contract sport

What the teachers' contract talks are all about, part II: Evaluations and training time

Teachers and other UFT members at a rally last year calling on the city to negotiate a new contract.

As the city and the teachers union move closer to an agreement on a new contract, the issues under the microscope are coming into focus.

We started here with the union’s desire for retroactive pay and the push to find a better solution for the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve.

Also on the table are changes to one of the year’s biggest upheavals: the city’s new teacher evaluation system. Another issue, professional development time, is close to new Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s heart.

3. Tinkering with teacher evaluations

By imposing a teacher evaluation plan on New York City last year, State Education Commissioner John King had the final say one significant piece of the contract. After months of complaints from teachers and principals about the new evaluation system, the city and union are both pining to make changes.

The issue: The evaluations were established last year to comply with a state law that requires districts to use performance ratings for all employment decisions: granting tenure and bonuses, termination, and promotions. This year, some teachers and students have boycotted tests required for teacher evaluations. Principals have also complained about rigid classroom observation rules under the new system.

Principals say the process is so rigid that it’s hard to evaluate instruction and provide feedback to teachers. Principal coach Kim Marshall detailed the challenges in a Chalkbeat post last week, saying that the requirement to score as many parts of a 22-element rubric as possible after each visit was particularly burdensome.

On the table: One area where change is possible is teachers are observations. Fariña wants to make the process is easier and less restrictive, and has told administrators that she’ll try to reduce the number of items that principals are required to measure.

The union has its own requests. Next year, student surveys are set to count for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but union officials have long been opposed to the idea. They also have raised concerns about how many people can visit a classroom at a time and how disruptive evaluators should be during observations.

Changes to the tests, used to measure student learning, are also likely. The union wants to more alternatives to the tests being administered only to evaluate teachers. Last year, UFT chief Michael Mulgrew said he wanted student work portfolios to count for teacher evaluation decisions, but King rejected the idea because he said it could be too easily gamed.

A state law enacted last month might also add pressure to reduce testing used for evaluations. The law also guarantees that one change to the contract will be to ban standardized tests for students in kindergarten through second grade.

4. Adding time for professional development

In 2005, the city extended the school day by 37-and-a-half minutes, four days a week, for struggling students. More than half of that time was carved out of parts of the school day previously used for department meetings and collaborative lesson planning.

Now, many people say that professional development time needs to be re-prioritized.

The issue: Last year, the city’s former Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky panned that swap as “one of the biggest mistakes” of the 2005 round of contract negotiations.

And just last week, King singled New York City’s contract talks as an example of where districts can negotiate ways to prioritize teacher-to-teacher collaboration. He also took a subtle swipe at the city’s 2005 contract.

“When New York City did their last contract, one of the tradeoffs they made was to reduce professional development time,” King said. “I think there’s an opportunity here, as they work on a new contract to figure out, how will they ensure that there’s real time for teachers to collaborate?”

On the table: Polakow-Suransky’s successors at the Department of Education seem to agree. Fariña is a big believer in giving teachers more time to work together, and has even created an office to oversee professional development.

Finding time in the city’s standard six-and-a-half-hour day will be tricky, so it’s likely that the city is pushing the union to add time to the school day or give schools extra scheduling flexibility in exchange for raises.

One idea could be to allow mandated faculty and grade conferences to take place after 3:45 p.m., an idea floated ahead of 2009 when the two sides last negotiated in earnest.

But timing might not be the only way to improve the way teachers are trained. The union sought an apprenticeship program to better prepare new teachers. The city supported a similar career ladder model that would have paid teachers more to serve in mentorship or leadership roles.

In addition, sources say, one idea being debated is to pilot a “slimmer” contract for a small group of schools that would shed many of the work rules that have been added into the 165-page contract over five decades worth of labor disputes.

Supporters say that for such an important document, it should be accessible for all education stakeholders.

“Trying to understand it if you’re a parent, a teacher, a journalist, is like going through an archeological dig of a lost civilization thousands of years ago,” said Dan Weisberg, a former chief negotiator at the Department of Education.

