Our Students Deserve a 'Transformational' Teachers Union Contract, and So Do Our Teachers!

Feb 26, 2018 12:00:00 AM


A transformational contract. These three words are music to my ears. They were uttered recently by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and if I had been in the room when he said them, I might have just knocked him over with a big bear hug. I should point out, he only mentioned them because he was being shouted down by members of the Providence Teachers Union throughout the entirety of his State of the City address. I agree Providence teachers have every right to be frustrated—angry, even—about building conditions and salaries, but the disruption was in poor taste and is ultimately unhelpful to their cause. However, it did prompt Elorza to say the city needs “a transformational contract” with the union. And he is right. The students and staff in Providence would be so much better served by a contract that is, in fact, transformative. The problem is that the concept is too vague when it is mentioned without any details. It got me thinking about what a transformational contract could—and should—look like not only in Providence, but more broadly as cities struggle to make school work better for their students and their staff.

The Question

So, what would a contract need to include to truly be transformational? Brevity. It should not be more than 10 pages. The current one in Providence is 73 pages. These contracts that look more like novels and even encyclopedias in some places are a problem because they stifle talent, smart policy and flexibility. They are literally an albatross around the neck of everyone who wants to disrupt the status quo or even push for small changes in how we “do school,” and that includes the rank-and-file teachers who deserve to lead or move into a different role but can't because someone less talented or qualified but more senior gets first dibs. [pullquote position="right"]We don't serve kids when we make it impossible for the best person for the job to be in front of the students who need them.[/pullquote] Hiring Authority. There must be more flexibility for principals when it comes to hiring and firing. In fact, they must have total hiring authority. There is a reason why we have building leaders and one of them is because they are charged with making decisions. In the case of a school principal, those decisions are (or should be) driven by what's best for students and that can—and often does—fly in the face of the preferences of other adults in the building. While a senior member of the staff may want to fill a special education opening, a certification in that area does not guarantee that he/she is the right fit for the position and the principal needs to be empowered to put the best person in the position, regardless of their level of seniority. Termination. While it's not a fun topic to discuss, it's an important one because the current process for it does not work for anyone. While reasonable due process (like exists in other government agencies) is an integral part of the equation, so is an independent evaluation and a quick resolution. The idea that it takes many months and sometimes years to terminate a teacher is not only unreasonable, but hugely expensive for districts. In addition, principals, superintendents, attorneys and school board members are forced to expend an exorbitant amount of time in meetings and hearings that cause delays and cost money but do nothing to serve students. Add to that the reality that [pullquote]a typo or the failure to check a box on one out of hundreds of documents can keep an unfit teacher in the classroom[/pullquote] and it's hard to argue that the process is even rational, let alone smart. Not only do the layers and layers of bureaucracy frustrate school leaders and parents, but they also weigh on the other teachers in the building who know that the sooner the situation with the colleague in question is resolved, the sooner the culture of the building can begin to improve. A transformational contract would honor due process, include an independent evaluation and a review of the facts during a half-day hearing, and an almost immediate decision. Flexibility With Length of Day/Year. There is generally a consensus that one size does not fit all in any context and that is certainly true when it comes to schools and kids. We have evidence that chronically underperforming schools can make enormous improvements by moving to a longer school day or what is commonly called ELT (extended learning time). While Providence does not have the money at the moment for such a program, grants can (and have) played an essential role in the success of ELT as nearby as Fall River, Massachusetts. In 2004, Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Massachusetts, was labelled a Level 4 or “chronically underperforming” school, a lowly status that made it the focus of increased oversight and intervention. By 2013, however, Kuss, along with other struggling schools in this high-poverty district, had pushed its ranking all the way to Level 1. Whereas many interventions can impose punitive measures that divide communities, the improvement in student achievement at Kuss has been credited in no small part to longer school days or extended learning time (ELT)—a reform championed by many school officials, educators, parents and community leaders. The most recent contract literally has the exact number of school days and the precise hours of the work day listed for every school in the city and there is zero variety when it comes to the length of the day or year. As it currently stands, extended learning time wouldn't even be possible under the current contract. But with negotiations underway (albeit stalled and contentious at the moment) it would be a great time for Providence to add some flexibility to the schedule, especially since we know that tremendous benefits can come with a longer school day. While it may not happen next year, this change to the contract would leave the door open for creative scheduling ideas that would better serve students and perhaps even teachers as they too could have more flexibility built into the day if the day were longer. Below is an example of what more flexible contract language could look like:
