Bargaining For Better Teaching

Sunday, September 28, 2008

We want reform in D.C. public schools to be successful.

We believe that the negotiations between Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) on a new collective bargaining agreement could have provided an excellent opportunity to focus on the quality of teaching and to hammer out a systemwide plan to improve the knowledge and skills of teachers and how they work with students. Rhee and George Parker, WTU president, have been in one-on-one negotiations for months. Yet, sadly, there seems to have been no effort to include anything the public or teachers will see as supporting teaching and learning.

The contract talks have focused on the chancellor's proposals regarding pay, teacher transfers and due-process rights. While increasing salaries is important, there seems to be no administration plan for improving and supporting teaching quality. To fill this void, the WTU should have brought forward a plan for improving professional working conditions, teacher evaluations and instructional support. While some of these issues were raised by the WTU negotiating team, nothing ended up being proposed to the WTU membership, and nothing was brought to negotiations with the chancellor.

Given the strong national leadership role that the American Federation of Teachers has played in advocating reforms in teacher evaluation, new-teacher training and accountability to standards of good teaching, it only makes sense for the union local to bring its vision of reform to the table. It is not too late.

Those of us with a sense of urgency about reform want to know from both the chancellor and the Washington Teachers' Union:

1. What is the plan to build understanding about what defines good teaching, so it becomes the norm in every classroom? Successful efforts to improve teaching and learning across the country (including Montgomery and Prince George's counties) have begun with a clear definition. Many school systems use the Danielson model; Research for Better Teaching's "The Skillful Teacher" approach; the Institute for Learning's "Principles of Learning" or the Core Propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

2. What is the plan to provide new teacher induction or, better yet, a "teacher residency" program so that the next generation of teachers has the knowledge and skills to engage in quality teaching? Exciting new efforts in Boston and Chicago, for example, create expert teachers using something akin to a medical residency model.

3. What is the plan to create professional teaching conditions and support for good teaching at every school so that talented teachers stay? Investing in a system that supports its teachers and works with them toward constant improvement will create a professional teaching corps -- a needed foundation for each school and for the system.

4. What is the plan to create an expedited and a high-quality teacher evaluation process that teachers respect? Is the WTU interested in the "peer review" approach taking hold elsewhere? How will the teacher evaluation process be infused with a deep understanding of how to observe and analyze teaching in a way that respects the complexity of the craft?

5. The consensus about the need to raise teacher pay is admirable, but how will the dollars be sustained over the long haul, and what in the bargain will deliver higher-quality teaching as a quid pro quo?"At will" job status improves nothing and is an insult to excellent teachers in the system. It certainly is not worth the cost to the public if the knowledge and skill to facilitate the improvement of teaching and learning is missing. Will teachers be any better prepared and supported under the proposed contract than before?

Contract negotiations can be a useful process for collaborative change at a system level but only if both sides bring the important issues to the table and if the union has engaged in winning over its members to a unified vision of change. Teachers must be valued stakeholders in reform. The process being used by the chancellor and the WTU president is obviously broken; we need to fix it and to engage in the reforms that will support high-quality teaching and learning.

-- Elizabeth Davis

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