Seize the moment

Our view: Baltimore City and the teachers union have a historic opportunity to forge a contract that could be a model for school reform efforts across the nation

November 08, 2010

Although the national midterm elections are behind us, Baltimore still faces another crucial vote this month that could have an even greater impact on its immediate future. In a few weeks, Baltimore schoolteachers will again be asked to ratify a landmark union contract that would radically change the way teachers are compensated and put the city at the forefront of school reform efforts nationwide. We urge teachers to embrace this opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of their students and their city.

The agreement abolishes the longtime practice of linking pay to years of employment and replaces it with one that rewards teacher effectiveness in the classroom and growth in student achievement. It would also give union members unprecedented autonomy in structuring their working conditions and instructional programs. But the contract failed to win ratification on its first go 'round last month, in part because of questions about the details of a new four-step career ladder that would allow highly effective teachers to advance rapidly through the system, and misgivings over whether the new evaluation system could be administered fairly.

Those concerns were justified, given that teachers had only a relatively short time to study the new contract before being asked to approve it. A revised version of the agreement that clarifies many of the outstanding issues has been produced, and the school board extended the current contract until the end of this month. That should allow union leaders ample time to thoroughly go over the plan with their members and answer any questions that arise.

One aspect of the new contract poses particularly thorny problems for city negotiators. That involves the provisions regarding the exact method used to evaluate teacher effectiveness in terms of student performance and how much weight it carries in determining teachers' compensation. The state Department of Education is developing guidelines to clarify such matters, but they aren't expected to be issued before the end of the year. In the meantime, the city is basically on its own when it comes to figuring out how to structure the evaluation and pay-for-performance provisions of the contract.

While that uncertainty poses a potential stumbling block, it also represents a historic opportunity for teachers to help shape an evaluation process that is far fairer and more transparent, especially for new teachers lacking tenure.

Last year, for example, 11 percent of city schoolteachers — about 600 people — were evaluated as unsatisfactory. But of those, only 116 faced dismissal, and the vast majority of them were young teachers, who are much easier to weed out than their tenured counterparts. For the rest, there is a complicated process of classroom observations, follow-up evaluations and reassignments depending on whether tenure is a factor and whether the evaluation represents an isolated instance or a pattern of poor performance.

But given the inherently subjective nature of the evaluation process, it's often difficult for teachers to know how they are being judged or what they must do to improve. For that reason, the evaluations in the new contract could be a significant improvement over the current process, since in principle the new system will be based on objective criteria that would give teachers a clearer picture of whether they were doing a good job.

This year the General Assembly passed legislation requiring school districts to make growth in student achievement a "significant" part of teacher evaluations but left the specifics of how that should be done up to the state board and local school districts. Because Baltimore is one of the first jurisdictions to negotiate a teacher contract under the new law, it has become a test case for how such agreements can be put into effect across the state.

City teachers should seize this opportunity to shape a contract that incorporates the new law on the best possible terms for them, without being constrained by whatever the state board or other jurisdictions eventually come up with. If they can forge a workable agreement with the city, Baltimore teachers would become leaders in defining the new law rather than followers on a trail blazed by others.

That seems infinitely preferable to delaying ratification until both sides are obliged to accept whatever guidelines and procedures the state board of education eventually approves. There's no guarantee those rules will turn out to be nearly as good a deal for city teachers as something they came up with themselves.

Granted, spelling out such details involves risks for both sides, but this is a new paradigm for everyone. And doing nothing could be even riskier, given the city likely will have fewer rather than more options the more time passes. Good-faith efforts by both the teachers and the city are needed. Baltimore and its teachers mustn't lose this opportunity to produce an agreement that could be a model for school reform efforts in Maryland and across the nation.

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