Less than 'courage' in New Haven

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

EDUCATION Secretary Arne Duncan is a big advocate of the need for educators to set high expectations. So when he singled out the recently ratified teacher contract in New Haven, Conn., as a model for the nation, we assumed it contained bold reforms. In fact, there's little that's remarkable about the contract. We hope that's not a sign Mr. Duncan is getting timid in bringing about the real changes needed in teacher labor agreements.

Praise of the New Haven contract has been effusive. Mr. Duncan told the Wall Street Journal that it is "a really important progressive labor agreement" that showed "real courage on the union's part." American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, who helped broker the deal, said: "I rarely say that something is a model or a template for something else, but this is both." Even President Obama got in on the act as he complimented New Haven for "coming together" to find smarter ways to improve learning.

No doubt the contract, approved by an overwhelming margin, is an improvement over the previous one, but it hardly contains the innovations needed for serious reform. Thomas W. Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, called the provisions "disappointing" as he detailed for the Huffington Post how the contract preserves tenure, prevents good teachers from getting paid more than bad teachers, lets a minority of teachers block work rules to allow innovative programs and makes no commitments to close any specific bad schools. Some key provisions were, in fact, ones that union officials had already put in place in New York City and so, as Mr. Carroll noted, were hardly the result of tough bargaining. Instead of the "uncharted waters" and "new territory" proclaimed by Mr. Duncan, New Haven is pretty much business as usual.

To find a place where someone is pushing reforms worthy of his rhetoric, Mr. Duncan might do better to look out his window. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is trying to make big changes, like breaking the stranglehold of seniority and being able to reward the best teachers. Union leaders are resisting forcefully, denying their members an opportunity even to consider the changes she's proposed. Rather than praising feel-good gestures, the Obama administration ought to be supporting the hard work of true reform.

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