Having been hired to replace a teacher who left after the first quarter, Susan Taylor began her career 30 years ago in less than ideal conditions. As a floating teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, she taught first period on an auditorium stage and then moved from one home economics classroom to another. And while her master's degree in history prepared her to teach eighth-grade American history, she also taught seventh-grade Ohio studies and a ninth-grade careers course-a class that had no established curriculum, not even a textbook.
Although her department chair and the district's social studies supervisor shared ideas and materials in response to her pleas for help, the school principal gave her a poor performance evaluation that focused more on the minutiae of classroom management, such as Taylor's failing to stop a child from tapping a pencil on the desk.
"It was very frustrating to get that evaluation report," recalls Taylor, now president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT). "I did struggle. I went to college to become a teacher, but I didn't learn what I needed to successfully reach the population of students that I had in these three classes. I really needed a mentor who knew my subject and who could offer some assistance on an ongoing basis, and the only person that I got that from was another teacher."
While her experience remains the norm in many districts across the country, first-year teachers in Taylor's district now receive meaningful evaluation and support, thanks to a peer assistance and evaluation program that the CFT successfully bargained for in the mid-1980s.
Like CFT, other teacher unions work to broaden the scope of bargaining in their contracts, moving beyond the typical salary and benefits negotiations to tackle issues that improve all aspects of the profession, from teacher quality to the school environment, in the name of children.
"Looking at the scope of bargaining is really important because we are focused on creating a great public school for every child," says William Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association (NEA). "It's all about having our voice-the people who are working directly with the students-in the room when we're talking about issues that impact the quality of teaching and learning."
Peer Review and Assistance
School principals often initially resist peer assistance and evaluation programs. Not only are they skeptical that teachers will assess each other as objectively and critically as they themselves would, but they do not believe that teacher evaluators will be willing to recommend another teacher for dismissal, even if he or she has failed to perform the job satisfactorily.
In Toledo, principals managed to block three of the teachers' union's attempts to negotiate a peer evaluation program into its contract. In fact, it wasn't until the district hired a private-sector attorney to serve as its chief negotiator in 1981 that an agreement was reached. When the union explained that the peer evaluation program would enable teachers to develop the performance standards for both those within the profession and those being inducted into it and to take responsibility for that performance, the attorney, whose profession has similar peer-driven oversights in place, understood and supported their position.
Some principals, like those in Rochester (N.Y.) Public Schools, even go so far as to take the teacher unions and the superintendent to court after a peer review teacher evaluation program is negotiated into the contract, arguing that it encroaches upon the principal's responsibilities. In 1987, the New York Supreme Court rejected the Rochester principals' argument, declaring that the assessment of teachers is a proprietary right of the school boards, not administrators, and the board can delegate the task to whomever it sees fit. Although the program may initially meet with resistance, once districts implement it, the results go a long way toward allaying the principals' fears.
Before the peer review teacher evaluation system was created in Rochester, less than 1 percent of first-year teachers were asked not to return for a second year. After the program was implemented in 1987, that number jumped to about 12 percent, which strengthened the quality of teaching in the district. The Cincinnati union noticed a similar pattern in its district. In fact, the evaluation system is so effective that the same principals who fought the teacher peer review program in court have now negotiated a similar provision into their own contracts.
Principals and supervisors used to be reluctant to fire a teacher due to unsatisfactory job performance because it threatened the livelihood of the person, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association (RTA). "All too often, teachers would just automatically get satisfactory evaluations," he says. "Now with teachers involved in the process, we have learned that they are proving to be very faithful guardians of their own profession and their own standards."
Though the details of peer review teacher evaluation and assistance programs vary from district to district, they typically share several common traits: The teachers establish and use a rigorous rubric to evaluate their peers' mastery of several domains, often based on a model that Charlotte Danielson details in her book Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Experienced teachers undergo periodic reviews throughout their careers, while colleagues who know and understand the intricacies of their subject matter must evaluate new teachers several times over their first year.
To help ensure that new hires succeed in the classroom, lead teachers assume a mentoring role with their first-year colleagues, offering both subject area and classroom management support. If the teacher evaluators determine that a colleague has an instructional deficiency, they will create an intervention plan with steps ranging from giving the struggling teacher the option of watching a colleague in action to see effective teaching, to having him or her take a targeted classroom management course to improve the situation. If a teacher repeatedly shows a lack of instructional proficiency over the course of the school year despite the interventions, then evaluators will recommend this colleague for dismissal, a move that is rarely contested by the unions since teachers had a voice in the decision.
