How To Make Teaching the Profession It Should Be

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This week, it has come to light that many Massachusetts school districts are having trouble implementing a new teacher evaluation program that holds teachers accountable for their students’ achievement.  As part of their Race to the Top grant, Massachusetts made student achievement a key indicator of a teacher or administrator success. Boston, like many districts, is finding progress difficult due to tense negotiations with the union over a new teacher contract.

In twenty-eight states, teachers are required to join a professional union.  This means that teachers’ contracts are the product of collective bargaining between the union and the school district.  Typically, these contracts include provisions covering just about everything related to teaching: compensation, benefits, work rules, etc. Surely there is some benefit for both the union and the district to operate in such a manner. From a management point of view, it is easier to negotiate a single contract for all teachers every few years than to negotiate several contracts. For the union, the process helps to strengthen its relationship with its members and provides some leverage with the district when contract negotiations take place. But what does all of this have to do with education and getting the best teachers in the classrooms?

Why not borrow a practice from higher education where faculty sign individual contracts with their institutions? This would give school district and building officials the flexibility to negotiate salary and employment benefits based upon the individual teacher’s experience and subject expertise. It would focus more attention on the talents and skills of the teacher, the needs of the students, and the efficient allocation of revenues by the district/school.  A qualified teacher in a subject that is difficult to staff might be able to negotiate a contract reflecting that fact. A low performing school might be able to attract talented teachers by offering more lucrative contracts or signing bonuses.  As it currently stands, in most places, seniority is what drives differences in teacher compensation and more often than not the more senior and experienced educators are not assigned to schools that need them most. This makes very little educational sense.

Think about how such an approach might transform the teaching profession. The focus would be on the individual educator and his or her relationship to the school, the classroom and the students. The teacher would no longer be a “faceless member of a bargaining unit.” Every few years, the teacher would negotiate another contract taking into account such things as performance, professional development, and service to the school. It might be possible for a teacher to “earn” tenure after a number of years of superlative performance, just as faculty do in higher education. Currently, tenure in American K-12 education is awarded after only a few years of teaching, has almost no relationship to job performance and too often provides employment protections for those who need to find another profession. Indeed, individual contract negotiations might help to make teaching the profession it should be.

There are managerial and logistical challenges to such an approach, surely.  And teachers’ unions will oppose it and some individual teachers might be more than a little wary of it. But the current approach isn’t getting the job done and leads to an “undervaluing” of teaching, hurting the image of those who we should value most.

So much of what challenges American education can be traced to the way we do things. We tend to emphasize the management of the district over the education of the students. The status quo in too many places reflects this. How we hire, compensate, and reward our teachers reflects this. Alternatives need to be considered that might reflect the value we place on teaching and learning rather than the concerns of maintaining the “system.” After all, teaching and learning are supposed to be what the “system” is all about. 

Gene Hickok is a former U.S. deputy secretary of education and a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors.



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