City-teacher contract negotiations should advance needed reform

Nothing is more important to a community than the quality of its schools.  The future of our schools and our children’s education are at stake in the contract being negotiated now between the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU).  

The teacher’s contract is not just about pay and work rules.  Its real importance lies in its role as the main instrument for advancing educational reforms to improve the quality of education for our children in all the City’s public schools.  This contract is the only vehicle that will bring systemic reform, including greater school autonomy, flexibility and extended time, to the vast majority of Boston public schools that are not Pilot, Innovation, Turnaround or Horace-Mann In-District Charter schools.

It is not right that the majority of students, whose families pay taxes to support the BPS, do not have the same advantages as those who happen to attend the schools with the flexibility to implement important reforms.  It is for this reason that I joined the Boston United for Students Coalition, a broad-based group comprised of 49 student, parent, child advocate, community, business, civic and faith-based organizations. The Coalition is advocating for fundamental reform in the teacher’s contract so all BPS students have the same opportunity for a great education.  

As contract talks between the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union drag on past 21months, there is greater urgency than ever that a reform contract be completed. The time is approaching when it will be too late to implement changes for the next school year in 2012-13.  For example, the teacher assignment and transfer process for next year will begin in March.

This Boston United for Students Coalition is calling for four specific policy changes in the teachers’ contract.

First, a more timely and advanced teacher evaluation system is needed to support effective teaching and establish greater accountability.  Research clearly demonstrates that teacher quality is the most important factor determining student learning. In our schools, there are great teachers and those who are less effective I in connecting with students.  The goal of a more effective evaluation system is to support teachers so they can improve their own performance.  Timely evaluation requires contract language that does not interrupt or delay the evaluation process, especially for teachers judged unsatisfactory. Multiple measures including data on student performance should be a major factor in teacher evaluations as well as student and parent feedback following the new state guidelines.  

Second, schools need greater control over teacher selection to better ensure a cohesive education team committed to the same school philosophy.  More flexibility by schools in hiring teachers is an important factor in the success of Boston’s Pilot and Innovation schools and public charter schools.  

However, in the current school year, 370 Boston teachers were part of an administrative process that placed them in schools with little or no involvement by the school principal, and on the basis of seniority and certification rather than performance.  In our global, high technology world our children need advanced skills and knowledge to succeed. We cannot afford a system that is based on anything but teaching excellence.  The new contract should continue open posting, eliminate bumping and require excess pool candidates to compete with outside applicants.

Third, great schools are formed by partnerships of teachers, administrators, parents and students.  While BPS parents and students play an active role in their schools, they should have a greater voice in school-based decision making, including greater and more diverse representation on School Site Councils and personnel sub-committees responsible for hiring teachers.

Fourth, the contract should provide for an extended school day that can help reduce barriers to access and opportunity and help close achievement gaps.  Additional time creates the opportunity to engage students with enriching educational experiences in the arts and music as well as academic support in English and math if needed.

It is in the self-interest of both BPS and BTU to collaborate and strive for a new contract with significant systemic changes.  With the expected expansion of charter school seats over the next four years, the school system needs to become more competitive or face possible school closings and reduced teaching positions.

And it is absolutely in the interest of children and families in the BPS that the two sides reach agreement on a significant reform contract that is financially sustainable.  The reforms we are proposing can make a fundamental difference in the education of Boston Public School students by supporting effective teaching and improving student achievement, but they can be implemented only through the contract.  A new agreement with only incremental change will fail these students who do not have time to wait another two to three years for reform.  

The losers in this drawn-out battle are Boston public school students and their families.  A child only has one chance at each grade, and delay is costing our children opportunities for a better education.  

Jorge Martinez is Executive Director of Project R.I.G.H.T., INC. and is an active member of the Boston United for Students Coalition.