City Journal

Sol Stern
A Teachers’ Contract for a New Era
Seven achievable reforms for better schools
Special Issue 2009

The labor contract between New York City and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) runs out on October 31, three days before this year’s mayoral election. The timing is no coincidence. During the 2007 negotiation, UFT president Randi Weingarten pressed for an unusually early expiration for the contract, assuming that the 2009 election would send a fresh face to City Hall, someone with whom she might quickly conclude a new agreement. But with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s overturning of term limits, the UFT will again square off against him and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein. And the city’s fiscal crisis could make the contract talks even more contentious than usual.

In the past several years, Bloomberg and Klein have emerged as leading champions of market-based school reforms. They have pushed for merit pay for teachers who raise their students’ scores on standardized tests; paid students for higher scores; required schools to compete for city-issued “grades” based largely on student test scores; and created many more charter schools. The city’s Department of Education (DOE) has promoted its approach in aggressive media campaigns and drawn the support of influential education philanthropies, such as the Gates and Broad Foundations.

On the union side, while retaining the presidency of the New York–based UFT until the end of July, Weingarten was also recently elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent union, with a membership of 1.5 million. Even as she has defended traditional teacher unionism, Weingarten has positioned herself as the one national union leader the market reformers might be able to work with. She says the union is ready to deal on issues like charter schools and some kind of performance pay for teachers, previously regarded as taboo.

So while bargaining, Bloomberg, Klein, and Weingarten (who will doubtless play a major role in the New York negotiations) will be looking to solidify their national reform credentials. All say that teacher quality is the key to lifting student achievement. The question is whether rhetorical agreement will lead to constructive compromise—to a new contract that encourages productivity and effective instructional approaches, while still protecting teachers’ basic rights.

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

I first discovered how teachers’ contracts can undermine excellence when my two children attended P.S. 87, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in the 1990s. After dropping the kids off one morning, I noticed a disheveled, middle-aged man shuffling aimlessly around the schoolyard as the children waited for their teachers to bring them inside. He seemed in a stupor; I worried that a homeless person had wandered onto the school grounds. When I pointed him out to a fellow parent, she giggled and explained that he was a new teacher.

That can’t be true, I thought, and went off to see the principal, who briefed me about the seniority transfer clause in the teachers’ contract. Among all the applicants for a posted vacancy at P.S. 87, our obviously impaired new teacher had the most years in the system, so he automatically got the job. The teacher’s former principal, wanting to get rid of him, gave him a satisfactory rating and encouraged him to change schools—a practice known as “passing on the lemons.” P.S. 87’s principal didn’t even have the right to interview the transfer teacher before he showed up for the first day of school.

Dumbfounded, I began studying the contract’s 200 single-spaced pages and its bewildering work rules. I embarked on what became a decade-long crusade to persuade city politicians and union leaders to reform what I called the “we-don’t-do-windows” contract. And the first item in any reform, I argued, should be junking seniority transfers (see “Let’s Seize This Chance for School Reform,” Spring 1995). Alas, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proved unable to achieve any significant reforms in that area during the 1996 contract negotiations.

It wasn’t until the 2005 contract that the seniority transfer clause finally went. Weingarten later told me that she entered negotiations with Bloomberg ready to give it up—adding that my articles had helped convince her that this archaic practice, which brought to mind longshoremen’s hiring halls from the 1950s, was indefensible in the twenty-first century. The change meant that principals no longer had to hire teachers they deemed wrong for their schools. Hundreds of younger teachers could now transfer to other schools, if they were interested and qualified. And the republic did not fall.

That small victory for sanity leads me to choose hope over cynicism today. The goal in the next round of contract negotiations should be to improve teacher quality and classroom instruction, while also cutting costs in these tough times. Regarding those costs, we need to note Bloomberg’s six-year school-spending binge, which fattened the education budget from $12.7 billion in 2003 to $21 billion this year—probably the greatest increase by a school district in the history of American education. The UFT was complicit in the spending, since it reaped a 43 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, an identical hike for the union’s executives and managers, and a commensurate increase in union dues. The administration and the union thus have a civic duty to make amends for their joint profligacy and come up with a smarter, leaner labor agreement. In that spirit, I offer both sides the following easily achievable reform proposals.

