A landmark agreement

Our view: Baltimore teachers' ratification of a historic union contract immediately thrusts the city to the forefront of school reform efforts nationwide

November 17, 2010

By a nearly 2 to 1 margin, Baltimore teachers ratified a landmark union contract Wednesday that thrusts the city to the forefront of nationwide school reform efforts. After rejecting a similar proposal last month, teachers came out for a second vote to accept the agreement after union leaders and the city revised the document to reflect educators' concerns about evaluations and pay-for-performance provisions they said hadn't been clearly spelled out in the previous version.

The contract will replace the longtime system linking teacher pay to years of employment and advanced degrees with one that rewards classroom effectiveness and growth in student achievement. Instead of automatic step increases based on seniority, it creates a four-tiered career ladder along which teachers would advance depending on their level of skill and how well their students perform. It also would give teachers more freedom to structure their working conditions and programs.

Though the turnout among teachers Wednesday was comparable to October's vote, the breakdown of yeas and nays was almost the reverse of last time, with supporters outpolling opponents by double-digit margins. Informal interviews conducted afterward suggested that the intensive lobbying conducted by union officials in favor of ratification paid off. At the same time, many of those who voted against the contract during the first round feared the new evaluation system wouldn't be administered fairly, or thought teachers shouldn't be held responsible for poor test scores among children from chaotic family backgrounds. Those voting no gave similar reasons the second time. Meanwhile, teachers who were comfortable overall with the current system were looking to greater career opportunity under the new contract and mostly voted for it.

Given that union officials had put so much effort into informational meetings and other gatherings aimed at allaying members' fears about how the contract would affect them, the ratification vote represented a vindication of their efforts to persuade members that the agreement was in their best interests. Had they lost the vote a second time in a row, it would have represented a stunning repudiation of the union's leadership.

Now that contract talks are behind them, the teachers and city schools CEO Andrés Alonso can move ahead with the next phase of the city's ambitious school reform agenda. On the same day the vote was taken, the school department announced plans to close one chronically underperforming high school and restructure four other schools where student achievement is lagging. The city can now tackle such problems confident that it and the teachers union are all on the same page.

As a result of a state law passed earlier this year, the Maryland Department of Education will soon issue new guidelines regarding teacher evaluations and how much weight student achievement will have on them. Those rules will apply statewide and, thanks to Wednesday's agreement, will already be reflected in the Baltimore City teachers union contract. It's always been our view that the teachers would do better by seizing the opportunity to shape an agreement that deals with evaluations and pay-for-performance issues before, rather than after, the state rules are set in stone. Why follow a trail blazed by others when you can take the lead in addressing such matters, especially since Baltimore's hard-earned gains have already earned it a national reputation for transforming public education?

One way or another, change in the form of tying teacher evaluations to student outcomes and pay-for-performance compensation was bound to come. Resisting it by continuing to reject a contract that could be a model for Maryland and the nation was never a winning strategy and actually could have hurt the city. Far better to adapt to the new paradigm as a leader of reform than play a losing hand by postponing the inevitable.

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