In 2004, then-Chancellor Joel Klein proposed an eight-page contract, and his UFT counterpart at the time, Randi Weingarten, said she’d be open to trying it out in around 150 schools. Those talks stalled, but the idea has stayed alive.

 Weingarten negotiated a unionized charter school contract that included no tenure protections for teachers in 2009 and hailed it as a national model. Since then, a handful of union charter schools have followed suit.

Some district schools worked out deals with the city to try out new models for education. New American Academy in Brooklyn allows teachers to have larger class sizes, work longer hours and get paid differently that other UFT teachers.

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

money talks

Why Colorado teachers marched on the state Capitol

Teachers in red gather in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Chanting “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” several hundred teachers came to the Colorado State Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. They marched down Colfax Avenue and around the Capitol building before filling the halls to lobby legislators and rallying in the rotunda.

Emboldened by teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation, a majority of the teachers from the suburban Englewood district joined the day of action, forcing the district to cancel classes, but the protest was a small shadow of the labor unrest among educators in other states.

In interviews, teachers said they recognize the state’s fiscal constraints. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a constitutional cap on how much the state budget can grow, even when the economy is good, and requires voters to approve all tax increases. In the afternoon, House Democrats told teachers to go back to their communities and urge voters to approve a major tax increase that could appear on the November ballot.

We asked teachers why they were marching, and this is what they had to say:

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Cody Jump teaches government in rural Lake County, where health insurance rates are among the highest in the country and schools have a hard time filling open positions.

Low pay contributes to high teacher turnover, he said, and if changes to the state public employee retirement system are too onerous, he thinks many younger teachers will leave the profession.

The Democratic-controlled House is currently putting its own stamp on a bill that aims to address an unfunded liability in the state pension system of between $32 billion and $50 billion. The version that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate raises the retirement age, limits cost-of-living raises for retirees, and asks current teachers to pay more. Amendments put on in the House make the bill friendlier to teachers, but the final version still needs to be hashed out.

“We’re trying to stabilize our profession and bring a sense of dignity to teaching so our kids can have the stable schools they need to thrive,” he said.

Jump said he has two young children, and he and his wife use several forms of public assistance just to get by, including visiting a monthly food bank.

“If we miss that, our pantry is in trouble,” he said. Enough teacher families use the food bank that it’s become a social gathering spot for their spouses.

If something doesn’t change, he said, the quality of education will suffer.

“There are good, high-quality teachers who just will not come here,” he said. “I don’t want my son to spend a decade in a school system full of people we had to scrape together.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Amy Nagel is a physical education teacher in an Englewood elementary school, just south of Denver. Her biggest concern is the lack of mental health services and counselors in schools. Many of the children she teaches come into school having already experienced trauma in their young lives, she said, and they need counseling and support before they can learn well.

“There is a misunderstanding that we’re asking for pay raises,” she said. “This is 100 percent about making sure that our schools are funded. We deserve pay raises, but we’re here for our kids.”

The decision by Englewood teachers to leave school en masse was inspired in part by teacher action in other states, she said.

“I think the government is really hoping we will be teachers to our core and be quiet and keep the peace,” she said. “I hope that teachers see the activism and know that they’re supported and know that interrupting a little bit of a child’s education to impact decades of education is worth it.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Kathryn Brown is a counselor at an alternative high school in the Englewood district. She said she’s marching for more school funding and to protect retirement benefits.

“I feel very fortunate because my school values the mental health professionals who work there, but it’s often one of the first things cut,” she said. “So when we’re talking about school funding, we’re not just talking about academics. We’re talking about educating the whole child.”

If retirement benefits become less generous, younger teachers and counselors “absolutely” will leave the profession, Brown said.

“We don’t get paid very much, but at the end we’re promised a good retirement,” she said. “And I want my retirement.

Like many of her colleagues, Nagel has a master’s degree and student loans she can’t pay off.

“That’s okay because I love to do what I do, but at some point new educators, new counselors are going to say, this is it, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Brown said Englewood teachers were inspired by teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“It emboldened our teachers and gave us a lot of courage because we’ve seen it in other states,” she said. “I think educators are fed up with not being valued and not being paid.”