NY Daily News Op-Ed: Holes in Bill's big deal

NY Daily News // May 4, 2014

The following op-ed was written by StudentsFirst founder and CEO Michelle Rhee and was published in the New York Daily News on Sunday, May 4, 2014.

Few things do more to shape the course of public education in a city than a new teachers' contract. The negotiations gave Mayor de Blasio an extraordinary opportunity to make dramatic improvements for New York's students.

But instead of using this process to deliver on the soaring rhetoric of his campaign to reunite what he's called a "tale of two cities," he gave in to his friends in the United Federation of Teachers and cut a deal this week that falls far short of that promise.

Much has been made of how long the teachers union has worked without a contract agreement. Of course, the reason the UFT went so long without a contract was because Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the union to make concessions to improve schools.

The camaraderie among the mayor, senior administration officials and UFT leadership was evident at Thursday's big announcement. Praise flew every which way; UFT boss Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Fariña hugged.

What was not so clear was what, exactly, they had agreed to. Inexplicably, the city focused on the pomp and circumstance of the agreement but has not released its language. This much we know: Mayor de Blasio gave in to the union's demands for sizable raises but got very little in return - no premium sharing of health-care costs, no higher co-pays, no guaranteed dismissals for ineffective teachers who don't even teach full time, no changes to the rigid seniority-based salary schedule, nothing.

For all the talk of a fair deal for students, the union did not make a single meaningful concession.

Make no mistake: I support the generous raises in the new contract agreement. Teachers deserve to be paid like the professionals they are. But rather than use substantial salary increases to drive groundbreaking reform, the de Blasio administration tinkered around the edges, by and large preserving the status quo.

If the mayor had been willing to cause some friction with his union friends, he could have used the new contract to drive reforms that would have enhanced the quality of teaching and had real impact for kids. Yes, it's difficult to stand up to powerful and wealthy special interests, but across the country there are mayors and superintendents showing precisely this type of courage.

For example, in Harrison County, Colo., school officials worked with their teachers union to put in place an "effectiveness and results" pay plan that uses educators' classroom performance - rather than simply their seniority - to make school placement decisions and salary increase determinations.

In Cleveland, Oh., public school leaders did away with the outmoded salary scale that gives raises based on only on tenure and college coursework and replaced it with a more modern system that gives raises based on performance and specialized qualifications. The Cleveland contract also changes how layoffs and recalls are handled, with performance and qualifications taking precedence over seniority.

In Washington, D.C., where I was chancellor, IMPACT teacher evaluations are among the strongest in the country and have helped that school district go from the worst urban district in the country to the one making the biggest gains in student achievement.

In Newark and Hillsborough, N.J., teachers receiving an "unsatisfactory" or "needs improvement" rating will not be eligible for salary increases for the next school year or for any pay raise until they receive an overall satisfactory evaluation.

San Jose also chose to deny automatic raises to unsatisfactory performers.

The contract governing educators in a group of schools run by Green Dot, in Los Angeles, calls for teachers to devote the necessary time and effort to fulfill their professional obligations. Though high-performing teachers typically work long, unpredictable hours, traditional teacher contracts both set strict limits on hours and are extremely prescriptive about what responsibilities can be assigned within those limited work days.

This civil-service approach leads to significant negative outcomes, from parents having two-minute conferences with teachers, to new teachers being told not to work late because it will make veterans look bad. Green Dot's simple language has helped transform the culture of teaching at these schools.

Each of these gains in the contract happened with unions and districts working collaboratively.

These are just some of the ideas that could have been replicated in New York City to benefit students. And a nine-year agreement with generous salary increases would have been the exact right mechanism to do it.

Despite this missed opportunity, there are some elements of the deal here that have the potential to be positive, if implemented correctly by the de Blasio administration. For one, it appears that the city did not give in to the UFT's demand to place the 1,200 ineffective teachers currently in the absent teacher reserve (ATR) back into classrooms against a principal's will. There had been considerable pressure from education reform groups, including StudentsFirstNY, to deny that disastrous demand.

From what has been outlined in press releases, there will be a system put in place for dismissing ineffective teachers from the ATR pool who are unable to do their jobs. But it's impossible for parents and the public to know whether it has a reasonable chance to succeed, because the exact details remain to be seen.

And unfortunately, the final termination decision is outsourced to arbitrators - who, historically, have rarely dismissed ineffective teachers. So while this seems like a promising development, it may result in little real change.

There were also signs that de Blasio sees value in adopting some core concepts of the education reform movement. He is attempting to replicate the success of charter schools by freeing up to 200 district schools from the straitjackets of the union contract and city bureaucracy. He also sees the value in rewarding high-performing teachers and creating opportunities for career growth.

But it remains to be seen just how much autonomy school principals in the more autonomous "laboratory schools" will really have and which provisions of the teachers' contract a school can really choose to ignore.

There are many more questions about the new deal that burn to be answered. One of those questions is about so-called "hard to staff" schools. The agreement apparently will reward every teacher currently in one of these schools with a $5,000 bonus if they agree to remain teaching there - regardless of how effective they are.

For great teachers, that makes sense, but for ones who are sub-par, it's an incentive to stay that way. Why not factor in how well students in those teachers' classrooms are achieving?

Another unanswered question is whether this contract does anything of consequence to attract high-quality individuals into the classroom, reward great teachers and retain the best teachers. The city could have made a strong statement about the value of high-quality educators, but instead chose to keep in place a "step and lane" system that awards salary increases for years spent on the job and graduate degrees earned, even though research clearly shows that degrees have no impact on outcomes for children.

Finally, it's incredibly disappointing to see that the amount of instructional time in the school day will be reduced by 37.5 minutes. Bloomberg won this time, during which struggling students received focused attention, in an earlier negotiation.

Now, it's gone - to make way for professional development and parent engagement. Those objectives are extremely important, but the national trend has been to extend instructional time, not reduce it. How will the city ensure that students that additional time and attention get it? Will principals have the flexibility to assign teachers to tutor them if, for example, teachers' block of parental engagement time isn't filled?

Anything as significant and complex as a teachers' contract needs to be closely scrutinized. Broad principles don't matter; exact language does. That's why it is very troubling that the administration has not shared the actual language in the agreement, only the broad outline of it, thus depriving the public of the opportunity to assess for itself whether or not the deal is truly good for kids and for the city.

Parents in New York City deserve more than spin.

Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, is founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.