Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Charters and the Contract Conversation

By Diana Lam — January 19, 2010 4 min read

What happens when teachers and management have the opportunity to create a contract from scratch? At my school, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, we recently had that opportunity, and discovered what is possible when there is a shared school mission and no previous binding agreements. We had the chance to start fresh.

Our groundbreaking contract, including performance-based pay, was possible precisely because we are a charter school.

Though charters were intended to be laboratories for innovation and research, too many district educators view them as the enemy. Yet, having served as a superintendent for two large urban school systems—in Providence, R.I., and in San Antonio—I can say that I have never viewed charters as the foe. In fact, in 1995, I proposed the creation in San Antonio of a charter district, in collaboration with nearby Trinity University, that would operate within our larger school district.

My work as a superintendent also gave me experience with union negotiations. But my conversations during those deliberations were far different from the ones I participated in recently. The previous exchanges had been weighed down by lengthy, long-standing contracts that were fundamentally adversarial. At Conservatory Lab School, not only was “everything on the table,” but we knew we had a responsibility to be particularly thoughtful as we constructed a totally new table at which all parties would be seated.

The flexible, creative approach taken by both teachers and management was consistent with the culture and values of good charter schools. Our purpose—improving student achievement and teaching quality—was our foremost consideration. We wanted to get it right, not only for ourselves, but also as a demonstration for others of one path of possibility.

The group of teachers on the negotiating team was not interested in tenure, but rather in meaningful ways to collaborate and participate in decisionmaking. Our management team viewed teaching with respect—as a profession. Both sides agreed philosophically that the key indicator by which professionals gain respect must be the quality of teaching. And this was reflected in the contract we crafted.

Sick leave, for example, has historically been seen as an entitlement. We all recognize that teachers get sick, and we expect them to stay home and get well. But our contract goes further. It moves the tabulation of sick days to an honor system, which demonstrates both trust and a recognition of our employees’ judgment and dedication to their work.

Similar reasoning guided our discussions on compensation. Like many other administrators, I’ve faced the temptation to tie compensation to test scores. On the face of it, that path may seem easy, even fair. No one disputes that standardized-test scores are an important measure of student achievement. But how could using them to determine pay be done fairly and universally? How does the physical education teacher contribute to the mathematics test score? What about the mentor who volunteers to help others?

Instead of taking that route, our contract creates a professional-development committee charged with designing a rubric for three levels of teaching: Level 1—beginning, emerging, or applying; Level 2—integrating; and Level 3—innovating. After two years, a beginning teacher in the “applying” stage who is not able to demonstrate mastery at the next level would not have his or her contract renewed.

The levels were drawn from the pioneering work of the New Teacher Center, in Santa Cruz, Calif. We agreed to articulate guiding principles for evaluation of staff members and professional growth. The teacher levels and corresponding compensation reflect a continuum of adult learning, mastery, and growth.

The cycle of observing, studying, questioning, practicing, and reflecting on good teaching is what we expect our teachers to internalize. The professional-development committee’s meetings are open to every teacher. A marked advantage of a small school is that we have no reason to limit participation. No staff member signs in or signs out. Again, we view teachers as professionals.

Our contract redefines merit pay, because we have tied compensation neither to standardized-test scores nor to longevity or educational coursework (as is the case in every other teaching contract in our state). This is a significant and, in my view, a brave step forward by the school’s teachers and board.

Any new idea or approach needs a pilot run before wide adoption. We believe that we are breaking new ground, and we are excited by the prospect of developing collaboratively a rubric for the three teaching levels. Consistent with best business practice, we also recognize that evaluation is most productive when it is ongoing, rather than one-shot.

The point of all our work is to ensure high student achievement, including in the 21st-century skills of communication and collaboration that are not necessarily measured by standardized tests. We know we must close achievement gaps by raising the quality of teaching in each classroom.

There are some who view teaching as something anyone can do, and others who see compensation for teachers as a matter of seat time. Clearly, we subscribe to neither view. As we undertake implementation of this contract, we are committed to learning from our experience, and to sharing the lessons we learn with others.

There is a risk in going first, but someone has to do it. We are determined to match the challenge for the sake of closing the many gaps in student achievement that exist now in public education.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Charters and the Contract Conversation

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