School Talk

A Thin Contract Is Exactly What Providence Schools Need

In 2018, in the wake of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s passing comment about the need for a “transformational contract”, I wrote about what that kind of contract should look like. I described a thin contract. Fast forward almost two years and as contract negotiations fail to even get off the ground, RI education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green is drawing a line in the sand. Dan McGowan of the Boston Globe reports that Infante-Green has said, “by the end of the year, if we have not made changes, we’re going to have to do something drastic.” She does not explain what she means by “drastic” but McGowan does report that the state, now in control of the Providence Schools, is seeking to move towards a “thin contract.” Amen to that.

Most people don’t know what we mean when we say “thin contract”—it’s kind of a wonky term that provides zero details about what it would entail. So here’s my best effort, again, to shed some light on what it means and how it would be different than what has been in place forever.

Thin Contract—An Explainer

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 evidence that 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 the work day according to the recently expired Providence Teachers’ 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.

According to the now expired contract, seniority driven layoffs ended one minute before midnight on August 31, 2017 but it appears that “no layoffs resulting in staff reductions” can occur until “the parties negotiate and agree upon the manner and criteria to be utilized in any staff reductions pursuant to layoffs.” Let’s hope that the parties agree that teacher performance—to include student learning and outcomes, cultural competency, collegiality—must drive these difficult decisions. Something more like this:

A thin contract is precisely what the students (and staff!) of Providence schools need. It won’t be easy but no matter how hard it is, Commissioner Infante Green and Superintendent Harris must not squander the opportunity to do things differently for Providence students and their teachers. And if they get it done, it will be an example to every other superintendent out there who knows that a shorter, smarter, and more flexible contract is needed for students and teachers to be well served by a system that has let way too many down for generations.

There is no time to waste. Superintendent Harrison Peters characterizes the learning losses for Providence students since the spring as “steep.” The futures of the city’s students are at stake so “drastic action” sounds good to me.

What do you think?

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