Some Teachers' Contracts Bind Reforms, Study Says

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

A new study says most of the country's 50 largest school systems, including Prince George's County's, have restrictive labor agreements, tying the hands of superintendents who want to pay more to top teachers and transfer them between schools according to need.

Area school systems generally fared well in the survey. But Prince George's County, which the study said bars school leaders from retaining a skilled young teacher over one with greater seniority in the event of layoffs and requires the system to give internal job applicants priority for vacant positions, was ranked 47th and rated "highly restrictive."

The study produced by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a District-based think tank that studies educational policy, added fuel to an ongoing debate over whether there is a need for more management-friendly contracts that allow superintendents to reward skill over seniority as school systems seek to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The study divided the blame between unions and school leaders, saying the former were too bound to industrial-era protections and the latter need to negotiate more aggressively and take advantage of areas in which contract language is murky.

"These findings suggest that tales of victimhood told by superintendents, school boards, and principals may reflect more than a hint of blame shifting and exaggeration," wrote the study's authors, Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Coby Loup of the Fordham Institute. The authors suggested school and district leaders were sometimes "lethargic" or vulnerable to "exertions of union influence."

The report said many of the contracts analyzed either used restrictive language or were silent on such matters as whether a teacher could be paid a higher starting salary for having greater previous experience or whether time to discuss labor issues had to be reserved at faculty meetings.

Fairfax County ranked fourth out of the 50 school systems, earning a "flexible" rating; Anne Arundel County ranked seventh and Montgomery County ranked 10th, earning "somewhat flexible" ratings. But Prince George's, a system with 130,000 students, was ranked near the bottom.

Teachers unions criticized the study's assumptions and methodology and said that many of the changes it called for were already being made.

"You have to take the report with a grain of salt," said Joan Devlin, senior associate director in the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers.

She said many of the questions addressed by the study had little effect on student performance. "They insist for some reason that the district that provides stipends [for professional development] . . . somehow is inflexible and prevents principals from doing their job," Devlin said. "It's just nonsensical."

Brian Edwards, chief of staff for Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, wrote in an e-mail that the report's description of the county's contract was inaccurate on some items. On others, Edwards said, the school system had made agreements with the teachers union outside the contract.

"Overall, the superintendent and the employee associations have an excellent working relationship," he wrote. "The associations have been our partner in every facet of our reforms over the last nine years. Our students are having enormous success, and that is due in large part to the outstanding employees we have in every part of our operation."

John E. Deasy, superintendent of Prince George's public schools, also disagreed with the study's assessment of his county. But he said the general issues raised were "very valid."

Deasy said that he was often able to work out policies the labor contract did not necessarily allow via face-to-face negotiations.

"The report indicates that in general labor agreements constrict and restrict the ability of the administration to make decisions that benefit kids," Deasy said. "I'm sure that's true in some cases. However, I can't say it's true in my local case."

Deasy referred to a plan to pay teachers extra for working at the system's neediest schools. Though similar policies have been opposed in other systems, the Prince George's teachers union has worked with the administration on the plan.

"It's not easy stuff," Deasy said. "The contract doesn't allow it, but we're working to get over it. We're in it together."

Pay-for-performance policies have generated different results in different places. During a panel to discuss the study Wednesday evening, Terry Grier, superintendent in Guilford County, N.C., said his district's pay-for-performance model had been a success.

In 2005, only seven certified secondary-school-level math teachers applied to teach in the Guilford school system, Grier said. The system developed a plan to pay math teachers an extra $11,000 to teach at the county's six toughest schools. The teachers could make $4,000 more if their students made solid academic gains and another $4,000 for attending and doing well at a three-week summer math institute.

In 2006, after the pay program went into effect, the system had 179 applicants, Grier said.

Fairfax County experimented with pay for performance in the late 1980s and early '90s but stopped, said Paul Regnier, the spokesman for the school system. Regnier said the program had been "politically problematic" but that budget problems in 1992 had done more than anything else to derail it.

"It was a major, major revenue fall-down at that time," Regnier said, noting the school system had to eliminate 700 positions. "The school board was up against a situation where they were laying people off, nobody was going to get any kind of raise . . . and [performance pay] became a very difficult thing to do."

Yet the Fairfax school system's policy for evaluating teacher performance remained -- an item for which Fairfax earned praise in the study.

"They have their ax to grind, they have their point of view," Regnier said of the report. "Down here, working in an actual school system, we try to put together the personnel policies that are going to help us get and keep the best schoolteachers. We have what we have, and we think it's pretty good."

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