1. Let schools experiment with a shorter, more flexible contract. In 2004, Klein surprised union negotiators by putting on the table an eight-page draft agreement that would replace the 200-page contract. Klein’s model contract kept the wage and benefits provisions intact but removed most of the onerous work rules that specified all the tasks that a principal could never ask of teachers, such as attending more than one staff meeting per month. In a perfect world, the proposal would have been a reasonable basis for discussion. Unfortunately, Klein was unable to establish the level of trust with union leaders and rank-and-file teachers that might have encouraged them to take such a leap into the unknown.

I still believe that a short contract, stripped of senseless work rules, is a worthy reform. However, the most likely way for it to happen is from the ground up. The chancellor and the union leadership should step away from the fray and let individual principals try to convince their teachers that operating a school with a shorter, more flexible contract would be good for both parties—and particularly good for students. A principal could make a detailed written proposal to the teaching staff about how the school would operate under a short contract. The staff then would need to ratify the proposal by a 60 percent supermajority in a secret ballot, subject to renewal, say, every two years. If the short contract worked well in the schools that tried it, the new arrangement would be easier to extend citywide. It also would highlight those principals able to win teachers’ trust and manage schools through professional collaboration instead of rigid, rules-driven relationships.

2. Change the contract’s madcap teacher-pay schedule. Since the UFT opposes the idea of merit pay for teachers based on their students’ test scores, it should be more willing to accept reasonable changes in the contract’s lockstep pay schedule. The schedule assumes that teachers become more effective as they accumulate more years in the system and add more college credits to their resumés. Serious research questions that assumption. But even if we accepted it, the pay schedule would make zero sense.

For instance, in the “longevity” column of the salary grid, teachers get various raises for each of their first eight years on the job. Then their salaries increase by about $4,000 at 10 years, $2,000 at 13 years, $4,000 at 15 years, $1,000 at 18 years, $8,000 at 20 years, and $5,000 at 22 years. I have never met a single person in either the union or the administration who could explain the logic of these pay steps. Similarly, the column covering “educational attainment” awards some salary increases for no proven academic or pedagogical achievement at all. The schedule starts with a B.A., jumps to 30 credits past the B.A. for the first attainment raise, then to an M.A., then to 30 credits past the M.A. Moreover, the M.A.s can be unrelated to the subjects that the teachers are teaching. And accumulating an extra 30 credits—any credits at all—to qualify for a salary hike has become a bit of a racket, with fluff courses offered by a host of providers (including the UFT itself) out to make a buck.

This crazy quilt helps explain why the Bloomberg administration’s huge spending boost produced so little improvement in instructional quality. The biggest part of the extra money was spent on the big across-the-board raises for all teachers, regardless of their value. This produced absurdities: a seventh-grade gym teacher with 22 years of seniority would receive a $30,000 raise, for instance, in contrast with the extra $20,000 awarded to a Ph.D.-holding advanced-calculus teacher who had been in the system for only ten years.

The irrational salary schedule should be torn up and replaced with a formula that plausibly links pay raises to real academic accomplishment and classroom skills. For example, the pay increase currently earned by accumulating 30 credits past the M.A. should instead go to teachers who get either a second master’s or a doctorate. The longevity pay schedule could be rationalized and made more effective by stipulating that teachers get a raise every five years after the initial eight-year period. In order to qualify for each raise, however, teachers would have to provide evidence that they were expanding their knowledge and working to improve their classroom skills.

3. Restore the Chancellor’s District. It’s no secret that Klein loves all charter schools and that the UFT grudgingly supports some of them. Instead of arguing about the number of charters, they should make sure that underperforming public schools copy the successful ones. After all, that was the charter-school experiment’s original purpose—to be a laboratory for innovative education practices.

