A New Contract, A New Beginning
The other day the largest teacher union in the nation (New York City’s United Federation of Teachers) and the New York City Department of Education reached a ground breaking agreement on a new contract. Subject to approval by union members, this agreement should explode many of the myths that corporate education reformers like to spread about teacher unions. It shows that in an environment of trust and respect unions and districts can come together and agree on innovations that make sense for students. These innovations are not driven by the unimaginative test-based accountability metrics and privatization schemes that corporate reformers espouse and are now being imposed on the community and students in nearby Newark. Rather, they are founded on principles of mutual learning, collaboration, and support.
First let’s take a look at the history.
New York City’s teachers have been working without a contract for five years. There was no agreement because Mayor Bloomberg insisted that in any new contract “schools identified as being at risk of phase out or closure” be forced to follow “a modified, scaled down version of [the] collective bargaining agreement.” This ignored the fact that it was Bloomberg’s own policies, such as deliberately overloading specific schools with the most challenging students, which created these so-called failing schools. Bloomberg wanted to modify the pay scale so that teachers with high value-added scores would receive additional pay. This, despite all the research showing that such metrics are not valid. At the same time Bloomberg insisted that teachers not get raises that, at a minimum, kept up with the rate of inflation. Bloomberg demanded that any teachers who lost their positions due to declining school budgets or closure be fired after 4 months if they did not find another permanent position (they were, of course, used to fill temporary teaching positions and were working with students every single day). Again he ignored the fact that more experienced educators were over-represented in this pool, due to his policy of charging schools for the actual salaries of teachers rather than the district average. This meant that schools were incentivized not to hire experienced educators. Research in other districts has already shown that this approach does not help students and must therefore be chalked-up to pure ideology rather than an interest in improving public education.
What changed? Carmen Farina, the new Chancellor, is a true educator, having taught for 22 years before becoming a principal, then a superintendent, and then deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. Bill DeBlasio, the new mayor, praises public servants for their dedication to public service. Together with the UFT leadership they were able to come to agreement on a genuinely innovative set of ideas.
First they addressed the bread and butter issues. Teachers will receive raises that slightly exceed the rate of inflation over the past 5 years and will receive additional raises, including back pay, going forward. These raises and payments will be spread out across a number of years, which will ease the impact on the city budget and allow city social programs to access funding after being squeezed for many years. Teachers will continue to receive free health insurance which, in an environment of continuously increasing healthcare costs, represents an additional and significant raise. At the same time the city and the union agreed on over a billion dollars in savings through more efficient provision and management of the health insurance programs.
Then they agreed to build cultures of collaboration and learning in schools. Schools will be permitted to modify the contract to meet the individualized needs of their school with the agreement of 65% of the faculty. Teachers who take on leadership roles by sharing their expertise with colleagues, coaching colleagues, spreading best practices in their schools, and opening up their classrooms as learning labs will be eligible for career ladder bonuses. None of this will happen in a top-down manner.
They agreed to move away from an overemphasis on test-prep by ending the 150 weekly minutes of small group test-prep sessions. They repurposed that time to create structures for professional development and parent engagement that will support genuine teaching and learning. This includes adding parent-teacher conference days, adding weekly professional development and collaboration time for faculty, and adding time for weekly parent outreach.
They also agreed that teachers would not be evaluated based on the test scores of students they don’t teach. That this was even a possibility is one of the absurd outcomes of the corporate reformer obsession with putting a number to everything, even when that number clearly makes no sense.
They agreed that teachers will hold each other accountable to the highest standards of the profession. This includes teachers serving as peer-observers and validators for colleagues who received poor ratings the year prior.
They agreed to ease out the small number of teachers who are not suited to the profession. This includes an expedited firing process for teachers who are unable to find permanent positions (despite being given the opportunity to teach at schools with openings and their salaries being paid independently of the school’s budget) and who have been released from two schools for documented unprofessional behaviors.
Importantly the New York City Department of Education committed to providing curricula to all teachers. Under the former management, when the headquarters building was populated by data analysts with no expertise in education, such a promise would have been impossible to fulfill. This foreshadows a return of educators to the central offices who can support teachers and schools, appointed to positions of influence.
This agreement will help turn the page on the corporate-reformer playbook. For all their money, and powerful lobbying groups, and media influence, it will be hard to argue now that top-down mandates, teacher bashing, and test-driven accountability is the way to innovate in education. Districts such as Cincinnati, Ohio, Union City, New Jersey, and Meriden, Connecticut have already shown that collaboration and educator-driven change create the innovations that lead to better student learning. With this agreement, New York City has joined this group of dynamic innovators.