, the equivalent of a $4,700 raise.

Lead teachers and national-board-certified teachers get additional pay to teach in low-performing schools.

With the new contract, he said, the National Education Association affiliate is “attempting to make the best case possible for the school.”

“We negotiated a contract that is long on carrots in order to convince people that they had to commit to teaching for three years,” Mr. Mennuti said, adding that nearly half the teachers have said they will not reapply for their jobs at Annapolis High. Despite the lure of added bonuses, many teachers have long-standing summer jobs that pay more than the bonuses, he explained, while others would prefer to use the time for personal interests, including travel, among other reasons. Teachers who are accepted to work at Annapolis High will get a $2,500 bonus, another $3,000 for each year they stay at the high school, and up to $6,000 over three years for every year the school meets its NCLB targets. It is not clear, however, if curricular or program changes will accompany the staffing changes.

In the past, a number of labor-management collaborations have come out of a handful of large, urban districts, many of whose affiliates are members of the Teachers Union Reform Network of AFT & NEA Locals, which champions such relationships.

Adam Urbanski, the director of TURN, says reforms agreed on by both parties usually have a better chance of succeeding. “The efforts to improve failing schools have not worked out in the past because coercion was part of the formula,” he said.

In other districts, unions have worked with the school administration to staff failing schools, as defined by the NCLB law, with good teachers.

In Rochester, N.Y., where Mr. Urbanski is the president of the local American Federation of Teachers affiliate, the union negotiated for “lead teachers,” who are selected by their peers, to earn an additional $3,000 annually if they choose to teach in a low-performing school. Also, teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who elect to teach at low-performing schools can earn up to $10,000 more each year.

In Cincinnati and Baltimore, too, district and union negotiators have reached bargaining agreements that would help staff schools that are performing below NCLB standards with well-qualified teachers.

And in Cleveland, the teachers’ union in April signed off on a new contract that commits both the district and teachers to raising the scores of 3rd graders in all the city’s public schools, many of which are struggling to meet AYP, to match those of 3rd graders in the rest of Ohio, all within three years.

The district will put in new preschool programs and cap class sizes at 20 students, and teachers will receive more professional development, said Joanne DeMarco, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate.

Despite the rise in partnerships over recent years, labor-management collaboration is not always an easy sell for union leaders. Ms. Kaboolian points out that collaboration makes union leaders “incredibly vulnerable to dissent.” Fear that union officials are pushing members at a different pace than they are willing to go could exacerbate the situation.

“Work like this is hard to do, and can only be done if you have political capital,” she said. “If you haven’t brought home the bacon, it is very hard to talk to people about making changes.”

United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz collaborated with the 340,000-student district on a “school improvement zone” that focused on the 39 lowest-performing schools in the Miami area.

But Ms. Aronowitz later waged a tough fight with some factions within her union, and faced four challengers looking to unseat her in the union’s elections in February. They charged that she had gotten too close to Superintendent Rudy Crew.

Under the plan, initiated in 2005, teachers put in additional hours and work an extended school year, in exchange for increased pay and professional development.

Ms. Aronowitz, who won re-election, said she believes that in an atmosphere of federal mandates, it is more important than ever to get teachers involved in discussing the policies that affect them and their schools.

“The failure to ask the people you are asking to do the work, and the failure to ask for their professional judgment … ends up with failed policy,” she said.

Team Approach

In Chicago, the Fresh Start program, a collaboration between the school district and Chicago Teachers Union, kicked off in 2005 with eight schools that had been placed on probation by the district and had been identified as being in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Five of those schools were slated for restructuring, a step required by the federal law after a school fails to make AYP for five consecutive years. The schools will receive a minimum of $2 million in additional funding over the five years of the program, and teachers will receive extra professional development. While the school day was not extended, and teachers do not receive any additional pay, they do have greater control over decisionmaking because of the creation of leadership teams at each school. The team, made up of the principal, at least three teachers, and a nonteacher member, comes up with a five-year plan for the school and how to finance the plan.

Marilyn Stewart, the president of the CTU, said her local affiliate of the AFT took the lead on the initiative, adding that it has been a success so far because it has been done in an atmosphere of cooperation with the district. Four of the eight schools have already come off probation, she added.

“If there is something good coming out of NCLB, it is more union-management collaboration on student achievement,” Ms. Stewart said.

Rudolph Anderson, the manager of Fresh Start for the 435,000-student Chicago district, said from the district’s perspective, the partnership has been interesting “because it makes the union members take ownership.”

“This is not like the approach where one says, open your mouth and swallow it,” he said. “Instead, we give options, ask them to talk to us. But we don’t hide our differences either.”

Mr. Urbanski of TURN said it would be wrong to assume that if there were no NCLB law, the labor-management collaboration would slow down. Such partnerships, Mr. Urbanski hopes, will help foster “more thoughtful versions of accountability” than the law now provides.

“NCLB gives us a common enemy,” he said. “Districts are just as upset with NCLB as unions are.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week


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