IV. School Day and Year A. Teachers shall devote the necessary time and effort to fulfill their professional obligations. For example, unless formally excused, teachers shall participate in all regular school functions during or outside of the normal school day, including faculty meetings, parent conferences, department meetings, curriculum meetings, graduations and other similar activities. Teachers shall be afforded a duty-free lunch period of at least Y minutes per day and teacher work schedules shall also allow for rest room breaks. Teachers will also be afforded regular preparatory time during their work week. Pursuant to the decision-making process set forth in Article VI below, such preparatory time may include common planning periods and professional development but will not include regularly assigned teaching duties. B. Work year. Teachers will report five (5) days prior to the arrival of students for the beginning of the school year and will work through the fifth work day after the student school year closes to allow for meaningful preparation for and assessment of the school year.
Get Rid of Last in, First Out (aka LIFO). When layoffs are needed in school districts, seniority often drives the decisions about who stays and who goes. That is wrong. We must do everything in our collective power to ensure that we have the best teachers in front of all children. If there are two equally effective and talented and dedicated teachers then sure, keep the one who is more senior. But in the cases where the best teachers—and by best I mean the ones with whom students are learning and growing the most—are not the most senior, they must not be laid off. It is 100 percent antithetical to doing right by kids to maintain a policy that forces excellent educators out of the classroom while keeping mediocre (and even lousy ones) in front of students. And there is a reason why parents in at least five states have sued over this issue of LIFO—it hurts students and values years of service over student outcomes.
12-7 In the event that layoffs are necessary, teachers shall be notified no later than June 1 of the school year immediately preceding the school year in which the layoff is to become effective. Provided, however, that prior to implementing any layoffs resulting in staff reductions, the parties shall agree on the manner and criteria to be utilized in any staff reductions pursuant to layoffs. Consent to the methodology of layoffs shall not be unreasonably withheld. 12-7.1 The parties agree that for the duration of this Agreement, staff reductions shall be made pursuant to seniority within area of certification utilizing the teachers’ probationary date of employment. This provision shall expire and be of no further force and effect as of 11:59:00 p.m. on August 31, 2017. Upon the expiration of this provision but prior to the implementation of any layoffs resulting in staff reductions, the parties shall negotiate and agree upon the manner and criteria to be utilized in any staff reductions pursuant to layoffs. Consent to the methodology of layoffs shall not be unreasonably withheld.
According to the now-expired contract, seniority-driven layoffs ended one minute before midnight on August 31, 2017, but it appears that "no layoffs resulting in staff reductions" can occur until "the parties negotiate and agree upon the manner and criteria to be utilized in any staff reductions pursuant to layoffs." Let's hope that the parties agree that teacher performance—to include student learning and outcomes, cultural competency, collegiality—must drive these difficult decisions. Something more like this:
Layoffs will be done among excessed teachers based on a rubric the District will disseminate at least ninety (90) days prior to the effective date of the layoffs. The rubric will be based on performance information such as evaluation ratings and unexcused teacher absence data, with seniority in license being the determinant where other indicators are equal.
So, Mayor Elorza is correct. A transformational contract is precisely what the students (and staff!) of Providence schools need. It won't be easy—but no matter how hard it is, we can't afford to squander the opportunity to do things differently for Providence students and their teachers. More importantly, if he gets it done, he will be an example to every other city leader and superintendent out there who knows that a shorter, smarter and more flexible contract is needed if teachers are to be empowered and students are to be served well.

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting fellow.

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