Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Contract Hinders N.Y.C. Principals, Report Says

By Caroline Hendrie — June 23, 1999 3 min read

New York City’s book-length teacher contract is snarling principals in red tape, compromising their ability to lead their schools in an age of increasing accountability, a report by a university scholar argues.

The study by Dale Ballou, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, points to a series of provisions in the 204-page contract that he suggests are holding schools back. Among them are seniority rules and other constraints on hiring decisions; grievance procedures influencing teacher evaluation and discipline; and work rules governing job assignments.

For More Information

The report, “The New York City Teachers’ Union Contract: Shackling Principals’ Leadership” is available online at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_6.htm.

Such constraints are particularly worrisome at a time when city school leaders are pressing to end tenure for principals as a means of holding them more accountable for student performance, Mr. Ballou’s report says. The principals’ union and district officials have been at loggerheads over that issue for months as they have unsuccessfully tried to agree on a new contract.

“Current efforts to hold administrators responsible for educational outcomes will fail to achieve the intended results if administrators are not given more authority over critical personnel decisions,” argues Mr. Ballou, who has been critical of teachers’ unions in the past. As matters stand, he says, “the contract perpetuates a situation in which authority is divided, lines of responsibility are unclear, and reforms can be stalemated as various interest groups check one another.”

Leaders of the city’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate last week portrayed both Mr. Ballou’s research methods and his conclusions as one-sided.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, contended that the researcher had overlooked or mischaracterized contract provisions that enhanced principals’ flexibility. She also accused him of interviewing an unrepresentative sample of principals as part of his study. Those unnamed administrators appeared to hold “a top-down, factory-model view of education,” she said.

“Basically, you have principals here who don’t know how to lead and manage, and instead of managing a staff to get the best out of them, they just want to blame the contract,” Ms. Weingarten said last week.

Impeding Improvement?

Mr. Ballou suggested that the union’s real complaint was with his topic: whether the contract impedes school improvement. “There are going to be people who are going to think it was a hatchet job no matter what I say,” he said.

The report concludes that various contract provisions stymie principals’ ability to remove poorly performing teachers, to pick the best people for various supplemental tasks, and to promote teamwork within the staff to meet student needs.

Among the contract’s biggest drawbacks, the report concludes, are the limitations it imposes on principals’ latitude in selecting staff members. The contract, which was ratified in 1996 and is set to expire in the fall of 2000, directs that half a school’s vacancies be reserved for transfers, chosen by seniority, with the other half filled by the principal.

That system allows “ineffective teachers [to be] passed from school to school,” the report asserts. "[I]t takes only one or two of these teachers to poison the atmosphere in an entire school.”

Staffing Method Questioned

Mr. Ballou also contends that an alternative, “school-based option” for filling staff vacancies, put in place under the current contract, has proved disappointing. That method allows all hiring decisions to be made by school-based personnel committees, a majority of whose members are chosen by the school’s union representative.

The report says the alternative method actually diminishes a principal’s say in hiring, has sometimes proved too time-consuming, and has led to burnout among committee members.

The study was released this month under the auspices of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Ms. Weingarten complained that the 11 principals Mr. Ballou interviewed had been “handpicked” by the institute, which she called hostile to the union. Mr. Ballou said it was the Center for Educational Innovation, which recently spun off from the Manhattan Institute, that found principals who were willing to talk with him.

In the report, he says the principals shared an “activist” bent and therefore were not necessarily representative of those systemwide.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Contract Hinders N.Y.C. Principals, Report Says

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