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AFT Cites Hiring Policies as Hitches in School Staffing

By Vaishali Honawar — July 12, 2007 3 min read

Teachers’ unions are often criticized as standing in the way of school progress on the grounds that their contracts make it harder for districts to staff troubled schools with the most suitable teachers.

But in a in a report released today , the American Federation of Teachers calls on districts—along with the unions—to review their own hiring and placement practices as possible reasons for the delays in finding the best teachers for hard-to-staff schools.

“There’s an assumption that unions are the ones bringing the timeline [during the collective bargaining process], but actually it may be the school district that brings the timeline, and the union maybe just agrees with it,” said Richelle Patterson, an assistant director of educational issues with the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union.

Districts and union locals together should take a closer look at notification and assignment policies and candidate-screening tools, among other measures, to see if changes are needed, she added.

In recent years, debate has intensified around the role collective bargaining contracts can sometimes play in delaying teacher recruitment at challenging schools. A much-publicized 2003 report from the New York City-based New Teacher Project said hard-to-staff districts lose opportunities to hire strong teacher-candidates because of holdups caused or worsened by policies requiring schools to hire all transfers before making new job offers.

The Bush administration this year included a provision in its reauthorization blueprint for the No Child Left Behind Act that would allow district officials to override contracts while staffing the most troubled schools. (“Administration Wants Districts Free to Transfer Teachers,” March 21, 2007.)

The AFT report, released at the 1.3 million-member union’s biennial QuEST conference in Washington, identifies a number of problems that cause teachers to shy away from some schools, including student-discipline issues, lack of on-site support, poor administrative leadership, inadequate, ongoing professional development, and insufficient preparation and planning time. It recommends that unions and districts work together to address the problems.

Teachers, the report says, are attracted to, and are most likely to remain in, safe schools with supportive administrators where teachers have influence over school decisions and programs, and where they have opportunities to develop professionally.

Ongoing Support Crucial

The report highlights a mix of strategies that locals and districts can work on together, including examples of districts that have successfully implemented them. For example, in Toledo, Ohio, the district and the union worked together to start a program in which three teachers who are specialists in behavior management are available to respond to student referrals from classroom teachers. The Chattanooga, Tenn., district offers its teachers incentives to teach in its lowest-performing schools, including free tuition toward a master’s degree in urban education.

Maximizing targeted professional-development opportunities for teachers, smoothing the transfer of the most accomplished teachers to hard-to-staff schools, and giving teachers strategies to deal with instructional challenges are among other recommendations.

“There are some places that don’t think about hard-to-staff schools; they don’t think these are issues of concern that need to be addressed,” Ms. Patterson said. “We hope this will start a conversation where there hasn’t been one before.”

Experts who have studied teacher recruitment and retention in challenging schools agree that im-proving conditions at such sites is critical.

Eric Hirsch, a consultant with the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit group based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that provides support to new teachers and principals, had not seen the AFT report at the time of the interview. But he echoed some of the problems the report cites, such as lack of community support, weak school leadership, and discipline problems, that cause teachers to leave or avoid such schools.

Mr. Hirsch, who worked for the Center for Teaching Quality, in Chapel Hill, N.C., until last month, said a survey his former group did in Mobile,Ala., found that salary and signing bonuses are important to lure teachers to hard-to-staff schools, but that teachers are looking more for supportive leadership, collaborative colleagues, and professional development.

Induction, he said, is also extremely important, “so we don’t continually throw educators in school and watch them leave because they are unprepared.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week

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