A Teacher Policy Worth Supporting
Thursday, June 16, 2011
They appear as unrelated developments. But in fact, they are connected.
The seniority court fight is the most significant and the fact that the legal battle is centered in Portsmouth, a high performing, suburban district, is an important development for all the state’s school districts to watch.
The court case, to be heard in Superior Court, was triggered when the Portsmouth School Committee’s approval of a new merit-based policy of hiring and placements for all school personnel was swiftly followed by the filing of an unfair labor practices complaint by the local chapter of the NEA. The School Committee and Superintendent then filed suit, asking the court to stop the labor complaint.
The court case is important from many perspectives. It not only raises the larger question of who should ultimately be deciding which teacher is best suited to which particular classroom, it also has widespread implications on what factors must be considered when making hiring, transfers, or lay-off decisions. As more and more school districts, certainly within the state’s inner core, grapple with collapsing school budgets, lay-off guidelines are taking on a far greater significance. As the legal filing from the Portsmouth School Committee and Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi state, appropriate teacher assignment is truly at the heart of the educational mission. Contrary to what the union leadership seems to believe and is legally arguing, those decisions do not and cannot belong within the jurisdiction of the union’s contract.
The new Portsmouth policy stems from the Basic Education Program (BEP), developed by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, to govern standards for all school districts. Among its central requirements is that seniority of teachers can no longer be the core determining factor for teacher placement. Make no mistake about it, the BEP, as the core Gist doctrine, is what is truly going on trial from the union’s perspective.
A teacher who is mismatched to a particular grade level, subject matter, and/or student need is not going to be able to produce the best results possible for those students, period. Those kinds of considerations cannot be hammered out within the inflexible framework of a union contract, which was originally designed to protect appropriate working conditions for teachers, protect fair compensation structures, etc.
What many see as the true obstacles to progress in all too many public school classrooms today is the overreach of the union contract to micromanage each and every nuanced decision governing the development of curriculum, teacher-student interactions, and the most important of them all, teacher classroom assignment. Furthermore, the Portsmouth case takes on more urgent relevance in the context of a summit held this week on the so called skills gap problem, which showed the state is losing ground on properly educating and preparing its newest high school graduates for the type of advanced degrees needed for today’s surging technology-based job market. The growing skills gap is hardly unique to Rhode Island, and the data sprung from a Harvard University national study. But the numbers reflecting the percentage of the state’s high school graduates who actually go on to complete an advanced degree are stunningly low, with only about one-fifth of those with high school degrees ultimately earning a bachelor’s or even associate’s degree.
They are either not properly academically prepared, stimulated, or guided for the rigors of higher education.
Let’s be clear: This is certainly not the exclusive fault of any given teacher. Many factors contribute to our students’ declining pursuit of college degrees. However, given the reality of the data, one would think the teaching community and their union leadership would at least be in support of policies that will strive to produce the best teacher match to a classroom.
That’s why the third item circulating in recent days on the hotly debated legislation, now approved, which will enable Commissioner Gist to tap retired teachers for an unprecedented teacher training program is notable. Some union leaders were in the unfamiliar position this spring of citing pension excesses (which they never have had a problem with before) in arguing against the Gist effort, because the retired teachers called back to do the training will be able to retain their existing pensions while being paid as consultants. That is a separate concern. But the training, which is primarily aimed at creating a higher caliber teaching corps in the state’s schools, is being mostly funded through the Race to the Top federal grant award. It seemed the union’s opposition to the plan what mostly driven by their overall opposition to Gist controlling the training and teacher evaluation effort.
It comes down to this: As a state, are we going to support merit—or multiple years in the system—to determine who is best suited to be placed in front of a given class of students?
It would seem an obvious choice.
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Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to the RI Statewide Coalition www.statewidecoalition.com