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D.C. teachers' contract has a familiar ring to it

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

The language in the contract between the District and the Washington Teachers' Union soars with promises of a new day. There will be collaboration, school turnaround efforts, pay-for-performance and serious mentoring for novice instructors. It vows "to jointly engage in the struggle to rebuild public confidence in the educational product offered by D.C.'s public schools." With this agreement, it adds, "we hope to signal that we're on the right track."

It's also the contract that expired Sept. 30, 2007, with many of its promises left unrealized.

On Wednesday, D.C. teachers ratified a new deal with provisions that include performance pay, new school turnaround models and improved mentoring.

And language that soars with promises of a new day.

"We must challenge ourselves each day to improve student learning," the preface says, "based upon academic rigor, necessary supports, newfound flexibility, meaningful assessments and true accountability."

Both sides agree that the accord, which awaits final approval by the D.C. Council, will mean something only if both parties are serious about fulfilling its terms. Even the 2004-07 contract acknowledged that past agreements were undermined by a lack of trust, poor communication and chronic turnover in school district leadership.

"We've never had an agreement fully implemented," said union president George Parker. "The challenge for all of us is to act to implement" the new agreement so that it doesn't become what he called another "paper tiger."

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Thursday that the new contract will have a lasting impact because it virtually eliminates seniority rules, giving principals unprecedented power to select staff on the basis of performance.

"Giving them this authority is one of the most powerful things you can do to increase achievement," she said in an e-mail.

Parker said one reason that innovations in the previous deal languished was that the schools leader he negotiated with was gone within a year of ratification. Superintendent Clifford Janey was forced out by then-new Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) when a change in the law gave him control of the school system. Rhee, Fenty's choice to be the District's first chancellor, focused on making her own mark.

Some experts wonder whether the proposals embedded in the new pact will suffer the same fate if Fenty is defeated by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the September primary. Gray has not committed to keeping her, and Rhee has not committed to staying if asked.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality and a staunch Rhee ally, said that if the chancellor departs, the main features of the contract and new evaluation system "would be likely to die on the vine."

Rhee disagrees, contending that sustainability was a chief concern when putting together the deal.

"The core changes -- pay-for-performance, [more power for principals] on hiring decisions and the elimination of red tape when staff separations are necessary -- change the game entirely for future leaders," she said. "Now their starting point for negotiations is a structure that allows leaders to reward and attract the best teachers, and to easily separate those whose teaching is ineffective despite the added supports."

But some of the most important provisions of the contract -- and a series of "side letters" accompanying the deal -- call for continuing discussions between the District and the union to fill in critical details. Those include the voluntary performance pay system, which could add tens of thousands of dollars to teacher salaries. Part of the money will be awarded to teachers on the basis of better-than-expected growth in their students' test scores. There is broad agreement that other metrics must be used to measure a teacher's value, but those have not been spelled out.

Other collaborations involve IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system that uses test-score growth to assess some teachers. Although the details of the system are not directly addressed in the contract, many instructors have said it is excessively complex and rigid. In one side letter, the District agreed to a joint working group to meet monthly and review teachers' concerns. Another side agreement calls for mutually agreed-upon experts to review IMPACT and make recommendations to improve it.

Changes laid out in the contract will also require breathing life into often-moribund school-level institutions. Local School Restructuring Teams (LSRTs), for example, are groups of administrators, teachers, parents and community members set up to advise principals on policy matters.

Under the new agreement, when schools must pare staff because of enrollment or program changes, LSRTs are supposed to make recommendations on which areas of school staff to cut. Final decisions remain the principals'. But if they depart from the LSRT's recommendations, principals are required to prepare a written justification for Parker and Rhee. But not all schools have functional LSRTs, something that Rhee's office and the union have been trying to address.

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