How To Make An Eduwonk Swoon…

Eduwonk has been in Philly a lot this month. The sentiment there, among administrators, reformers in the schools, and community activists is that the district caved on the new teacher contract. Theories as to why abound and range from the weird and conspiratorial to pretty mundane and plausible.

Observers of urban reform say the same thing is likely to happen in New York, too. Remember, we’re not talking about outrageous changes here but rather basic things like allowing principals control over who works in their school (in Philly they compromised, principals get 1/2 the picks, the other half are based on seniority, you don’t need a PhD in organizational behavior to see the problem there…)

But on Tuesday in New York Eva Moskowitz, the maverick Democratic chairwoman of the city’s education committee, went public with her concerns that this was about to happen. In a letter to Mayor Bloomberg she wrote that:

As Chair of the City Council Education Committee, I am very concerned by recent news reports indicating that you are being urged to sign a contract with the teachers’ union that will be lacking in fundamental reforms. If true, that would be a major setback for our children, our City, and the hopes of many that your administration would achieve your stated goal of lasting, fundamental reform of our school system. I therefore write to urge you to stick to your guns on educational reform…

The cumbersome labor contracts governing our schools, therefore, must be reformed. The historical reasons for them are understandable. When money was tight, instead of giving people proper raises, we adopted inefficient work rules. As a result, the contracts prescribe, sometimes in comical detail, how, when, and under what precise circumstances our human resources can be deployed – take, for example, the 10 foot rule in the custodians’ contract that dictates how high up custodians can paint.

Most people agree that the biggest and most immediate concern is the teachers’ contract. A good contract is important for all parties, but this one prevents managers from managing. It impedes principals from attracting talented and experienced teachers to challenging schools, and removing those who can’t do the job. As you said last fall: “The union contract…covers an enormous number of things, many of which really shouldn’t be in a labor contract…management has no prerogatives to move resources around, set standards, pick the people that they think would do the best job.” The contract also ties up principals in thousands of lengthy, repetitive grievance proceedings. And, it doesn’t serve teachers. Their legitimate complaints often go unaddressed while they inherit unprepared students, passed along by unmotivated or unqualified colleagues, and are blamed for the results.

No organization can be successful under such rules…

There are four major changes that must be made to the teachers’ contract. We must eliminate: 1) longevity as the sole criteria for teacher assignments, 2) inefficient work rules, 3) restrictions against paying teachers more in shortage areas and for talent and 4) obstacles to firing incompetent and mediocre teachers. It’s that simple.

Now is the time to hold firm against pilot programs and incremental changes. Those are merely window dressing and the illusion of progress, much like the prior administration’s claim that it ended principals’ tenure (it didn’t, which the public discovered only when it read the contract after the deal was done). We stand at the verge of obtaining desperately needed resources through the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. You have the power to wield those resources through Mayoral control. But, without changing the work rules, you will not be able to complete that task, and I fear that if you do not fix the teachers’ contract, no Mayor in our lifetime will…

The response so far? Well, Bloomberg seems mighty pissed-off to be called out on this and accused Moskowitz of grandstanding (does any New York pol have standing to make that charge? We should ask AG Eliot Spitzer for a ruling, no wait, never mind). For their part the teachers’ union is furious that Moskowitz took what is normally a backroom issue (for Eduwonk’s money these contracts should be printed in the paper as a public service so the public can understand what they do and don’t include) is being debated in public like this. New York Times here, NY Post here, NY Daily News here.

Good for Moskowitz. It’s about time for movement on this issue and that’s only going to happen if these issues are debated in the light of day. In the long run reforming these contracts is good for the teachers and in the short run, and more importantly, it’s vital for the kids.

Update: A lot of buzz about a Klein – Bloomberg split over this issue. All sides denying publicly, but those in the know say this marriage has hit a rough patch, Eduwonk’s not the only one swooning over Eva!

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