Too little reform in teacher contracts

/ 16 April 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial, April 16, 2012 –

Minneapolis changes don’t go far enough in light of challenges.

Despite growing pressure from parents and community groups, change continues to come slowly for Minneapolis schools and their students.

The proposed two-year labor agreement that Minneapolis teachers approved last week would add four days to the district’s school year and 15 minutes to the official duty day for teachers.

It also would codify a selection method that helps schools hire the best-qualified teachers regardless of seniority, and it slightly reduces the number of opportunities educators have to earn raises based solely on longevity and education credits.

The changes under the proposed contract, which the school board is expected to approve today, move the district in the right direction, but they should be considered baby steps rather than major strides.

MINNEAPOLIS SCHOOLS AT A GLANCE
Total staff: 5,918
Teachers: 3,079
Average teacher pay: $66,000
Operating budget: $513.2 million
Enrollment: 32,263
Students of color: 21,971 (68%)
White students: 10,292 (31%)
Source: Minneapolis school district

The addition of four school days is important, because research shows that more time on task is critical for boosting achievement. That’s especially key in Minneapolis, which continues to struggle with one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between white students and children of color.

But with 176 school days, the district still will fall far short of the 190-day calendars used in many high-performing countries and outstanding U.S. charter schools.

The modest Minneapolis changes also carry a higher price tag. The longer year will boost teacher salaries by about $3,000 annually. Overall, the new contract will cost $17.1 million, or about 6.4 percent more than the current year.

In return, the district will now be able to continue to use an interview-and-select hiring system that previously had been in place under a temporary contract provision. When teacher vacancies occur, the principal, staff and site council can select from a pool of applicants.

Half of that pool must be from a seniority list, and half may not be. That gives schools somewhat more flexibility to pick good fits — rather than always having to select from those teachers at the top of the seniority list.

The system doesn’t end forced placements, however, because teachers who are not selected can still be placed in schools with vacancies — and those schools tend to have the highest numbers of struggling students.

District officials count as a victory the modest new limits placed on the so-called steps-and-lanes system, which grants pay raises based on seniority and educational credits or degrees regardless of classroom performance.

As the Editorial Board has argued previously, the steps-and-lanes system is outdated and in need of an overhaul that includes performance factors.

The district will no longer offer free health care for single coverage. Under the new contract, teachers with single coverage will pay about $300 a year — still very generous by private-sector standards and many government worker contracts.

Less generous benefits would mean more of the district’s $20 million health care budget could go to the classroom.

Several parent and community groups have closely followed the negotiations and consider the contract a total failure (see commentary on the opposite page). Their impatience with negotiations that seem more geared to the needs of adults rather than kids is understandable.

Yet even some of the harshest critics note that the district is moving ahead with promising reforms such as stronger teacher and principal evaluations, and more innovative school models.

No one wanted to see a repeat of the last round of contract negotiations in Minneapolis, which ran 18 months beyond schedule and involved mediation and an arbitrated ruling.

Nevertheless, continuing issues with the achievement gap — and growing discontentment among parents and community groups — should have led both administrators and teachers to recognize the need for more substantive reform.

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