"Now principals in buildings are very glad that we have the peer assistance and evaluation program," Taylor says. "We take a lot of difficult work off their shoulders. They still have the right to come into the classroom. They do a smaller number of observations, but their observations count into the process. It's a very collaborative process."
Just as peer assistance and review programs have led to a more authentic assessment of teacher performance, union representatives believe that broadening the scope of bargaining to include professional development will have a similar effect in making courses meaningful for teachers. But the teachers' unions don't bargain for a specific course; rather, they negotiate language into the contract that gives teachers a voice in finding and selecting the professional development courses that best match the needs of their individual school or district.
"Many teachers would say that the professional development that they're being asked to participate in a lot of times isn't relevant or is very faddish," says Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). "It's not just about having a program that meets a need. It's about having programs that are a certain level of quality that help teachers work and work with their kids. Every teacher in this country wants to help their kids learn, and if there's a program out there that they would want to have access to that would help them improve student learning in the classroom, let's do it. If it takes collective bargaining to get it, let's use it."
To ensure that teachers have access to top-notch professional development programs, educator associations like the NEA and the AFT offer both well-researched and relevant courses. For instance, when educators take a course through AFT's Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) professional development program, they know that the instructional method has proved effective with students representing a wide range of socioeconomic and demographic groups. Plus, ER&D instructors don't simply share the research with teachers and let them figure out how to apply that in the classroom; rather, they build modeling into the course to show teachers the instructional method in action.
But access is only part of the equation. The best professional development is what teachers choose at the local level to meet student needs, Raabe says. "So while it's good to have professional development from national organizations like the NEA or the AFT for people to draw upon, the best thing that can happen is for local school districts and their school employee unions to sit down and talk about the professional development that we need to meet our needs so that we can meet the needs of other schools and the students in our district," Raabe says.
The Toledo Federation of Teachers (TFT) successfully bargained for language to be included in its contract that requires changes in curricula or education programs to be developed in partnership with the federation. Having been given a voice, union representatives negotiated for the district to use the AFT's research based ER&D reading program as a key component of teacher training and professional development.
The Reading Academy program, which kicked off in 2000, provides key resources ranging from a rigorous summer school curriculum designed for third graders who have failed the state's reading test to an intensive intervention program known as ACE, or Achieving Content Excellence, for struggling elementary and junior high students.
As a result of their efforts, the Toledo district's test scores have improved dramatically. In August 2004, the district moved up two notches on the state accountability system, from "academic emergency," or the lowest level, to "continuous improvement," and Toledo is now the leading urban district in reading in Ohio.
Teacher quality is the single most influential determinant in student achievement, along with home environment, says Francine Lawrence, TFT president. "The Reading Academy is not a building-it's people," she says. "It's a collaborative effort between the union and the district. We jointly select the individuals [who will serve as literacy support teachers] and jointly guide the process within the district. When there's ownership by both the union's members and management, the opportunity for success is much greater."
Since it takes more than professional development courses to impact the learning environment, teacher unions also bargain to add language to the contract to address other school improvement issues.
Some districts have negotiated for the right to create school improvement teams to address problems at the local level. For instance, representatives from Rochester's administration, teachers, parents and high school students all have seats at the negotiating table to discuss matters that affect teaching and learning at the school, from requiring uniforms to adding a rigorous International Baccalaureate degree program. Each school's joint council has the final say over any issue involving teaching and learning at the school.
"Instead of centralized decision making at the headquarters or [by the] principal, teachers, parents and high school students are invested in these decisions, and therefore they increase the likelihood that the implementation will be enthusiastic and supported by all constituents," Urbanski says.
In Toledo, two teachers and one administrator partner to form a school improvement team, which meets with administrators at schools struggling with student achievement to facilitate changes at the site. "We believe, and it's a guiding principle of the Toledo Federation, that teachers are instructional leaders," Lawrence says. "My view is that if teachers need to look to someone who doesn't teach for expertise, there's little opportunity to advance classroom practice and even less to realize student achievement gains."