We now know more about what makes charters get better results. Leading school researcher Caroline Hoxby has just published the most comprehensive study yet of New York City’s charter schools, which found that the children in 47 charters outperformed a matched group of public school kids in math and reading by a modest but statistically significant degree. The Hoxby study suggests that the charter schools’ advantage over the regular public schools relates to their longer school day and year (on average, 7.9 hours per day for 192 days, compared with six hours and 50 minutes per day for 180 days). Also, the most widely used instructional programs in the charters are Saxon Math and Core Knowledge Reading. These traditional, teacher-directed programs are the polar opposites of the balanced-literacy and constructivist-math approaches still favored by the city’s progressive educators and used in most of the public schools, despite having no track record of success.

With this evidence in mind, the DOE and the union should therefore agree to reconstitute the special district of underperforming schools serving disadvantaged children once known as the “Chancellor’s District,” which Klein closed down in 2003. The schools in the new district would imitate successful charter schools, operating with a longer school day and year (with teachers paid for the extra time) and employing proven instructional programs.

4. Make it easier to get rid of incompetent teachers—and improve retention of good ones. Much ink has been spilled about the difficulty of firing bad teachers. The main problem here, however, isn’t the teachers’ contract; it’s section 3020a of New York State’s education law, which provides exaggerated due-process rights and an interminable system of appeals to all tenured teachers charged with incompetence. The law, largely written by the UFT, was a response to the arbitrary and racially motivated firing of teachers in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community school district in 1968. Only the legislature can fully resolve this legally complicated problem, and it should be encouraged to do so.

Meantime, though, the DOE has wisely been pushing principals to weed out unqualified teachers before they get tenure after three years, after which removal becomes far more complicated and expensive. In the 2007–08 school year, 164 teachers were denied tenure and another 248 had their three-year probationary periods extended. That’s an eightfold increase in the past two years, suggesting that the issue is starting to be addressed at the pre-tenure level.

An even more serious teacher-quality problem isn’t getting tackled, however. Thousands of young teachers who could be excellent instructors with the proper training and mentoring never reach the tenure-decision stage. The city typically hires close to 7,000 new teachers every year, but 38 percent of them quit before completing their third year. Many become demoralized and give up because they’re completely unprepared for the conditions they face in tough inner-city schools. Research shows that the greatest reason for young teachers’ decision to quit is poor working conditions, not low pay. Thus the DOE and UFT should jointly commit to improving the environments that new teachers encounter—everything from classroom safety to cleaner bathrooms to more effective mentoring by veteran teachers and administrators.

Reforming preservice training is also crucial. A big reason new teachers find themselves overwhelmed is that the awful education schools where they trained are more interested in their “disposition for social justice”—often an official requirement—than in the skills they’ll need to manage a South Bronx classroom. Neither the DOE nor the UFT controls the local ed schools, but the city does have considerable leverage through the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for professional development and other services that it gives them. Klein and Weingarten should deliver a joint message to education faculties: the city’s new teachers need to learn how to manage classrooms in tough neighborhoods, not how to regurgitate the radical education theories of Paulo Freire, William Ayers, and Jonathan Kozol.

5. Use master teachers as instructional leaders. The school system currently employs about 3,500 assistant principals (APs), whose average salary is close to $115,000. APs help principals manage schools and provide instructional leadership for the teacher staff. Teachers can qualify for the city’s AP list by serving an internship with a principal and either getting a second degree in education administration or taking 18 additional administrative credits. But a candidate’s instructional skills and knowledge of the subject count for little in the AP-selection process. Not surprisingly, most APs focus on the management part of the job, leaving a void in the area of improving classroom instruction.

Expanding on an existing DOE-UFT collaboration—the Lead Teacher program—would partly fill this void and save money, too. (I learned a lot about the program’s potential from my wife’s experience as a lead teacher.) Its purpose is to give master teachers who don’t want to become administrators a career ladder, and to use their skills to improve instructional quality in their schools. The system’s 180 lead teachers receive an additional $10,700 per year; they spend half their time teaching classes and the other half providing professional development to other instructors.

