Across the nation, school districts and teacher unions are drawing battle lines for reform initiatives, particularly when it comes to how teachers are evaluated, retained and compensated.
In Oklahoma City, the local teachers union unveiled a “blueprint” Monday that encourages the 40,000-student district to begin negotiations on several controversial education reforms that for many teacher unions are non-starters in collective bargaining.
“I know the majority of our teachers want a reform union and not a union stuck in the past,” said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers. “The whole blueprint does two things. It makes teacher quality better and focuses on improving student achievement.”
The “Shared Accountability and Responsibility Blueprint” was delivered to the district late last week, and calls for five key points of reform or discussion.
The document asks the district to review seniority rules that ensure a last-in, first-out firing practice when there are layoffs. It encourages teacher evaluations to be based on “multiple measures,” including to some extent student growth as shown on tests or other measures.
Those two issues — seniority and student achievement reflected in teacher performance — are hot-button issues across the nation.
In Los Angeles last week, one of the nation's largest teacher unions filed an injunction to prevent a new teacher evaluation system based on student performance from taking effect.
In New York, the mayor and the head of the teacher's union have simply stopped communicating following a push by the city to do away with the last-in, first-out layoff practice that rewards seniority.
“If everyone operates in their own little world, then you'll get injunctions, you'll get people not talking to each other,” Allen said. “Our relationship has never been better with the district. (Karl Springer is) the best superintendent I've ever worked with, but our problems are bigger than ever.”
Oklahoma City School District Deputy Superintendent Sandra Park said there weren't any surprises in the blueprint and added that because of the national and state climate this may be the year to enter into more extensive contract negotiations.
“I think it's great that the union is being proactive,” Park said. “The more people can see us as a partnership, the stronger we're going to be as a district.”
Allen said his reform is a package deal and not a pick-and-choose offer to the district.
Park said that everything on the list would be negotiable, although there are some points that need more conversation.
Every summer, the district and the union sit down for collective bargaining. Generally the conversation takes place over four days and each side is limited to a set number of changes to be negotiated in the teacher contract.
Allen said this year he'd like to see those limitations to the dialogue waved.
“This may be the year we need to set aside that rule book and look at our entire contract,” Allen said.
The Tulsa School District recently worked hand-in-hand with the local union to change what both sides called an imperfect teacher evaluation system into a model that may guide new state regulations for teacher evaluations.
“I think the big thing is the district and the union have to be in collaboration,” said Lynn Stockley, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. “I don't think you can have an effective instrument without having the teachers who are going to be evaluated being there to help.”
The district and the union in Tulsa spent a semester and a summer drumming out the details of a new evaluation system, and it was piloted districtwide last school year.
Stockley said this summer they are tweaking the evaluation tool.
But even she was hesitant when it came to discussions of making “value-added” student performance a part of the new evaluation tool.
“We will wait until it's mandated by the state,” Stockley said. “There's still a lot of weaknesses in that, it's still very controversial.”
Law orders changes
State law that was passed as part of the Race to the Top reform effort calls for student performance to be at least 35 percent of teacher evaluation systems by the 2012-13 school year.
Allen said he wants to get out in front of those required changes.
“There are many more things that you could factor in ... to make sure we are actually keeping the best teachers, not just the principal wanting to keep his favorites,” Allen said. “Sometimes the best teacher is going out the door because that best teacher is also bringing focus to the problems in the school.”