School Talk

Wish List 2.0

Yesterday I published a wish list for today’s big education announcement at the statehouse where leaders from both the house and senate will unveil a package of education reform bills.

But my brain still wanted more wishes and kept whirring.

At 3 am—my usual wake up time—the words “tenure reform” were circling through my brain. And then around 6:30 am I saw the words “statewide thin contract” and was reminded that in February of last year, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza called for a “transformational contract” for the teachers in Providence. He didn’t define what that meant so I took it upon myself to describe what I thought it should like.

I realized this morning that I want a contract like this to be implemented statewide. We are certainly small enough to do it—our entire state is smaller than big city school districts and they are governed by one single contract.

Here’s what my dream contract for Rhode Island looks like:

Brevity. It should not be more than ten pages. The current one is 73 pages. These contracts that look more like novels and even encyclopedias in some places are a problem because they stifle talent, smart policy, and flexibility. They are literally an albatross around the neck of everyone who wants to disrupt the status quo or even push for small changes in how we “do school”, and that includes the rank and file teachers who deserve to lead or move into a different role but can’t because someone less talented/qualified but more senior gets first dibs. We don’t serve kids when we make it impossible for the best person for the job to be in front of the students who need them.

Hiring Authority. There must be more flexibility for principals when it comes to hiring and firing. In fact, they must have total hiring authority. There is a reason why we have building leaders and one of them is because they are charged with making decisions. In the case of a school principal, those decisions are (or should be) driven by what’s best for students and that can—and often does—fly in the face of the preferences of other adults in the building. While a senior member of the staff may want to fill a special education opening, a certification in that area does not guarantee that he/she is the right fit for the position and the principal needs to be empowered to put the best person in the position, regardless of their level of seniority.

Termination. While it’s not a fun topic to discuss, it’s an important one because the current process for it does not work for anyone. While reasonable due process (like exists in other government agencies) is an integral part of the equation, so is an independent evaluation and a quick resolution. The idea that it takes many months and sometimes years to terminate a teacher is not only unreasonable, but hugely expensive for districts. In addition, principals, superintendents, attorneys and school board members are forced to expend an exorbitant amount of time in meetings and hearings that cause delays and cost money but do nothing to serve students. Add to that the reality that a typo or the failure to check a box on one out of hundreds of documents can keep an unfit teacher in the classroom and it’s hard to argue that the process is even rational, let alone smart. Not only do the layers and layers of bureaucracy frustrate school leaders and parents, but they also weigh on the other teachers in the building who know that the sooner the situation with the colleague in question is resolved, the sooner the culture of the building can begin to improve. A transformational contract would honor due process, include an independent evaluation and a review of the facts during a half day hearing, and an almost immediate decision.

Flexibility With Length of Day/Year There is generally a consensus that one size does not fit all in any context and that is certainly true when it comes to schools and kids and we have evidencethat chronically underperforming schools can make enormous improvements by moving to a longer school day or what is commonly called ELT (extended learning time.) While Providence does not have the money at the moment for such a program, grants can (and have) played an essential role in the success of ELT as nearby as Fall River, Massachusetts.

In 2004, Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Massachusetts, was labelled a Level 4 or “chronically underperforming” school, a lowly status that made it the focus of increased oversight and intervention. By 2013, however, Kuss, along with other struggling schools in this high-poverty district, had pushed its ranking all the way to Level 1. Whereas many interventions can impose punitive measures that divide communities, the improvement in student achievement at Kuss has been credited in no small part to longer school days or extended learning time (ELT) – a reform championed by many school officials, educators, parents, and community leaders.

This is language from the last PTU contract.

The most recent contract literally has the exact number of school days and the precise hours of the work-day listed for every school in the city and there and there is zero variety when it comes to the length of the day or year. As it currently stands, extended learning time wouldn’t even be possible under the current contract but with negotiations underway, albeit stalled and contentious at the moment, it would be a great time to add some flexibility to the schedule, especially since we know that tremendous benefits can come with a longer school day. While it may not happen next year, this change to the contract would leave the door open for creative scheduling ideas that would better serve students and perhaps even teachers as they too have could have more flexibility built into the day if the day were longer. Below is an example of what more flexible contract language could look like:

Get rid of Last in, First Out When layoffs are needed in school districts, seniority often drives the decisions about who stays and who goes. And that is wrong. We must do everything in our collective power to ensure that we have the best teachers in front of ALL children. If there are two equally effective and talented and dedicated teachers then sure, keep the one who is more senior. But in the cases where the best teachers—and by best I mean the ones with whom students are learning and growing the most—are not the most senior, they must not be laid off. It is 100 percent antithetical to doing right by kids to maintain a policy that forces excellent educators out of the classroom while keeping mediocre (and even lousy ones) in front of students. And there is a reason why parents in at least five states have sued over this issue of LIFO (Last In, First Out)—it hurts students and values years of service over student outcomes.

Without a literal magic wand or an act of God, this is a wish that probably won’t come true today or tomorrow or this year. But it would be a tremendous step forward for everyone—especially our students—if we could work together to make it happen.

What do you think?

More Comments