The fact that Toledo is the leading district in student achievement among Ohio's urban schools is not an accident, Lawrence adds. It's a result of genuine collaboration between labor and management. When teachers are part of the decision-making process and take ownership, then implementation is much more realistic and possible, she says.
East Orange Education Association, a 12,000-student urban district in New Jersey, took a bricks-and-mortar approach when negotiating for school improvements in 2000. The union bargained for the creation of a health, safety and security committee, which addresses members' concerns from mold in the building or potholes in the parking lot to malfunctioning thermostats in the classroom or rodents in the kitchen. The committee, which meets at least five times each year, consists of four members appointed by the association and four members appointed by the superintendent- typically the district's directors of the security, maintenance and custodial departments. By gaining direct access to the key decision-makers regarding health, safety and security issues, the union found that it could address the concerns of its members more quickly and efficiently.
"When I call the head of the maintenance department, if he doesn't call me right back, he will send somebody to deal with the situation," says Clarence A. Osborne, vice president of the East Orange group.
"The trust factor has increased to the point where we feel more confident that things will get done if they are within reason as far as finances and manpower are concerned. We understand that there's a priority list when things have to be done. If there's a rodent problem and we have a leaking roof, we're going to fix the roof before we deal with the mice. While things are not perfect, we are at least making some advances because of this trust factor."
In addition to broadening the scope of bargaining to include nontraditional issues, union representatives in some districts are approaching traditional sticking points, such as teacher salaries, in new ways.
For instance, five years ago, a teacher's starting salary in Helena (Mont.) Public Schools was $23,000, and while union representatives and administrators agreed that the district needed to bring the teachers' wages to a competitive level, it didn't have the money to offer a blanket raise.
As a compromise, the two sides worked together to create a Professional Compensation Alternative Plan (PCAP), which allows teachers to move to the next step on the salary scale based on their professional development, performance and service, such as through sponsoring a club. Although 73 percent opt to follow PCAP, teachers can choose to remain on the original steps-and-lanes salary schedule and earn a lower rate of pay.
As in Helena, union representatives at Hopkins (Minn.) Public Schools implemented a performance-based salary schedule. Under the Hopkins Compensation Model and to achieve a step on the scale, teachers must: achieve their professional goal, whether it's to try out a new instructional method or take a continuing education course; meet a student-achievement goal, which is set by the teachers; and receive a satisfactory evaluation. If a teacher misses the mark, he or she can develop a growth plan for a semester to resolve the issue and then move to the next step.
Ten master teachers evaluate and work with the teacher in providing new ideas, says John Schultz, interim superintendent of the Hopkins district. "And I think that piece of it is what we're finding to be the most beneficial to teachers, that interaction of having another teacher come into the classroom to observe your teaching, because teachers tend to be isolated," he says. "This whole system is a wonderful professional development tool because teachers get a chance to talk about their craft with other teachers."
While union representatives still need to haggle for cost-of-living increases on performance-based salary schedules, the Rochester union negotiated language into its contracts that eliminates the need to waste time arguing over teachers' salaries. Rochester creates its district's salary scale by averaging the teachers' salaries of the county's five highest-paying school districts and adjusting its pay scale to match the average.
"It's the kind of consensus middle ground that not only school managers and teachers find reasonable but the public finds reasonable," Urbanski says. "The teachers in their community would be paid not the highest wage, but at least competitive wages. If you don't have to haggle over salaries, you make room for arguing about more important things, like instructional strategies and pedagogy."
Only the Beginning
When it comes to broadening the scope of bargaining, an endless list of topics abounds, from student discipline issues and class size to the school calendar and staffing concerns. But getting the conversation started isn't always easy, especially for teachers working in such states that restrict or prohibit the use of collective bargaining for even traditional issues.
Regardless of whether it's a district that has bargaining, limited-bargaining or nonbargaining, experts want administrators to ensure that all the people involved in the education of the student are involved in the discussion to create the best teaching and learning environment possible, Raabe says.
"Ask the experts, those who work with the students every day, 'What's your best idea for how to create this quality teaching and learning environment?' There is expertise all around them," Raabe says. "It resides in those classrooms and those bus garages and those cafeterias, and it's there every day."
Jennifer Maciejewski is a freelance writer based in Georgia.