Teaching Profession

Analysis Questions Inflexibility of Contracts

By Bess Keller — January 16, 2007 4 min read
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Many school districts could lavish a fifth or more of their current budgets on measures to raise student achievement if they axed spending on teachers’ contract provisions that do little good in that area, argues a report unveiled last week by the think tank Education Sector.

Among the provisions that researcher Marguerite Roza contends “have a weak or inconsistent relationship with student learning” are such common arrangements as teacher salary increases based on years of experience and advanced degrees, days set aside for professional development, extra teachers’ aides, class-size limits, and generous sick leave, health benefits, and pensions.

The report, “Frozen Assets: Rethinking Teacher Contracts Could Free Billions for School Reform,” is available from Education Sector.

If the deals for teachers did not include any of those perks, Ms. Roza of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Schools calculated, the nation’s public schools would have about an extra $77 billion a year to spend.

The researcher said she got interested in the topic working with school district officials trying to figure out how to use their money more strategically.

“They’d often point to the labor contract as a barrier because they had kind of written it off” as money already spent, she said in an interview. It’s not a question of saving the money, Ms. Roza explained, but of spending it “differently with greater effect.”

For example, raises for job longevity and generous health insurance could be traded in for better salaries to attract high-quality beginners, the report says. Or smaller class sizes and some classroom aides might be sacrificed to hire teachers for after-school tutoring.

Many schools, particularly those serving poor children, likely require significantly more money to improve achievement, and in many cases, it would have to come mostly from the existing budget, Ms. Roza added.

Others are also calling for new compensation and accountability systems for teachers. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce last month laid out a plan that would radically overhaul pay, pensions, and health benefits for teachers, among other changes. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Benefit Reductions

In Ms. Roza’s view, by far the largest chunk of questionable spending in teachers’ contracts is salary increases for years of experience, which she estimates at an average of slightly more than 10 percent of district budgets. The Education Sector report points to research showing that teachers typically improve through the first five years of their careers, plateau, and then get worse as they approach retirement, even though some newbies are better than veterans. Salary schedules might be restructured accordingly, the study suggests, with higher starting salaries and raises for effectiveness rather than years on the job.

Terms of Engagement

In her analysis of teacher contracts, Marguerite Roza calculated that nearly a fifth of school districts’ budgets are tied up on fixed provisions.

Contract ProvisionsCost as a percent of school budgets
Salary increases based on years of experience10.01%
Salary increases based on education credentials and experience2.10
School days set aside for paid professional development1.02
Above-average paid sick and personal days1.02
Class-size limitations2.26
Mandatory use of teachers’ aides.89
Above-average health and insurance benefits.9
Above-average retirement benefits.87
TOTAL18.95%

SOURCE: Education Sector

Other contract provisions award teachers better benefits than private-sector professionals’, including more sick- and personal-leave days, better health insurance, and more generous pensions, according to the report. The leave policies serve as an incentive for teachers to take days off, and the pensions have left many districts with a disproportionate number of senior teachers, Ms. Roza said.

These negative effects, the report says, could be countered by cutting the number of sick days to about three per school year—comparable to what other professionals get—and by reducing retirement benefits but making them more portable so as to attract talented, newer teachers.

Ms. Roza, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Education Sector, took pains to avoid being labeled anti-teacher, pointing out that contract provisions are the work of administrators as well as teachers’ unions. Also, she argued that many teachers would benefit from changes that enhance the quality of schools.

‘Misguided’ Analysis?

But leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions said they saw virtually nothing in the report to benefit teachers or students.

Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted the study for what she says is shoddy research and “misguided” analysis. “Schools can only be improved if educators, district officials, and politicians work together to develop real solutions instead of making unions scapegoats,” she said in a statement.

Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, said in a statement: “It saddens me that someone would suggest that increasing class sizes, firing education-support professionals to raise starting teacher salaries, reducing salaries significantly for experienced teachers, and slashing educators’ health benefits and pensions will improve the public education system.”

Others saw the proposal as, at best, pie in the sky.

“Cost structures in any public or private sector [institution] have not developed historically as a matter of pure efficiency or effectiveness,” Gary Sykes, a professor of educational administration and teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, wrote in an e-mail. “Rather, they reflect a wide range of historical developments that have gradually become institutionalized in particular arrangements. To undo this in accordance with some ‘reform’ idea is highly unlikely,” he said, because of the interests and routines that have formed the arrangements.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Analysis Questions Inflexibility of Contracts

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