Illustration by Arnold Roth.

Traditionally, high schools have required that chairs of academic departments be licensed APs. But with budgets strained, all the instructional duties of department chairs (except for writing official teacher evaluations) could be performed instead by highly qualified, less expensive lead teachers. If expanding the lead-teacher program meant that, say, 500 fewer APs were working in the schools, the DOE could save $50 million annually, while at the same time probably giving the schools more effective instructional leadership.

6. End the wasteful bonus-pay boondoggles. With the unions’ agreement, the city has paid cash bonuses of $3,000 apiece to teachers, and higher amounts to principals and APs, whose schools saw higher student test scores. These expensive bonus programs, sometimes mistaken for individual teacher merit pay (which the unions would never agree to), have been celebrated as the cutting edge of the Bloomberg administration’s reform approach, but there is little evidence that they have produced significant academic gains.

The bonuses have created incentives for cheating by principals and also encouraged inordinate amounts of test prep (see “Grading Mayoral Control,” Summer 2007). Moreover, Weingarten took the city to the cleaners in the negotiations over bonus pay. To get her to “concede” to the fat, pensionable bonuses, New York gave teachers a long-sought change in their already-munificent retirement plan: thousands achieved the right to retire with full pension benefits at 55 with a minimum of 25 years of service, putting even greater strain on the city’s future pension obligations. This dubious swap hasn’t produced significant student improvement to date, by the way. According to an early assessment by Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters, students from 200 schools whose teachers were eligible for bonuses did no better than those in demographically similar schools that didn’t participate in the plan.

In the next contract, both sides should agree to pull the plug on this wasteful scheme. The money saved should either go back into the city treasury or help provide new teachers with more mentoring.

7. Define teacher productivity rationally. With the elimination of the seniority transfer clause, the worst feature of what purports to be a labor contract is that it barely attempts to define a minimal level of employee productivity. This is no trivial issue. Teaching is a labor-intensive occupation. Yet the contract’s only reference to teachers’ expected time and effort on the job is in Article Six, “Hours,” which seems to say, in several paragraphs of convoluted language, that the workday for teachers is whatever the length of the school day is for students—currently, as noted, six hours and 50 minutes.

Most teachers doubtless work many more hours per day than that, plus extra hours on weekends. Yet one of the dirty little secrets of the system is that many teachers take Article Six as gospel. In the four different schools my own children attended, several teachers arrived minutes before the children did, were out the door exactly at dismissal time, and rarely took work home. These teachers, then, worked about 30 hours per week during the 180-day school year, or about 1,200 hours annually. Do the math: for teachers at today’s top salary of $100,000, that works out to $83 per hour—pretty respectable for just about any profession.

Defenders of the current contract usually dismiss Article Six as inconsequential and point to the higher standards that most teachers uphold voluntarily. Yet because no other language in the contract defines teachers’ professional responsibilities, principals can do almost nothing about teachers who do work the minimum. These slackers don’t just harm students; they demoralize teachers who put in the many extra hours necessary to get the job done. That’s why Article Six should be stripped out of the contract. In its place, the parties should agree on a reasonable measure of teacher productivity that principals could use in teacher evaluations. New contract language wouldn’t solve the teacher productivity problem entirely, but it would begin to change a workplace atmosphere that has encouraged freeloaders.

To an extent that their boosters may find hard to acknowledge, the DOE and UFT have, in some respects, become mirror images of each other. They are both well-financed and powerful institutions capable of carrying out sophisticated public-relations operations and political campaigns. Unfortunately, they have often used their considerable resources to enhance the political fortunes and the national ambitions of their leaders, not to improve the schools.

Each side should practice some unilateral disarmament and do what needs to be done for this city: agree on a new contract that puts the interests of the kids above the interests of the adults. And that means all the adults: teachers, union leaders, chancellors, and mayors.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

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